TEL AVIV — Olive branches are a symbol of peace, but Palestinian olive production has become a sign of the economic troubles that come with Middle East conflict.
The approximately 500,000 hectares (1.2 million acres) of olive groves represent around 45% of Palestinian agriculture land, with most centered in the West Bank's mountainous territories. With more than eight million trees, olive production is the largest agricultural sector for the Palestinian Authority, supporting some 100,000 families and nearly half a million people in total.
With the olive harvest season's end approaching, data published last week by the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture is sufficient to show lack of growth in Palestinian agriculture and the Palestinian economy as a whole.
Beyond pure economics, the olive sector has a national and cultural value. It has long been a major ingredient in the daily life and folklore of rural families, as generations of Palestinians work the groves, shaking out the trees over large plastic sheets.
The biggest olives are kept for eating, while the rest are used for oil, delivered to olive presses spread from Hebron to the north of Samaria. At the same time, the by-product of olives (the waste remaining after the oil press) is used for heating. The oil is used for making soap, and the trees that no longer produce fruit are used for carving sculptures.
But even as the site of twisted branches are slowly disappearing, the demand for olive oil is growing annually. In Palestinian kitchens, it is used for cooking, frying and seasoning. The average consumption of olive oil is 3 kilograms per person annually.
This year was supposed to be a good year. The Ministry of Agriculture predicted around 17 to 18 tons of oil produced, but the result was a disappointing 13 tons. Israel, however, where there are fewer olive groves — some 300,000 hectares in total — produced 18 tons of oil. The explanation for the disparity lies mainly in the modernity of oversite in Israeli olive groves, and the fact that almost 50,000 hectares are irrigated, which reduces the number of olives lost in the process.
During successful years in the past, Palestinian farmers managed to sell up to seven tons of oil to Israel, Jordan and to Gulf countries. But with the low output this year, virtually all of the harvest will be used locally.