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Meanwhile: The olive tree and its shadow of hope

by Nadia Hijab | International Herald Tribune | 23 November 2004

WASHINGTON Massive Israeli incursions and Palestinian deaths, retaliatory suicide bombings and Israeli deaths - this is the stuff of headlines. But smaller stories of peace and justice are also played out every day, and never more so than during the season of the Palestinian olive harvest from mid-October to the end of November.

For days, busloads of Israelis have been pouring into the fields and villages of occupied Palestine to join other activists from around the world in protecting families from Israeli soldiers and settlers so they can pick the glossy blue-black fruit.

The Rabbi for Human Rights bus was overcrowded at the start of the season. "This is the kind of trouble we hope often to have," said the group's coordinator to Adam Keller, of the Israeli peace organization Gush Shalom, who kept a diary.

The importance of the Israelis' gesture cannot be overestimated. For generations of Palestinians, the olive tree and its products have been many things - from basic food and economic mainstay to health and beauty aid.

The olive harvest accounts for about 15-to-20 percent of the total agricultural output in Palestine. Every part of the tree is used - the olives are crushed to produce oil for eating and cooking as well as for soap; the branches are carved; and the pits are used for fuel.

Olive trees hold an almost sacred place in the farmers' world. The trees take years to bear fruit, but then nourish families for generations.

Since their dispersal and occupation, the tree has come to symbolize the Palestinians' national longing. Palestinians in exile often wear a carved gold symbol around their neck.

The olive harvest is a communal affair. Families and friends turn out in force, working from early morning until the sun goes down. It is this community the Israeli peace activists are joining.

Uri Avnery, one of the first Israelis to meet in public with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat nearly two decades ago, is there, as agile as ever despite his 81 years, "climbing trees and picking every single last olive," Keller reports.

According to Israeli military orders, if their groves are within 500 meters of an Israeli settlement, Palestinians must coordinate with the Israeli Army. They face countless obstacles in reaching their land, including roadblocks and now the wall that Israel is building in the West Bank.

Hundreds of thousands of trees have been destroyed since the Israeli occupation began in 1967 - around 360,000 since 2000 alone. Olive oil productivity was down 80 percent in 2003.

The gestures of solidarity remind the Palestinians that not all Israelis are part of the occupation. At the village of Jama'in, a Palestinian boy cowered away when the Israelis arrived, but was soon playing tag with them - a contrast from the previous week when settlers attacked the villagers with guns and dogs and one of the boy's relatives broke his leg trying to get away.

Close by the village of Yassouf, one of the Israeli activists picking olives was himself a former intelligence officer with the Israeli Army who has since served time in prison for refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

There is a call from a neighboring field: All hands are needed before curfew is imposed. But suddenly, the soldiers are there: "The harvest is finished in this part, clear out right now, no more delays."

The Israeli activists help to defuse the situation and then, in the words of Adam Keller, "We depart back up the mountain trail - two Palestinians and two Israelis behind a snow-white donkey bearing, if not the Messiah, at least a sack with fifty kilograms of olives."

These acts of solidarity cast long shadows of hopes.

As the Palestinian pastor Mitri Raheb wrote in his diary "Bethlehem Besieged," "At times, when we feel as if the world must be coming to an end ... our only hopeful vision is to go out ... and plant olive trees. If we don't plant any trees today, there will be nothing tomorrow. But if we plant a tree today, there will be shade for our children to play in. There will be oil to heal the wounds, and there will be olive branches to wave when peace arrives."

(Nadia Hijab is the Executive Director of the Palestine Center, the educational arm of The Jerusalem Fund for Education and Community development.)



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