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'We will stay like our olives': A battle over trees this harvest

Nov. 14, 2015 9:12 A.M. (Updated: Nov. 14, 2015 4:18 P.M.)
An Israeli excavator uproots olive trees to make way for Israel's separation barrier, in the West Bank town of Beit Jala on Aug. 17, 2015. ( AFP/Musa al-Shaer, File)
By: Megan Hanna

Megan Hanna is an independent journalist and photographer based in Palestine.

BEIT SAFAFA (Ma'an) -- Part of Hiyam Mousa’s olive grove, which has been passed down through her family for as far back as she can remember, has been destroyed due to the construction of a bypass road connecting settlements in the West Bank to West Jerusalem, and the rest is also under threat of being confiscated.

“We’ve been harvesting olives for a long time, it’s a special demonstration of the culture and history of Palestinians, and the whole family participates,” Mousa says, reaching up through the gnarled branches to pick this year’s harvest from the trees that remain.

“Destroying the trees is eliminating the history of the Palestinians, it is incredibly sad to think of the current generations of young Palestinians who are not able to experience the olive harvest,” she says, anguished at the impending threat to the rest of the grove.

Hiyam is not alone in the struggle to preserve her olive groves.

Since 2000, it is estimated that more than two million trees have been destroyed across the occupied Palestinian territory through Israeli military operations, the building of settler roads, expansion of settlements, or construction of the separation wall.

Israeli watchdog Kerem Navot released a report in September reporting that approximately one third of West Bank land is inaccessible to Palestinians, and of the land that is available, farmers have to contend with burgeoning settler violence.

On Oct. 31, a group of settlers blocked access to olive pickers on the outskirts of Burin village where, a few weeks prior, settlers from the Yitzhar settlement had burned dozens of acres of Palestinian agricultural land and attacked farmers with stones, injuring four Palestinians.

Unfortunately such incidents are not uncommon. Confidential IDF documents leaked to Haaretz in 2013 reveal how groves which are ostensibly under Israeli protection are often attacked, and according to Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, 97.4 percent of investigations into damage or destruction of Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank have been closed due to police failings.

With more than 10 percent of Palestine’s olive trees destroyed since 2001, the threat to the olive tree sector has potentially devastating implications for numerous industries, alongside the 100,000 families that rely on their agricultural output.

Living history destroyed

Mohammed Abdeh, a farmer from Shafa-beit Eskaria, owns several olive groves that are now bordered by an Israeli settlement. His income relies on the agricultural output of his land, but the value of the olive trees go far beyond the economic benefits.

“The olive tree is sacred to me, because it’s a blessed tree in the Quran. So having your olive trees destroyed is like having your eyelashes plucked from your eyes, or your heart ripped from your chest – it’s an incredibly painful experience."

Palestine's olive trees -- some of which are 5,000 years old and survived the Persian and Roman Empires, Holy Crusaders and British imperialism, among other historical turmoil -- do not merely hold an economic significance to Palestinian cultivators.

Baha Hilo, co-founder of To Be There based in Beit Sahour, understands the emotional attachment many have with the trees. “Olive trees are not treated as things or objects, you can easily hear people say ‘it’s like killing a member of my family.’ Because you don’t only kill the tree, you kill every part of your family’s history around that tree.

“When you remove the thing that connects them with these past generations you’re eliminating their history on that piece of land,” Hilo added.

However, what is perhaps more sinister than settler violence and Israel’s overt land grabbing policies is that many Palestinians forced to abandon their olive harvest are not only losing a piece of their history, but watching Palestinian history be covered over by Israel’s own forestation policies.

The ‘Green Patrol’ of the JNF

Since 1901, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) -- an organization established by the Fifth Zionist Congress -- has planted over 240 million trees in Israel, predominantly pine forests planted to cover and expand settlements, and divide occupied Palestinian territory.

