Olive Harvest in West Bank Symbolic of Past Tradition and Future Promise

Around the Palestinian city of Nablus, there is an old saying about the health benefits of olive oil: eat enough of it, and you can even bang your head against the wall without sustaining injury.  Olive oil in the West Bank means more than good health; it is a symbol of the Palestinian connection to the land.  Olive trees cover nearly 50 percent of all agricultural land in the West Bank with seven million trees, and revenues from the olive harvest are a significant source of income for many Palestinian families.

On a recent trip to the village of Assirah, north of Nablus, a small group from the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem joined about 50 students from the English Access Microscholarship Program for an afternoon of olive picking.  For most of the students, this was time away from their studies, a way to give back and stay connected to the community and the land.  It also was a chance to understand the importance of volunteerism and community service, values that Consulate General employees try to model as part of the American way of life.

As we worked, the students peppered us with questions about life in America.  Many of them want to come to America for university studies or as part of an exchange program.  We chatted about movies and sports, and later they took us to see the olives being pressed into beautiful, fresh oil at the community co-op (modernized in 2008 with USAID’s assistance).  Over a Palestinian lunch of “zeit wa zatar” (pita bread, olive oil, and thyme) the students told us about their memories of coming to olive groves to help their families harvest olives year after year since childhood.

That sense of tradition and belonging, however, is under stress.  Olive trees produce on a two year cycle, and unfortunately this year’s yield is projected to be 40 percent below last year’s harvest due to lower than normal rainfall.  Compounding the challenges is the security situation, which remains uncertain in the absence of a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  Acts of violence and vandalism are not uncommon around olive groves, and the United Nations estimates that nearly 11,000 Palestinian-owned trees in the West Bank were damaged or cut down in 2013 alone.

The U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem follows the harvest season very closely, and it actively participates in the annual Olive Harvest Festival in the West Bank town of Jenin.  In addition to supporting Palestinian farmers in the West Bank, Consulate General families recently spent an afternoon picking olives on Jerusalem’s famous Mount of Olives, the proceeds of which go to support medical costs for patients at the nearby Augusta Victoria hospital.

Standing in the olive tree groves amid the rolling hills of Jerusalem and Nablus, you feel a certain sense of timelessness.  Some trees may be hundreds of years old.  Surely some of those hills look the same today as they did millennia ago.  At the same time, one imagines the prosperity that peace might bring at the present time.  As Secretary Kerry said recently, "The benefits [of peace] for both sides are really enormous… Imagine… what it could mean for developing technology and talent, for job opportunities for the younger generation, for generations in all of these countries." 

For Palestinians, the olive harvest is not just the traditional backbone of their economy, it is also a symbol of the promise of peace.

About the Author: Kirby Reiling serves as a Consular Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem.



Lama J.
Palestinian Territories
October 30, 2014
well, thank you very much for your attitude towards us. I hope from all heart that you can help me too. I am a Palestinian woman ,, doing my best to make a living , a decent one . while non of any Palestinian institutions would hire me , and that's why??? because of my age!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I wish if you can give me a hand .. would you please respond to my call...
Gene D.
Utah, USA
November 9, 2014
I wish I could get olives to grow where I live. I've always wanted olive trees of my own.
Olives Collected by Access Students
Posted by Kirby Reiling
October 29, 2014


Latest Stories

January 19, 2017

What We Got Right

With a new administration taking office this week, it is natural to assess the inheritance it will receive from the… more