The perenial olive tree

It has long been a symbol of civilization and now it has its own World Olive Tree Day

Palestinian citizen Sameer Sammoor takes us on a journey to learn about the Palestinian olive trees

Posted by Sameer Sammoor, Palestine, 18 December 2023
Edited by Ghada Rule, UK, 5 March 2024

The olive tree (Olea Europaea) is a perenial tree that can literally continue to yield fruit and oil for thousands of years. Over the centuries, the olive tree has become a symbol of numerous aspects of civilization and it is considered a 'blessed tree' as it has been cited in the holy books of the three celestial religions. In 2019 the first international World Olive Tree Day was proclaimed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and now takes place on 26 November every year. Many Palestinians consider the olive tree a symbol of nationality and connection to the land. The poet, Awni Watad, wrote a poem entitled

As long as there are olive and thyme, we shall remain [steadfast]
lit: "We shall remain, so long the thyme and olives remain"

إنّا باقون، ما بقي الزعتر والزيتون


There is no consensus regarding the origin of the olive tree but research indicates that it is most likely that the wild type appeared in Central Asia then in the Mediterranean basin, specifically Crete and North Africa, around 5,000-4,000 BC. However, while there is no evidence that the olive tree was known to the Mesopotamian civilization (the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Wu ) which prospered between 8000–2000 B.C., in ancient Greece the wild olive tree became sacred and its branch was used as an Olympic wreath (kotinos) to crown the Olympic winners.

Symbol of Peace

In 1974, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gave a speech at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. In the conclusion of his speech he told the Assembly:

Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter's gun.
Do not let the green branch fall from my hand.
Do not let the green branch fall from my hand.
Do not let the green branch fall from my hand.

Horticultural Techniques

  1. Cultivation
  2. Cultivation is an all-encompassing process that aims to take care of a plant throughout its lifetime, even before a seed is planted. Methods of cultivation are usually determined by what we want to obtain from the olive tree, largely associated with the our sensory experiences (tase, smell, sight etc). The development and availability of knowledge, work tools and technology also play a big role in how the olive tree is cultivated.

  3. Propagation
  4. Propagation techniques of an olive tree depend on the season and the terrain.

    Propagation by stem, for instance, requires semi-ripe cuttings in summer and hardwood cuttings in winter.

    Propagation by seed begins with planting a seed in a nursery that meets specific conditions. When first planted indoors, it takes two years after the first sprout before the plant is ready for the outdoors. In this case, the plant requires careful transportation and planting in the ground. From then on, the young olive tree requires plenty of care eventhough it will not bear fruit for another five years.

    Propagation by grafting involves the joining of two plant parts to trigger tissue regeneration. This usually takes place when the tree is hibernating, in Palestine this would be mid-February. Grafting is used for different purposes, such as improving the quality of the olive fruit or olive oil or improving resistance to disease. A bud is taken from the tree that has the desired qualities (the scion) and then placed onto the tree that needs improvement (the stock). The bud can be placed on (or in) a stem, root or branch. A successful grafting will form a union and result in the stock developing the desired characteristics. It is crucial to use sterile tools when grafting to prevent infecting the tree.

  5. Watering
    1. Rain-fed agriculture:80%-85% Of the cultivated land in Palestine depends on rain.
    2. Irrigated agriculture: utilizes artificial means such as flooding, diverting streams, or spraying.

Types of olives

    There are approximately 200 types of olives world-wide. In Palestine, where olive constitutes more than 80% of the crops, the four principal types are:

  1. Al-Nabali Al-Baladi and Al-Nabali Al-Muhsin
  2. The Syrian Mohsen
  3. Egyptian
  4. Agricultural

The Olives

Picking Olives

Olive harvesting usually begins in mid-October, but this depends on the type of olives and the geographical area.
Olives are picked once the signs of maturity of the olive seed appear.

Traditionally, olives are picked or combed from the branches by hand using with sticks or harvesting rakes. These methods have been mechanized so that the contemporary methods include pneumatic or electric combs or a hand-operated shaking machine. In Palestine the manual method prevails.

Each of these methods has risks and benefits but the most important risk is the impact on the quality of the crop.

The olive is then transported in burlap bags for the next steps of processing. Nowadays, special boxes are used to transport the olive to maximize air flow between the olives while en-route, hence the saying “from tree to stone”.

Our ancestors used to wither the olive fruit by placing it on the roofs of houses for maximum sun exposure, which turned out to be damaging to the quality.

Pressing Olives

Pressing techniques have also undergone improvements and variations over the ages. These include mashing, crushing, grinding, kneading and manual sorting. Modern techniques involve giant automatic machines that use centrifuging to maximize the yield. The automated process follows these steps:

  1. The olive is transported to the press in specialist boxes;
  2. At the press, the olives are emptied in a lifting basin;
  3. The lifting basin is raised to a fan to separate leaves from the olive fruit;
  4. The lifting basin is then lowered into a washing basin where the olive is washed;
  5. The olive is then lowered into a crushing basin;
  6. After the crushing, the olive is raised to the mill;
  7. The mill separates water from the oil;
  8. The oil comes out ready for bottling.

This fully automated process is crucial for preserveing the good qualities of the olive oil.

The Olive Oil

Quality of Oil

The quality of the oil is subject to many factors and standards, which are practically everything mentioned previously, including ground, care, picking, pressing, and storage. The quality of the oil can be known in two ways:

The first is sensory, i.e. the color, the taste, and the extent of the burning, i.e. the burn and the smell;

The second is scientific i.e. laboratory examination to ensure the acidity level, which should not exceed 8.0% (eight-tenths) percent as a maximum, and the peroxide percentage, which should not exceed 20 milliliters per kilo of oil.