Prominent academics have claimed that the introduction of the pine -- a fast-growing tree, and a principally European species -- to the Holy Land had a two-fold mission for the Zionist national project. Firstly, the so-called "green lungs" of the fledgling Jewish state transformed the landscape ecologically and culturally from an Arabic desert to a more ‘naturalized’ European wilderness for the influx of Jewish migrants.

However, the trees were also used to cover evidence of the events of 1947-48, known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or "Catastrophe." As Illan Pappe and Samer Jaber wrote: "Covering ethnic cleansing with pine trees is probably the most cynical method employed by Israel in its quest to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as possible."

But the pine forests are not just part of a historic narrative of dispossession.

An ongoing $600 million JNF campaign, dubbed ‘Blueprint Negev’, seeks to displace the 150,000 Palestinian Bedouin in ‘unrecognized’ villages, in order to develop reservoirs and pine forests as a front for settler expansion. The Bedouin village of Umm el-Hiran is one such example, currently under threat of demolition to make way for the Jewish settlement Hiran that is based nearby in the JNF forest of Yattir.

Not only are the JNF’s forestation policies erasing a culture, but after a century of displacement, settlement, and rapid development, indigenous species make up only 11 percent of Israeli forests, and the proliferation of such non-native species has potentially biologically devastating consequences.

Foreign species often fail to adapt to local conditions, and become prone to problems such as pests, diseases and ecological disasters, such as the 2010 Carmel wildfire – acknowledged as the worst in Israel’s history.

According to Alice Gray, an environmental professor at Al-Quds Bard Honors College, "the JNF's planting campaign ensured that farmers would be unable to return to their land, as pines alter the chemistry of the soil - preventing the development of agricultural crops."

Ecological resistance

For Hiyam Mousa, her olive trees have come to embody the spirit of Palestinian resistance, a potent symbol of refusing to yield to Israel's decades-long military occupation.

“The trees are now a symbol of resistance, of resilience, and holding on to them is more important than ever. For a lot of Palestinians, the olive tree has a potent ideological function, and is often referred to as a metaphorical expression of sumud -- literally translated as "steadfastness" -- a concept that denotes unyielding defiance, and to many represents the struggle to remain on their land."

Hilo agrees:"Olive trees are very resistant to a lot of natural conditions, and that inspires some form of resistance here. It’s why people say ‘we will stay like our olives."

The uprooting or burning of olive trees takes on a perverse parallel when considering the extensive Israeli housing demolitions, which cause widespread displacement and literally "uproot" Palestinians from their origins. Chief Inspector Kishik of Israel’s Civil Administration stated, "Like children, their trees look so nave, as if they can’t harm anyone. But like [their] children, several years later they turn into a ticking bomb."

In its harnessing of the natural environment for political gain, Israel has created literal battlefields, flouting the axiom that "nature knows no boundaries." The stated mission to "make the desert bloom" has provided Israel with both ideological and physical foundations for expansionist policies, which appear to have taken precedence over sustainability and environmental conservation.

As noted by Sonjar Karkar, founder of Women for 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."

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
Hetty / the Netherlands
Excellent article! Of course you will stay like your olives. It's your right.
15/11/2015 11:53
Hetty / the Netherlands
And the ones in the diaspora, in the refugee camps will return. It's their right and it will never be given up or given away.
15/11/2015 11:57
Fair / Or Not
There will never be anything posative to report about a Palestinian state,
unless Palestinians accept a peace agreement with the Jewish State of Israel, which will initially require unconditional (demand-free) talks, and very tough (almost impossible) Palestinian compromises along the way.
05/02/2016 16:04
Three / realities
1- The UK will keep northern Ireland. Russia will keep the Crimea. And,
2- Israel will keep E. Jerusalem and Areas C-E1 of the West Bank. And,
3- The longer Palestinians refuse to face such obvious realities, the worse their situations will increasingly become, in what remains of "Palestine".
05/02/2016 16:23
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