Olive trees in the Holy Land are a renowned symbol of peace. Known as blessed trees, they are a lifeline for Palestinian subsistence farmers, providing for around 100,000 families. But more than this, the olive trees provide a tangible link between Palestinians, their ancestors and their land.
Sadly, however, many of these trees are being violently destroyed as a form of collective punishment, in an attempt to force Palestinians from their land. Despite this desecration many Palestinian farmers are using farming as a form of resistance to fight for peace.
Since 1967, the Israeli military and illegal settlers have destroyed at least 800,000 olive trees. Some of these trees are nearly 1000 years old – they are irreplaceable. Soldiers or settlers arrive with little warning and bulldoze or burn the trees, sometimes using chemicals. Anna Baltzer, a Jewish American activist, witnessed this destruction, and describes how, by the time she arrived, ‘the owners were hysterical. They kept screaming “hamil!” as the ancient trees were ripped from the ground by the monstrous machines. “Hamil” is a word that can be used to describe trees during the time that they bear fruit; it means ‘pregnant.’ She says that watching this made her feel sick – she points out that not every olive tree can be ‘hamil’, as it takes over 20 years for olive trees to bear fruit. These trees have been patiently tended and cared for by generations of Palestinians. As Baltzer says, the destruction of these trees is ‘the destruction of both the history and future of the Palestinian people.’
Numerous attacks on a wide variety of trees have already taken place this year. In May, the Tent of Nations farm near Bethlehem saw the destruction of 1,500 fruit trees by Israeli soldiers, who bulldozed the land and buried the trees under mounds of soil to prevent them being re-planted. A BBC report by Daniel Adamson describes how, ‘Branches reach out from inside a mound of earth, the bark stripped and mangled, unripe almonds still clinging to the trees.’ In April 2014 the village of Ras Karkar, near Ramallah, had 100 olive trees uprooted by settlers. In March 2014 settlers destroyed around 200 trees in the village of Kafr Qaddum. Last October, 129 trees were destroyed by settlers from Shavei Shomron. The list goes on.
The bereavement felt from this loss emphasises the strong cultural ties and historical meaning the trees hold – an almost spiritual significance. Violence is often directed at trees because of this, but it is not exclusive. Farms more generally are also subject to attack. On July 2, 2014 settlers set fire to a sheep farm in the village of Aqraba, and several Gaza poultry farms were destroyed during the 2009 military siege. Farmers are also subject to limited and unequal water access, with Israeli settlers getting around four times more than local Palestinians.
Accessing land that has been carved up by the separation wall, illegal settlements, or Israeli-only roads is also a huge obstacle; 40% of the West Bank is now off-limits to Palestinians, with one million olive trees trapped in the restricted zone around the wall and no longer being tended. Common-land, once home to abundant wildlife and grazing livestock has been built on by settlers and the military. Trade is controlled by Israel, with all products passing through lengthy checkpoints to be shipped out of Israeli ports, whilst trade within Palestine and between Israelis and Palestinians is severely restricted or non-existent.
Agriculture has always been a major part of the Palestinian economy. Olive oil contributes $100 million annually, and is relied on by some of the poorest communities. Grape, fig, almond, tomato, date, and citrus are also major crops and a part of Palestine’s rich culinary tradition.
The impact of occupation can be devastating, with poverty and malnutrition becoming rising concerns, in part because of the loss of access to agricultural land. The village of Marda, for example, lost nearly all its agricultural land to the settlement of Ariel, and the remaining land is contaminated by untreated sewage from the new town. There is at least 75% unemployment in Marda due to the loss of farming land and restricted access. In 2004, settlers burnt 60 trees in Marda, and in 2005, 17 olive trees were bulldozed and chopped up by soldiers. The owner of these trees dismissed the idea of suing Israel, ‘You can’t put a price on trees. Trees are our past and our future.’
Still, many farmers continue to cultivate their land, despite the difficulties, and see farming as a form of resistance. ‘We refuse to be enemies’, says the sign at the entrance to the Tent of Nations farm near Bethlehem. Despite losing 1,500 fruit trees, Daher Nassar says, ‘I will plant more trees – double trees!’, while his sister says, ‘nobody can force us to hate.’ The Tent of Nations is also a centre for peace-building, running workshops for both Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli government has attempted to take its land, and the farmers have been fighting a legal case for 23 years in order to keep it, at the same time defending it from settler attacks. Despite this, Nassar’s brother, Daoud says, ‘Our response to this injustice will never be with violence, and we will never give up and leave.’
Producing food gives people both physical independence and psychological freedom from the occupation. Despite being one of the worst affected villages, Marda Permaculture Farm, run by Murad Alkhufash, was set up to ‘promote food security, health, self-reliance and Palestinian empowerment.’ Many villagers have become disillusioned with agriculture, but Alkhufash says, ‘I want to spread awareness, and also to inspire those who left the land to come back and use it.’ The farm runs permaculture design courses and seeks to provide Palestinians with the skills to be sustainable and self-sufficient. Alkhufash comments that while Israeli imposed curfews ‘…can shut down the whole country. I don’t care because I have everything around me. This is resistance to the occupation because I don’t need to buy your food. I don’t need anything from you.’
Farms like these stand as an inspiration to all who care about sustainable food, their imagination and determination in the face of adversity and restricted resources is something we should all aspire to. Their contribution to peace in the region should not be overlooked; despite the violence they suffer, their non-violent response sets an example that encourages others. Producing food and deepening their connection with the land gives people hope and a sense of purpose that prevails over the problems they must endure.