Heritage uprooted

3 September 2007

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Palestinians harvest olives in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, November 2006. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)


Universally regarded as the symbol of peace, the olive tree has become the object of violence. For more than forty years, Israel has uprooted over one million olive trees and hundreds of thousands of fruit trees in Palestine with terrible economic and ecological consequences for the Palestinian people. Their willful destruction has so threatened Palestinian culture, heritage and identity that the olive tree has now become the symbol of Palestinian steadfastness because of its own rootedness and ability to survive in a land where water is perennially scarce.

Throughout the centuries, Palestinians farmers have made their living from olive cultivation and olive oil production; 80 percent of cultivated land in the West Bank and Gaza is planted with olive trees. [1] In the West Bank alone, some 100,000 families are dependent on olive sales. [2] Today, the olive harvest provides Palestinian farmers with anywhere between 25 to 50 percent of their annual income, and as the economic crisis deepens, the harvest provides for many their basic means of survival. [3] But despite the hardships, it is the festivities and traditions that accompany the weeks of harvesting that have held Palestinian communities together and are, in fact, a demonstration of their ownership of the land that no occupation can extinguish except by the annihilation of Palestinian society itself.

And that is precisely what Israel has been doing — through brute force and far more insidious ways. Under an old law from the Ottoman era, Israel claims as state property, land that has been “abandoned” and left uncultivated for a period of four years and this land is then usually allocated to Israeli settlers. Of course, the land has not been voluntarily abandoned. Because of Israel’s closure policy, which imposes the most draconian restrictions on movement, Palestinian farmers cannot reach their agricultural lands to tend and harvest their crops. Not only are permits required to move about in their own homeland, but farmers are forced to use alternative routes which must be negotiated on foot or by donkey because about 70 percent of these alternative routes — those connected to main or bypass roads — have been closed by the Israeli army with concrete blocks and ditches. And now a wall is being built for “security reasons” which will permanently separate Palestinian families from their farmlands, except for the gates that allow access at certain times, but more often than not, at the whim of Israeli soldiers who may not even turn up to open them. [4] This makes year-round maintenance of farmers’ crops extremely difficult if not impossible. Hence, the “abandonment” of land that Israel uses to justify its land theft.

Since 1967, the Israeli military and illegal settlers have destroyed more than one million olive trees claiming that stone throwers and gunmen hide behind them to attack the settlers. [5] This is a specious argument because these trees grow deep inside Palestinian territory where no Israeli settler or soldier should be in any case. But, Israel is intent on appropriating even the last vestiges of land left to the Palestinians and so turns a blind eye to any methods used by settlers and soldiers alike to terrorize the farmers away from their farms and crops, even if that means razing their land. Farmers are constantly under threat of being beaten and shot at, having their water supplies contaminated (already scarce because 85 percent of renewable water resources go to the settlers and Israel), their olive groves torched and their olive trees uprooted. [6]

On a larger scale, the Israeli military brings in the bulldozers to uproot trees in the way of the “security” wall’s route and where they impede the development of infrastructure necessary to service the illegal settlements. Some of these threatened trees are 700 to 1,000 years old and are still producing olives. [7] These precious trees are being replaced by roads, sewerage, electricity, running water and telecommunications networks, Israeli military barracks, training areas, industrial estates and factories leading to massive despoliation of the environment. If Israel has its way, neither the trees nor the Palestinians who have cared for them will survive the barbaric ethnic and environmental cleansing of Palestine.

The irony of it all is that Israel’s uprooting of olive trees is contrary to the Jewish halakhic principle whose origin is found in the Torah: “Even if you are at war with a city … you must not destroy its trees” (Deut 20:19). Under the pretext of “redeeming” the land the Jews claim God gave them and the trees they are supposed to preserve, Israel continues to violently expropriate Palestinian land. With each uprooted tree, another slab of concrete is put in place for the wall and the illegal Jewish settlements — the landscape sculpted and changed beyond all recognition and no longer the sacrosanct place that has long given Israel its spurious Biblical justification for dispossessing the Palestinians of the land they have nurtured since time immemorial.

The agonizing pain of loss felt by Palestinians for their ravaged land is not expressed in the statistics. Only those who have suffered the same cruel violations or those who seek to protect and preserve the delicate balance of the world’s environment can understand what it means for people off the land. International law, although on their side, remains ineffective as no world government, not even the United Nations, is prepared to pressure Israel to stop its illegal collective punishment of the entire Palestinian population. Today, there are campaigns all around the world to end the uprooting of trees in Palestine and to replant those which have already been uprooted. And each year, when the Palestinian olive harvest approaches, international volunteers join Palestinians to provide some human protection from the acts of violence visited on Palestinian farmers by Israeli settlers and soldiers who want to stop the harvesting of crops. These wonderful acts of solidarity help to heal the land, but they cannot heal the pain of those who have to watch the uprooting of age-old olive trees, the desecration of their land and their millennia-old heritage. Such heartbreaking reality has led the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, to say, “If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would have become tears …”

Sonja Karkar is the founder and president of Women for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia.

Endnotes
[1] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affiars, “The Olive Harvest in the West Bank and Gaza,” October 2006.
[2] Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ), “Olive Harvest in Palestine. Another Season, Another Anguish,” November 2004.
[3] Canaan Fair Trade, www.olivecoop.com/Canaan.html.
[4] OXFAM, “Forgotten Villages: Struggling to survive under closure in the West Bank,” September 2002, p. 21.
[5] ARIJ, “Olive Harvest in Palestine. Another Season, Another Anguish,” November 2004.
[6] UN Report of the Special Committee to investigate Israeli Practices affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, No. 40, September 2005.
[7] Atyaf Alwazir, “Uprooting Olive trees in Palestine,” Inventory of Conflict and Environment (ICE), Case Number: 110, American University, November 2002.