Seventy-five-year-old Khaled Ali al-Farra leaned on a stick as he waited at the olive oil extraction plant near the entrance of his home town of Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. Inside, his olives were being pressed, an annual autumn ritual that he and many other farmers undertake to obtain a staple food for al-Farra’s family.
“Back in 1956, I planted 15 olive trees and every season I manage to extract a large amount of oil produced by these trees and keep some of the olives to pickle,” al-Farra told The Electronic Intifada.
“Before the 1980s, I used to sell large quantities of olives to local customers. But since then my family has grown and now my five children have dozens of children so the production is distributed to my children’s families,” al-Farra said, with his son Yasin standing nearby.
“My two brothers and I own 32 olive trees,” Yasin said. “Last night we harvested 600 kilograms of olives, which yielded 72 liters of oil. This season we produced more than in previous years.”
Recently things have been tough for the al-Farra family and other farmers in Gaza.
“In 2006 and 2008, Israeli occupation bulldozers uprooted tens of our 45 olive trees near the border line in eastern Khan Younis,” Yasin al-Farra said, “and since then we have stopped cultivating that farmland on the borderline.”
Eastern parts of Khan Younis city are known for agriculture production. Many households in the area work on farms or have their own small gardens. Olives are among the most common crops.
Muhammad al-Astal, also at the extraction plant, stood near some gallon jugs of freshly-pressed oil. Al-Astal owns several trees that produce a variety of olives called Suri.
“Suri olives are the best for oil,” al-Astal explained. “I managed to harvest 172 kilograms of olives, which produced 28 liters of oil.”
“We hope that the olive picking season gets better in the Gaza Strip. Not all people here can afford to buy large quantities of olive oil. Those who have some olive trees are luckier,” al-Astal said as he loaded the gallon jugs into this car.
Qusay al-Astal, the owner of the extraction plant, has been in the business for seven years but even in that short period he has seen dramatic changes. According to al-Astal, the amount of oil processed at the plant is only about one third of what was produced before the tight Israeli blockade was imposed four years ago.
“In previous years, I used to work day and night every season which lasts from early October until mid-November. I remember well that sometimes I used to press one ton of olives per day, but these days I extract between 300 and 500 kilograms a day,” Qusay al-Astal said as he demonstrated a pressing machine from which oil dripped slowly into a basin.
The Israeli siege of Gaza has had a major impact on the ability of residents to purchase staples such as olives and olive oil. Palestinians in Gaza have relied on underground tunnels to bring in such staples in from Egypt and Syria at cheaper prices, making it harder for Gaza producers to sell their goods.
Salman al-Qarra, a retired legal accountant from Khan Younis, explained why he had come to buy olives and olive oil year after year: “For us Palestinian families in Gaza, olives and olive oil are considered to be a main food item. The house that has olives and olive oil is a blessed house, for both are blessed and useful.”
In Gaza, like every other part of Palestine, olive oil is used in almost every dish.
“In the morning we pour it on the beans we have for breakfast,” al-Qarra said. “In wintertime, I remember my parents would toast some bread, and bring it with green onions and salt. Olives and olive oil are like bread for Palestinian households here. Every household must get some olive oil and olives every season.”
Al-Qarra, who heads a household of ten, said that he buys 60 liters of oil and 60 kilos of olives to pickle every season. “My four adult children do not have stable jobs, but I manage to bring them some olives and oil.”
Harvest an improvement on last year
In Gaza City, the Ministry of Agriculture said that this olive harvest season has been better than previous years. According to the ministry’s estimates, the territory’s farmers produced about 16,000 tons of olives, compared to 12,000 last year.
Ministry officials estimate that some 20,000 olive trees have been uprooted during Israeli military incursions since 2000.
“In the Gaza Strip, we have 750,000 olive trees, of which 500,000 are fruit-bearing,” Fathi Abu Shammala, an engineer with the agriculture ministry, told The Electronic Intifada. “In recent years, the agriculture has been severely affected. Olives contribute about 15 percent to Gaza’s GDP [gross domestic product],” Abu Shammala said.
Gaza’s oil has low acidity, considered a mark of high quality, Abu Shammala explained. In addition to Suri, the other main varieties in Gaza are K18 and Shimali. However, according to the ministry official, Gaza’s production does not meet local needs and he estimated that the current crop falls short of demand by about 40 percent.
Before the tightened Israeli siege began in 2007, shortages in Gaza could be met by production from the West Bank, but Israel’s effective ban on trade between the two territories has made this impossible.
Abu Shammala says that as a consequence some traders have been importing supplies from Egypt and Syria through underground tunnels. “However, we try to control the trade through underground tunnels to protect local production of olives and olive oil,” he said.
Mahmoud al-Qarra, 50, a farmer for thirty years, said, “In 2007 the Israelis uprooted thirty olive trees and only ten trees are left. Since then, I have been relying on those ten trees. Only last year and this year did I manage to produce some quantities of olives and oil,”
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip