Feast of the Tree

Palestinian farmer waiting for a closed entrance in the “fence” to reach his land near Qalqilya. (Markus Cuel)

When telling Jara and Tamer stories from Dutch children’s books before they go to bed, I do not always use exactly the same words as those printed in the book. For instance, the books sometimes express a rather individualized culture that is quite removed from what Jara and Tamer experience in Bethlehem. One book (from the famous Gouden Boekje - Golden Booklet - series, which I used to devour myself when I was young), titled Meneer de Hond [Mister Dog], features a speaking dog and a boy who fraternize and come to live with each other in a little house. But each wants the food for himself as “they had learnt to take care of themselves,” and the boy does not want to share his cotelette with the dog. But living together and not sharing food is something quite unthinkable in this culture.

So in order not to disturb Tamer’s mental map of the world, I told him that the boy and the dog were sharing everything. Tamer himself is in fact fond of sharing whatever he can share or rather upon what he can lay his hands — including vitamins, coffee and shampoo. It is a real game for him. Recently, he learned to imitate that startled look of incomprehension on the face of the Arab host when the guest does not want to take something that is being offered: Kull! [eat] Ishrab! [drink].

But it also happens that the Dutch books emit a political message that I do not wish to repeat to the kids. Many years ago a well-intentioned lady gave me a book about “Donald goes to Israel.” For her, Palestine was Israel, and she did not realize that Israel is not the name which Palestinians use for their country. But the book became one of Jara’s favorites after I changed the name of Israel into Palestine, the kibbutz into a Palestinian village, and Moshe into Musa. The book was about Donald and grandma Duck visiting the Israeli feast of trees [Tu Bishevat, in Hebrew]. The Ducks, of course, came to help the pioneers in planting trees so as to make the desert bloom. I changed the scene of Israeli children having pillow-fights at the sleeping room of the kibbutz into a social event at a Palestinian summer camp. Organizing summer camps is very popular here these days as most families are unable to travel outside their areas during the long summer holidays.

In fact, we do have a feast of the tree here too. It is not yet widely known but schools do their best to give it a proper place in the curriculum. A few weeks ago, Jara was very proud when she was called by the teacher to come in front of the civics class as she was almost the only girl able to explain the meaning of the feast of the tree. The other girls thought, not surprisingly, that Christmas was the feast of the tree. My Arabic teacher lately said that in fact many Moslems here call Christmas the feast of the tree.

Moreover, in October or early November students also enjoy a day off to help their families in harvesting the olive trees, which is the main agricultural crop here. So we have a variety of tree feasts. But the Palestinian feast of the tree, properly called, is on January 15, and it celebrates the planting of seedlings. It once again mostly concerns olive seedlings. The olive tree has a great place within the Palestinian community; it is traditionally called the sacred tree. Its cultural importance is expressed by many Palestinian organizations which use the tree’s shape for their stationery. Indeed, the tree is an evocative symbol: it has roots deep in the ground, showing the inalienable link with the land, while the branches are high in the sky, reaching out in a gesture of openness towards the world.

At the AEI we plan to organize a tree garden around our newly opened youth house. And the YMCA in Beit Sahour has organized a large, worldwide campaign to plant trees for the purpose of supporting Palestinian agriculture. Dutch prime minister Balkenende promised to come over to plant a tree but he hastily withdrew his promise as Holland’s chairmanship of the European Union last year was thought not to allow for this. Reading it, my stomach turned. How many Israeli trees have not been planted by Dutch dignitaries?

While watching this morning’s TV news, I noticed a large banner of Israeli settlers opposing the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. It said: “Jews plant trees; Arabs plant bombs.” Another time my stomach turned.

In people’s experience on this side of the fence or Wall, the slogan should rather run like: “Arab plant trees and Israelis uproot them.” That is certainly the case here in the Bethlehem area, where a forest on the Abu Ghneim hill was cut down to make place for the Har Homa settlement. Now we hear that on the western side of Bethlehem, at the edge of Beit Jala, the Wall is going to arise in the Cremisan convent’s fields.

The Cremisan fields are full of trees, a significant part likely being cut off to make place for the military road alongside the barrier. The theology students at the Salesian seminary there may have to continue their studies in Jerusalem as the seminary will become increasingly inaccessible, so we hear. And let us not forget the tens of thousands of other Palestinian trees annually cut down for whatever purpose, such as the expansion of settlements or the construction of bypass roads.

Together with dozens of other Bethlehem and Beit Sahouri families, Mary’s uncle has for some years been unable to reach his olive trees on the other side of the Wall or the barbed wire that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Consider how he lost his trees, which used to be part of traditional Bethlehem lands.

First, after East or Arab Jerusalem was annexed in 1967, the Jerusalem municipality decided to expand its borders deeper into the West Bank. As long as that land was not expropriated for the establishment or gradual expansion of Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem (as happened in the case of for instance the Gilo suburb-settlement opposite of Beit Jala), it was still possible for many Bethlehemite land owners to harvest their fruits. But when the barbed wire barrier was planned to be built the land owners, including Mary’s uncle, became separated from their lands.

The latest news is now that half a year ago the Israeli government issued a law, without raising publicity to it, which stipulated that when Palestinian properties in East-Jerusalem, like lands, were not used by their owners, these properties would come to resort under the Absentee Property‚ office. In other words, when not used, the lands would be transferred to the Israeli state.

See the process that is happening: first your lands are annexed to a different country, then access to your lands is made impossible; then a law is issued which says that unused lands can be confiscated by that other country; then it is concluded that the owners do not work on their lands, and finally your lands are expropriated! This legally elegant process of robbery has been appropriately called “creeping annexation”. Once, while Mary’s uncle was trying to rescue his land and trees by participating in marches, he was unceremoniously lifted up by a Caterpillar bulldozer. Now he does not see much in once again going to the Israeli High Court. After all, accepting the verdict, which is almost always negative, means to accept Israeli jurisdiction. What to do instead, is another, difficult question.

Lately my family enjoyed a picnic in a piece of land bordering the barbed wire. We took a look from behind in the direction of Har Homa and the military road below it. When a military jeep passed at fifty meters below us, a stern voice speaking in bad Arabic came out of a squeaky loudspeaker turned to enormous volume. We had to leave immediately. As always Jara wanted to run away while as always Tamer became thrilled and wanted to stay. I told the kids that in such circumstances you have to retreat, not by running, but quietly. Mary’s cousin, who is the owner of the land, told us afterwards what had happened to his son and his son’s friends. A few weeks ago they were throwing little stones from behind the fence to a donkey below. Not nice but that‚s what kids sometimes do. This time the soldiers in the jeep came out, took the boys to their military headquarters near Rachel’s Tomb, and ordered Mary’s cousin to drive behind them so as to pick up the boys - a few hours of nervous waiting later.

Yesterday Tamer took his time to watch the silver lights and shades reflected on the olive tree leaves in our neighbor’s garden. “Papa, zeitoun [olive tree]!” he shouted. Then he took his time to meticulously pick the colorful little flowers that come up in the grass as soon as the early spring sun arrives. He mumbled to himself: One flower for tete [grandma], one for Janet, one for mama, one for papa, one for Jara, and one for the neighbor’s brother of whom he is so fond these days. Indeed, as Mary told me afterwards, hearing him saying such things is a feast all by itself — a feast from which nobody can rob us.

Toine van Teeffelen is development director at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem.

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