“If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, Their Oil would become Tears” – Palestinian Poet, Mahmoud Darwish
In February 2012 I joined a group of 50 people who travelled to help plant olive trees in Palestine. Organised by the JAI (Joint Action Initiative) of East Jerusalem YMCA and YWCA of Palestine, the Olive Tree Campaign has a goal of replanting 50,000 olive trees in areas where they have been uprooted or are threatened with confiscation by Israeli forces.
During the trip, our group succeeded in planting 1500 trees on Palestinian farmer’s lands. The group spanned ages from 21 to 79, coming from all walks of life including ordained clergy, representing many nations.
For decades, Palestinian farmers have suffered land confiscation by Israel to build settlements – which are illegal under international law – interconnected by bypass roads cutting across the West Bank, again solely for use by Israelis. Many of the farmers have owned lands for over five generations, retaining ownership deeds dating back to the Ottoman era.
A major problem for Palestinian farmers is the systematic destruction of crops by settlers and the Israeli military. Olive trees are an essential part of the traditional Palestinian agricultural economy and food supply – the trees are productive from around 7 to 500 years in age, with some living to over 2000. However, olive trees grow very slowly; hence destruction creates significant damage to crop yields. Olives are cultivated for their oil, fine wood, leaf and fruit, all of which are valuable as crops and commodities.
For the trip, the organisers arranged accommodation for me with a local host family in the Christian town of Beit Sahour (Shepherds Fields, near Bethlehem) – others preferring a local hotel. The family was welcoming and inviting, providing delicious traditional Palestinian cuisine for evening dinners and for breakfast. This hard-working family rose early each day, the husband enduring hours of delays through military checkpoints to reach work, restoring Churches in Jerusalem; and his wife – a school teacher – taking their four children to school each day.
Between days planting olives, our group was taken to key places in Palestine including the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, Bethlehem Old City, Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah and Birzeit University – including talks on various topics relevant to contemporary Palestine and history. At Birzeit, we were given a talk by human rights group Adameer, who represent students suffering arbitrary “administrative detention” in Israeli prisons for membership of non-violent political groups. Administrative detention is also used to imprison children as young as 12 years old.
In Jerusalem, a talk by the Israeli Campaign against House Demolition highlighted the plight of Palestinians who are systematically refused permission to build or extend houses in East Jerusalem – and when doing so, suffer summary eviction and demolition of their homes by the Israeli military.
In Hebron we witnessed oppressive tension, with major streets blockaded and shop fronts welded shut. The presence of 500 Settlers is accompanied by 1500 Israeli troops, who control access to key areas of the Old City including the Souk, where barricaded entrances choke off trade. Outside, barriers restrict Palestinians to walk in narrow side alleys, with settlers and military retaining sole vehicular access to the main streets.
We saw close-up the “Separation Wall” (also called “Apartheid Wall”) built by Israel predominantly on Palestinian land – most of which disregards the 1967 borders – cutting off Palestinians from their farm lands, places of work and communities, with Bethlehem itself almost completely surrounded by the Wall. Ostensibly built to stop terrorists entering Israel, the Wall is incomplete with several gaps which people can easily traverse, revealing the likely true motive – land annexation and restriction of access and travel. The Wall features colourful graffiti with slogans of hope and solidarity including some by UK graffiti artist Banksy. In 2004 the International Court of Justice declared the wall illegal.
A consistent message from all Palestinian speakers was a commitment to Non-Violent Resistance. Major injustices, land theft and human rights abuses under military occupation are countered by a wide range of passive resistance tactics; frequently-seen is the slogan “To Exist is to Resist”.
Whilst planting we found piles of spent tear gas canisters in fields next to the wire fences which surround illegal Settlements. Each Friday, villagers undertake peaceful demonstrations in protest of the Wall and land confiscations. The response of the Israeli military is consistent: Tear gas, sound bombs, rubber-coated bullets accompanied by water-cannon spraying of obnoxious liquids directed at protesters – including children – and international visitors who join the protests in solidarity.
An important talk centred on the Kairos Palestine Document. Compiled in 2009 by Palestinian Christian leaders, this document echoes a similar summons issued by South African churches in the mid-1980s at the height of repression under the apartheid regime. The document argues that any theology used to justify oppression is un-Christian and unjust – and therefore asks all Christians to reject any religious argument used to justify continued oppression of Palestinians.
Another call by Palestinians is for the BDS movement – Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions. Palestinians are asking for economic pressure to be put on Israel to comply with International Law and Universal Principles of Human Rights. Examples are the United Methodist and Presbyterian churches in the USA, who are voting on whether to divest in companies that profit from the Israeli Occupation. Though attracting some controversy, this call is also backed by Rabbis groups in the USA.
On the final evening we enjoyed an excellent live music concert given by the local Jadal Group, who combine traditional Arabic and modern instruments, complete with audience participation.
The trip was greatly thought-provoking; particularly in ways we can act collectively in solidarity to counter injustice and oppression. Palestinians encourage and welcome visitors to share the experience, enjoy the rich history and culture, and for those who feel energetic, plant many more olive trees. Anyone can go to Palestine, with regular flights to Tel Aviv or Amman in Jordan.
More information, a personal account and many annotated photos from the trip are on the website www.thepalestinianolive.com or see us on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ – comments and questions are welcome.