The oil is catgorized according to age and additives:

  1. Virgin olive oil is less than one year old (has been pressed within a year);
  2. Organic olive oil is produced without any chemical additives at all stages of production;
  3. Inorganic olive oil contains chemical materials at one of the stages of production, for example in spraying, fertilization, etc.

The best type of oil is extra virgin, which is virgin and organic (free of inorganic substances, with less than 0.3% acidity).

Uses & Benefits of Olive Oil

Historically, olive oil was used in food, lighting, treatment, cosmetic industry, detergent and soap industry. Olive waste - peat and ajam - are used for heating.

There are numerous types of pickled olives including studded, finished, and stuffed.

Olive is also used in wood industries such as rosaries,carvings and model-making. Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour are famous for these wood industries.

Nursing the Olive Tree

  1. TLC for 5,000 years!
  2. Despite the common proverb among farmers that the olive tree is the tree of sloths, the reality is exactly the opposite. From the first day of planting until it dries up, 5000 years or more, the olive tree needs tender loving care to maintain its quality and yield. Care begins with choosing the appropriate soil, the type of olives planted, fertilization, irrigation, pruning, protection from cold, plowing, and improving resistance to diseases.

  3. Disease
  4. Generally, the olive tree is strong and more resistant to diseases than most other plants but it still has serious enemies. the most important of which are the Mediterranean fly, the peacock’s eye, and the settlers who resort to uprooting and burning Palestinian olives.

Olive Trees in Palestine

The first olive tree found in the mountains of Akka dates back to 3000 BC. The village of Al-Walaja has a tree that is approximately 5000 years old. However, we can be certain that the spread of olive cultivation in Palestine did not spread until the latter years of the Ottoman Empire’s mandate over the Levant in the last century. Palestinian farmers were reluctant to grow olives due to the prohibitive Ottoman tax policy. After WWI, when the Ottoman rule ended, Palestine experienced a 'golden era' of olive cultivation between 1920-1940, when 37% of the land was cultivated with olive trees. The second significant period was between 1982-1991. Then after 1996, the Palestinian Authority encouraged and sponsored harvesting policies that were implemented by private agricultural associations.

Today, the percentage of cultivated land in the West Bank and Gaza is approximately 57%. It contributes approximately 15% of the national income and produces approximately 27-30 thousand tons annually. [Fayyad Fayyad, the director of the Palestinian Olive Council, says the annual average olive production season in Palestine is estimated at 100,000 tonnes, which yields up to 20,000 tonnes of olive oil.]

Depending on the percentage of trees bearing fruit, a year with abundant fruit is called ماسيه (diamonds) and a year with trees bearing scant fruit is called شلتوني (Sheltoni).

The Deadliest Threat

Increasing hostilities by Israeli settlers during the harvest seasons constitute a very serious threat to the farming of olives in the West Bank. Settlers resort to intimidation tactics such as burning the trees, inflicting bodily harm on the farmers and even shooting them dead - just to get them to abandon their land. As a result, numerous foreign organizations volunteer in Palestine to support Palestinian farmers to harvest their crops and to protect them from such attacks.

In Gaza, in 2022 Al-Jazeera reported that

... the area of land planted with olive trees in the Gaza Strip was about 4,400 hectares (10,800 acres) and estimated that they could produce 35,000 tonnes of olives".
Since 7 October 23, almost all groves and structures have been destroyed in the areas targeted by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IFO). Many Palestinian farmers hope to return to farming olive in Gaza after the war, but this would not be possible in areas where the IFO used white phosphorous bombs.

لو يذكرُ الزيتون غارسَهُ
لصار الزيت دمعا !
يا حكمة الأجداد
لو من لحمنا نعطيك درعا !
لكن سهل الريح ,
لا يعطي عبيد الريح زرعا !
إنّا سنقلع بالرموش
الشوكَ والأحزانَ... قلعا !
وإلام نحمل عارنا وصليبنا!
والكونُ يسعى...
سنظل في الزيتون خُضرتَه’
وحولَ الأرضِ درعا!!
(Mahmoud Darweesh)

The Second Olive Tree
By Mahmoud Darwish
Translated by Marilyn Hacker

The olive tree does not weep and does not laugh.
The olive tree
Is the hillside’s modest lady. Shadow
Covers her single leg, and she will not
  take her leaves off in front of the storm.
Standing, she is seated, and seated, standing.
She lives as a friendly sister of eternity,
  neighbor of time
That helps her stock her luminous oil and
Forget the invaders’ names,
  except the Romans, who
Coexisted with her, and borrowed some of her branches
To weave wreaths.
  They did not treat her as a prisoner of war
But as a venerable grandmother,
  before whose calm dignity
Swords shatter. In her reticent silver-green
Color hesitates to say what it thinks,
  and to look at what is behind
The portrait, for the olive tree is
  neither green nor silver.
The olive tree is the color of peace,
  if peace needed
A color. No one says to the olive tree:
  How beautiful you are!
But: How noble and how splendid! And she,
She who teaches soldiers to lay down their rifles
And re-educates them in tenderness and humility:
  Go home
And light your lamps with my oil! But
These soldiers, these modern soldiers
Besiege her with bulldozers and uproot her
  from her lineage
Of earth. They vanquished our grandmother
  who foundered,
Her branches on the ground, her roots in the sky.
She did not weep or cry out.
  But one of her grandsons
Who witnessed the execution threw a stone
At a soldier, and he was martyred with her.
After the victorious soldiers
Had gone on their way, we buried him there,
  in that deep
Pit – the grandmother’s cradle.
  And that is why we were
Sure that he would become,
  in a little while, an olive
Tree – a thorny olive tree – and green!

Hope you enjoyed this journey