Palestinian Olive Oil distributed by Equal Exchange

I grew up under the sway of Zionist ideology.  Like a similar ideology that underpinned my 1950s and 1960s American history lessons, Zionism presented a virtuous cause framed by a tale of divine destiny that was forged in a cauldron of suffering and activated by a ferocious work ethic. My mother and father, who didn’t have a Jewish bone in their bodies, raised me and my three siblings in a Presbyterian-lite manner. To highlight just how vanilla our religious life was, however, my mother would regale us with tales of the Jews making the deserts of their new Israeli nation bloom. She spared no details when sharing the emerging horrors of the Holocaust, and why the “chosen people” were entitled to every last acre of what was then called Palestine. Thusly imbued, I can remember joining in a burst of 17-year-old bravado that erupted from our high school cafeteria table in June of 1967 when we learned that Israel had “kicked the Arab’s asses” in only six days.

But like our social studies textbooks that sometimes weren’t worth the glue that bound them, the stories of messianic zeal that fired Zionism and, likewise, America’s Manifest Destiny, had several pages “missing.” Those were the unwritten chapters that would have told us of the trampling, enslavement, and near erasure of those who already occupied that land, as well as those people who were forced here after being separated from their traditional lands. Indeed, one humiliation imposed by the oppressor throughout history has been denying the vanquished access to their land, its fertility, and its productions. From the salting of seized fields in the ancient Middle East— “a covenantal curse, a means of ensuring desolation”—to the near annihilation of the buffalo by America’s white settlers to today’s apartheid wall in Palestine’s West Bank, the conqueror not only cut the conquered off from their food and their livelihoods, they ensured their disappearance as a people.

Taking a page from those unwritten chapters, we see the same story unfold in the West Bank. The modern beginnings of that history goes back 75 years to when the Zionists displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their traditional lands. It continued through Israel’s seizure and occupation of the West Bank, and has now intensified since Hamas’s barbaric attacks on Israeli sites on October 7.

According to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, “October 7 was a launching pad for a campaign of incitement against Palestinians in the West Bank, focusing on farmers and on preventing the [olive] harvest…False information that Palestinian harvesters were out to attack [Israeli] settlers spread…Israelis carried out planned attacks on people whose only sin was harvesting their own olives. [O]n October 28, 2023 a settler who was also a soldier on leave fatally shot Bilal Saleh, a father of four from a-Sawiyah. Bilal was harvesting olives with his children…on his land in an area that does not require prior coordination with the military. The settler who killed Bilal was arrested and released five days later.”

Yesh Din Yesh Din – Volunteers for human rights (, which is part of the non-profit New Israel Fund, has fastidiously documented the human rights violations of settlers and soldiers against Palestinians. Since October 7, 389 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s military and civilian forces in the West Bank compared to 29 Israelis killed (an additional 103 Palestinians were killed in the nine months before October 7). But a special form of intimidation was reserved for the olive harvest which was at its peak this fall. The 2023 olive harvest season were marked by 113 incidents of violence against Palestinian harvesters including soldiers and settlers physically assaulting harvesters (24 incidents), firing live ammunition at harvesters (11 incidents), and cutting down or torching 715 olive trees (29 incidents). Yesh Din concluded that the “scale of violence during the harvest was two to three times greater than in previous years.” The incident reports and personal stories of the victims are reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan’s intimidation and harassment of Black Americans in the Jim Crow South, including the near total absence of prosecuting the offenders.

For Palestinians, olives are not just another crop that produces a vital stream of income, it also a national and cultural symbol. According to the Palestinian Agriculture Relief Committee (PARC), there are an estimated 13 million olive trees in Palestine, some of whose roots go back 5,000 years, and whose ownership is spread across hundreds of thousands of smallholders. PARC’s Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) ( diversified farming activities and overall respect make it the dominant Palestinian agricultural force. It oversees 41 farmer coops that, in addition to olive growers, include producers of dates, almonds, poultry, and other crops. It also operates an agricultural training program for about 1600 young people annually.

Robert Evert, a principal with the U.S.-based fair trade organization Equal Exchange, tells me how inspiring his visits to PARC’s training sites have been. “On the West Bank, people are getting beat up and shot at. In other words, there’s not a lot of hope,” he says. “But it’s very moving to see the spirit of the young people in PARC’s training program. It gives them hope and a reason to get up in the morning.” Evert also adds that the young participants are very diverse with respect to gender, about 50/50 male and female.

