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Palestinian farmers in the West Bank say Israel is blocking access to their harvests

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Olives and olive byproducts are vital revenue sources for Palestinian farmers in the West Bank, but some of the land owned by the farmers stands behind a barrier built by Israel 20 years ago. And the Israel-Hamas war has made access to that land even more difficult than usual. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited the West Bank to meet these olive farmers.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: We climb into the four-wheel drive of 35-year-old Thaer el-Taher, an olive farmer in the West Bank town of Beitunia. He says he inherited his land from his grandfather, but he can't actually get to most of it.

THAER EL-TAHER: (Through interpreter) Did you see the fence over there? It's right here is the fence.

BEARDSLEY: He's talking about the barrier separating Israel from the West Bank. In urban areas, it's a 22-foot wall. Out here, it's a barbed wire, electrified fence, and most of el-Taher's land lies on the other side of it.

EL-TAHER: (Through interpreter) Do you see the olive trees over there on the hill? All of this are lands of Beitunia, the inaccessible lands.

BEARDSLEY: Israel built the barrier two decades ago against the backdrop of a Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada and the repeating suicide bombings taking place. The problem is, the circuitous 440-mile barrier often strays into West Bank territory.

JESSICA MONTELL: You know, they think Jerusalem even before this is dangerous.

BEARDSLEY: I visit Israeli human rights advocate Jessica Montell at her office in east Jerusalem. She's executive director of an organization called HaMoked, or Hotline, which works to get Palestinians access to farmland cut off by the barrier.

MONTELL: Twenty years ago, when this route of the separation barrier was first revealed, the whole international community was up in arms. The Israeli government made a lot of promises that this would in no way disrupt people living alongside the route.

BEARDSLEY: But that's exactly what the barrier has done, she says. Palestinians are cut off from a little over 9% of their land. Farmers' lives now revolve around a system of permits and access schedules for when Israeli soldiers will open the barrier gates.

EL-TAHER: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Back on the hillside in Beitunia, el-Taher explains how farmers have to register for the olive harvest. You show up early in the morning at the gate, he says. Soldiers check your ID, and you're allowed to get to your groves. He says no one passes if their name is not on the list, and families are restricted to a certain number. He remembers going to that same land with his father when he was a boy, before the barrier was built.

EL-TAHER: (Through interpreter) In the morning we would check on the graves. We would check on the olives. And in the afternoon we would go pick the figs. Life in Beitunia was all focused on agriculture, and we were able to go to our lands twice a day.

BEARDSLEY: Typically during olive harvest season, the gates are open each day from early morning to evening for about 40 days, says el-Taher. HaMoked's Montell says this year there has been little to no access for farmers.

MONTELL: Palestinians are not allowed to enter Israel since October 7, and these farmers don't want to enter Israel. They want to enter lands inside the West Bank on the other side of the separation wall.

BEARDSLEY: A few days ago, HaMoked's petition to open the gates was rejected by Israel's Supreme Court. The government had argued that the restrictions on movement are a result of the unusual and complex security situation due to the war. It said the situation is being reviewed daily out of a desire to return to routine. The Israeli armed forces did not get back to NPR's request for comment. Montell says it's likely too late for Palestinian farmers.

MONTELL: There's a small window to finish harvesting these groves. If they don't get access, they're going to lose a year's worth of income.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Palestinian olive farmers are also facing increased harassment from Israeli settlers. In this video put out by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, an aging Palestinian olive farmer shows hundreds of newly planted trees he says were chopped down by settlers. B'Tselem says settlers are exploiting the climate of fear in Israel to further their own political agenda.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: National Public Radio, radio America (non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: We go to meet Mohammad Olwan, deputy head of the Palestinian farmers union in Ramallah. A poster in his office reads they uproot one tree. We plant 10.

MOHAMMAD OLWAN: (Through interpreter) Olives and olive trees are a cultural symbol. They consolidate Palestinian existence on the land both symbolically and realistically.

BEARDSLEY: Olwan says from 50 to 90% of farmers' earnings in this area come from olives. Our last stop is a local olive cooperative where we see how an olive press works.

So the olives come up on this conveyor belt. There's olive leaves all over the floor, but he's just running it for us for some sound because there are no olives to press right now.

SAAD AWWAD: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Press owner Saad Awwad says only those who live far from the separation barrier and Jewish settlements have been able to pick their olives.

AWWAD: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "Around here," he says, "thousands of acres have gone to waste, and many Palestinian farmers will go bankrupt."

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Beitunia, the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.