Mending the broken wing

Palestinians harvest olives in the village of Kafr Nima near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Khaleel Reash/MaanImages)

Thousands of hectares of land have been confiscated, hundreds of olive trees were uprooted and tens of thousands of trees were burned at the hands of Israeli occupying forces. In Palestinian villages, where social and economic development is sustained from the land, the villagers are left asking: What’s left for next generations?!

The olive harvest in Palestine is a special occasion in Palestinian life that reveals the importance of the land and the olive tree in the past, present, and the future of Palestinians. Palestinians depend on the olive harvest, and it has come to reflect a wonderful image of self-sufficiency and Palestinian social unity.

For 500 years my family has harvested olives. Our trees have been passed from one generation to the next. Each year, generations of my family have gathered to pick from our trees. Each generation, like each branch that grows from our family’s trees, is considered a gift.

But today, the olive harvest in my village, Nilin, located in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, is no longer the wonderful occasion for families to come together and express their deep relation of solidarity and love for each other and for their land.

Throughout Palestine the olive harvest is changing. It is no longer that beautiful chance for children to play with their toys under the green olive trees, to have their meals in the shade and comfort provided by the toil of their ancestors, it is no longer that occasion which might sometimes be the only source of their innocent joy and entertainment.

The olive harvest has become a source of sorrow and worries for many Palestinians- not only because of Israel’s apartheid wall, which cuts through our villages, standing as a barrier preventing us from reaching our beloved and sacred trees — but because of the barbarism of armed settlers, who have destroyed the nature of the harvest by attacking olive farmers and their families.

Volunteers and first-aid teams have played an important role during the many years of occupation and they are still playing a major part in the popular struggle. But now, without the support of first-aid teams and volunteers many Palestinians would be unable to reach their olives.

On 10 October, I joined the ambulances of the Palestine Red Crescent Society and Palestinian Medical Relief Committees while they worked to protect residents of Nilin during the first day of the olive harvest.

The ambulances and medical teams were not allowed to enter the village as dozens of Israeli occupying forces soldiers blocked the entrance to the village, declaring Nilin a closed military zone. This is the standard declaration when Israeli occupying forces want to close a village, and even though we are there to administer aid, as doctors and first-aid workers, we are not guaranteed access to the wounded, nor are we protected by the same laws that protect international humanitarian aid workers, because we carry a Palestinian ID.

We succeed in entering the village by taking a different and longer route to reach a back entrance, but we also lose precious time and energy.

As the villagers approached the trees that are close to the wall, the soldiers launched tear gas grenades from all directions. As a result, we treated many cases of suffocation by inhalation of tear gas, which causes irritation of the nose and upper respiratory track leading to breathing difficulties, severe lacrimation and eye irritation, inability to stand and walk, and/or general weakness.

Many residents and activists suffered these effects. After inhaling the gas, a young boy who was picking olives with his family fell out of a tree. He was transferred to the hospital in Ramallah for further treatment. The other serious danger tear gas poses is that one can be hit by a tear gas canisters, which are fired from guns, in the face, arm or the abdomen. This was the case of an Israeli activist; the canister struck his arm and abdomen with double impact causing bruises, scratches and superficial burns. We performed a right arm x-ray to rule out possible fractures.

But despite the violence of the Israeli occupying forces, one of the biggest problems the first-aid teams faced was the relatively long distance to the village’s major healthcare centers, which is further complicated by having to travel through rough bumpy agricultural roads. This means it takes more time to reach the healthcare center and risks aggravating the head and back of people who are already injured. Palestinian aid teams and ambulances are also routinely stopped, inspected, interrogated, and delayed by Israeli occupation forces from reaching their destination, which not only discourages workers in the field, but also poses a serious risk to the patients in need of transport and urgent care.

First aid workers are also commonly used as human shields. On the first day of the olive harvest in Nilin the ambulances I was working with were attacked by Israeli soldiers who used as human shields to protect them as they fired on the villagers. We wanted to leave the area but we were threatened with force by the soldiers who stopped the ambulances and forced us to stay in front of them. We were interrogated and the soldiers inspected the ambulances, looking for injured people and villagers. Finally, we were asked to leave the area and told not to return.

Working in the medical field in Palestine is not an easy or safe mission. On top of the difficulties we face, the lack of equipment, and many other obstacles, we also confront the pain of our collective Palestinian body; but this pain is also a joy. It is the eternal feeling of pride to the land and the passion for its soil and sky, it is the source of resistance for the sons and daughters of Palestine to stand and wipe its tears away until that joyous day when we can reclaim our homeland. The olive tree will stay the sign of peace for every Palestinian and a witness to the crimes of this occupation. When blood is mixed with tears it is the call of duty and humanity waiting for all of us as doctors, paramedics, and first-aid workers because we remain the last hope for broken wings to fly.

A proud resident of the West Bank village of Nilin, Abdallah Mesleh is currently a medical intern at Palestinian hospitals and abroad. He has been picking olives every October for as long as he can remember.