As important as these organizing and training programs are, it’s critical to the Palestinian economy that its agricultural products generate export revenue. That’s where PARC’s for profit partner, Al-reef comes in. They’ve developed the capacity of producers to grow high quality crops, and, with investment assistance from such groups as Oxfam, have constructed processing facilities such as a state-of-the-art olive oil bottling plant. The plant includes high quality product testing and monitoring that are required to comply with the stringent “extra virgin” designation and export conditions to North American and European markets (as a purchaser of Al-reef’s olive oil through Equal Exchange over the past three years, I can vouch for its quality and delicious flavor profile). For two months at harvest season, the olive oil presses are going 24/7. And there is no waste: olive pits are used to fuel the plant’s boiler and the spent flesh is composted.

Saleem Abu Ghazaleh is Al-reef’s general manager. As such, he oversees the farmer connections, processing, marketing, and shipping of their products. Though a successful professional who now runs one of the more substantial non-governmental enterprises in the West Bank, Saleem “enjoyed” a youthful Palestinian rite of passage by resisting the Israeli occupation and paying the price: five years in prison. Rob Evert has spent time with Saleem at his Al-reef facilities in Ramallah. This included time in his office which, according to Evert, is tiny. “Saleem told me that his office is about the same size as his prison cell, but then he said, ‘at least I now have a key!’”

In a February 11th correspondence with me and Equal Exchange, Saleem said, “the level of violence committed by Israeli settlers and Israel forces has not been slowing in the West Bank, on the contrary, they have been increasing. The leaders of those settlers who are also Ministers in this right-wing Israeli government…call for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank.” Citing the many hostile actions and restrictions on farmers as well as unusually poor growing conditions in 2023, he said the supply of Palestinian olive oil is way down. The decline in supply was also due to the loss of 3000 tons of olive oil in the Gaza strip because the war there prevented the 2023 harvest from taking place. “We had to decrease Equal Exchange’s order of olive oil because of the situation of farmers,” Saleem said. Equal Exchange normally buys about 25,000 bottles of olive oil annually, about 15 percent of Al-reef’s production. While the supply cut will be a small inconvenience for Equal Exchange’s shoppers, the lost sales is potentially devastating for Palestinians.

There is a pall of oppression hanging over the West Bank and Gaza the likes of which would never be tolerated in the United States. According to a recent New York Times Magazine article (2/4/24), the per capita income in the West Bank is $5,600 compared to $50,000 in many of the illegal Israeli settlements. Economic prospects, always bleak at best, were made worse when Israel suspended payments to the Palestinian Authority, and West Bank Palestinians could no longer go into Israel to work. This adversely affected 139,000 Palestinian workers (according to Saleem, the loss of paychecks forced some olive oil coops to sell their oil early simply to raise cash for their members’ basic living expenses). Israel routinely tears down Palestinian buildings, both residential and agricultural, including 15,000 homes in Jerusalem, supposedly because they lacked building permits. Politically, the Palestinians have never consented to be governed by Israel, yet they live under an anti-democratic, apartheid occupation. In light of these conditions, is it any wonder that there are periodic intifadas and, sadly, it is why many Palestinians regard October 7 as their liberation day, “the day when they became visible again.”

Almost a year ago, I attended a lecture by Miko Peled who wrote a book called The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine. His father was a prominent military leader in Israel’s 1948 and 1967 wars which enhances Peled’s credibility as an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Speaking forcefully, he ticks off a litany of Israel’s abuses asserting that they constitute crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide. He asks rhetorically “how could people who survived the Holocaust do these things?” Perhaps with my age group in mind, Peled urges us not to think of Israel’s illegal settlements as the idealized “hippie” kibbutz of our youth (to impress the Jewish woman I was dating in college, I may have even suggested joining one). These are now the large settlements of evangelical Jews, supplied with thousands of weapons by the IDF, and terrorizing West Bank Palestinians. Peled called upon the audience as American taxpayers to make a moral decision to hold our own government accountable for funding these crimes. Lastly, he warned us not to be put off by accusations of anti-Semitism, a default term that is now used to shield Israel from criticism.

All recommendations for peace, reconciliation, or the much-touted two-state solution feel hopelessly faraway in today’s climate of hate. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, put it, “Israel…is behaving like a wounded bull. They’re acting in a mood of revenge, killing for the sake of killing.” Suggesting that the bull do anything other than exhaust its blood lust feels hopeless for now. Yet the taking of land, the uprooting of trees whose millenniums of witness take in Jesus, Abraham, and Muhammad; taking the harvest from the community and the fruits of labor from the farmer, these are forms of retribution reserved for those who not only deny the existence of others, but also deny their own humanity and humanity’s common bond with the earth. To thwart such blindness requires the light of hope and witness provided by Yesh Din, PARC, Al-reef, and other forward-looking, on the ground organizations willing to risk their money, their energy and sometimes their lives for a brighter future. And it requires American political leaders with real courage to end the bloodshed and forge a path to peace and prosperity.