The ‘environmental Nakba’

A young Palestinian picks olives during the harvest season. 

Fear as Palestinian farmers harvest their olives amid escalating violence in the occupied West Bank.

Israel’s colonial settlements have had a devastating impact on the Palestinian environment and on indigenous Palestinian lives.

Palestinian olive farmer Bilal Mohammad Saleh, aged 40, was shot dead close to the town of Al-Sawiya near Nablus in northern West Bank on Saturday, 28 October 2023. 

Bilal’s death is the latest example of the injustice and erosion of land rights Palestinians have endured over decades of occupation.

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Bilal had been in an area that does not require prior coordination with authorities even though olive harvesting in the occupied West Bank near settlements is generally forbidden, according to an Israeli security source quoted by Haaretz. 


He is described on social media as “a familiar face to many passers-by in the centre of Ramallah”, where he sold sage, thyme, figs and prickly pears. The video of his death has gone viral.

The shooter has been described locally as an off-duty Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldier. According to a Times of Israel report, Yossi Dagan, the head of the Samaria Regional Council, which is responsible for thirty-five Israeli settlements in the West Bank, claimed that a man from an “upstanding” family,  “a combat soldier on weekend leave”, was “attacked with rocks by dozens of wild Hamas supporters”, and “fired in the air to protect the life of his father and younger brothers”.

Dagan had raised “millions” of shekels from donors around the world following the Hamas terror attack on Saturday, 7 October 2023, to purchase 300 assault rifles and distribute them to civilian security squads in settlements across the northern West Bank. The initiative was supported by the National Security Ministry in Israel and the IDF. 

Bilal’s death is part of a wider tragedy unfolding for Palestinians. The Palestinian health ministry says that almost 120 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank in the last month. Four people aged 23 to 28 were killed during an early morning raid on the Jenin refugee camp on Monday, 30 October alone. In Gaza, the death toll is now around 8,300.


This year's olive picking season comes after several months of drought. Farmers across the region start harvesting in their orchards after the first rain, in October and November. 

Olives are a lifeline for between 80,000 and 100,000 Palestinian families in the occupied West Bank, but many farmers have begun harvesting in fear for their lives. 

These olive trees are much more than a crop: they are symbolic of Palestinians’ long-standing rootedness in the land. Olive groves have often been passed down through families. 

Israel’s colonial settlements have had a devastating impact on the Palestinian environment and on indigenous Palestinian lives.

They are emblems of strength and resilience: they are extremely drought resistant and are able to withstand some of the harshest growing conditions on Earth. Many olive trees date back to centuries before the Israeli occupation.

Ever since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967, the olive season in Palestine has been endangered by settler violence. 


The burning of crops and farmland is a method of seizing land and taking economic control of people who have been living in the West Bank for generations. 

Olive trees make up 48 per cent of the agricultural land in the West Bank and Gaza, with their harvests contributing towards 14 per cent of Palestine's economy. The Ecologist has previously reported on the ongoing violence against farmers and their crops in the region. 

In September this year Israeli settlers from the illegal outpost of Ramat Yishai near Hebron burned down a number of ancient Palestinian olive trees. According to Hebron activist Issa Amro, the trees were around 1,000 years old. Settlers also set fire to dozens of olive trees in the village of Burin, south of Nablus, in July. 

Israeli forces uprooted and destroyed some 2,000 olive trees in the village of Qarawat Bani Hassan in November 2022.


Olive trees were destroyed in Awarta, situated to the east of Nablus, by settlers using toxic chemicals on 13 October 2021, according to an Al Jazeera report. 

In al-Tuwani, south of Hebron, approximately 70 olive, fruit and vegetable trees and crops were obliterated, and in the village of Marda, near Salfit, tyres were slashed, and cars and walls were vandalised. 

The devastation of olive groves and other farmland has been described as the ‘environmental Nakba’ by scientist and author Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, writing in Science for the People magazine, Volume 21, Science Under Occupation. Nakba, translated into English as ‘catastrophe’, refers to the 1948 displacement of most Palestinians. 

“Israel’s colonial settlements have had a devastating impact on the Palestinian environment and on indigenous Palestinian lives,” Qumsiyeh writes. “This raises significant questions about the possibility of sustainable development under occupation.


"Indeed, there are ample grounds, backed by solid scientific and legal research, to bring claims of environmental injustice to local, national, and international forums.” The attacks on farmers and farms go back a very long time.

Palestinian land was contaminated as far back as the 1970s in order to facilitate the construction of West Bank settlements, according to a Haaretz investigation published in June this year. 

The release of documents from state archives revealed the extent to which settlers went to harm the land and consequently displace those whose livelihoods depended on it.

Today, about 60 per cent of the territory of the West Bank is under effective Israeli control. Farmers in this region are usually required to obtain permits from Israeli authorities to access their land and take care of their trees. 

Land ownership for Palestinians typically belongs to the entire family, even if the registration is in one family member's name. But Israeli permits for access are often granted only to the person whose name is on the land registration. 


This deliberately restricts the number of people allowed to work the land – and hinders production. This doesn’t cut only economic gains, but also people’s ties to their land.

The systematic uprooting of Palestinian trees dates back to the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948, when native trees such as oaks, carobs and hawthorns, as well as agricultural crops such as olives, figs and almonds, were uprooted and replaced by European pine trees, harming both biodiversity and the local environment.

Not only does the destruction of olive trees result in an increase in food insecurity, but it also leads to aesthetic degradation and the loss of valuable vegetation. 

These cumulative impacts have a catastrophic effect on the livelihoods of Palestinians but will ultimately harm the future of anyone living on occupied land. Fallen pine needles are said to be so acidic that they prevent the growth of underbrush plants. 

Since pines and cypresses are high in resin, they are prone to forest fires – exemplified by the wildfires near Jerusalem that burned 5,000 acres of forest over three days in 2021. The incident was reported by the BBC as one of the largest wildfires in Israel's history. 


The European pine planting initiative was funded and established by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), an organisation with a specific mandate to develop and lease land exclusively to Jewish individuals, including Israeli citizens and those living in the diaspora. 

Between 1949 and 1953, the JNF acquired approximately 78 per cent of its land holdings from the state, much of which had previously belonged to Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and was categorised as "absentee property", according to Human Rights Watch.

The Israeli state has also used afforestation initiatives to exclude Bedouin communities from areas of land despite their historical claim to it, and displaced them into government-recognised towns and villages, according to the human rights group Adalah: The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. 

The decisions about which areas undergo afforestation are made by the Israel Land Administration’s Committee for the Preservation of Agricultural Land. 


The committee was established after concerns were raised about ecological damage caused by such initiatives. But the state now exploits a legal loophole by categorising these plantings as agricultural, according to Adalah.

The Guardian reports that residents of Zanuta, a small village in the West Bank, have made the difficult decision to leave their homes due to escalating violence since October 7.

The community, primarily composed of herders, has endured ongoing challenges with the IDF and radical settlers. "It feels like a new Nakba", remarked Issa Ahmed Baghdad, 71. "My family is relocating to Rafat, but we are unfamiliar with the area, and we're uncertain about how to explain this to our children." 

This Author 

Yasmin Dahnoun is a freelance environmental journalist. You can find more of her work at 

Medical Aid for Palestinians is responding to the current emergency in Gaza. It has launched an emergency appeal to 'ensure that Palestinian health workers have the medical resources they need, as soon as possible'. You can donate to the appeal online

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