The concept of planting an olive tree sounds beautiful for many reasons, you are giving life, helping nurture something grow, you are giving back to the earth, trees will provide us with oxygen and nutritious fruit. For Palestinians all of this is true, but the olive tree has an even greater significance both physically and symbolically, it is a symbol of – hope. Agriculture is the fabric of Palestinian society, many depend on farming as their main source of income, thus their land is very, very important. Olive trees account for the majority of fruit production in Palestine, they are part of their heritage. Palestinian olive trees are some of the oldest in the world dating back up to 4,000 years. The trees can grow in poor soil conditions and in droughts they are very resilient just like the Palestinians. I knew I wanted to go to Palestine and help make a positive difference, there is no better way I thought that to join an olive tree campaign, to ‘Keep Hope Alive’.
Believe it or not, wanting to join a tree planting campaign had me feeling like some kind outlaw in the eyes of the Israeli authorities. I didn’t fully understand the reason for this until I was actually in Palestine. It was more than just planting trees, it was a form of non-violent resistance. I soon learnt the full reality of the situation. Much of the land legally owned by Palestinian farmers is being illegally occupied by Israeli settlers in beautiful extravagant settlements which have been built at an alarmingly fast rate, confiscating more and more land, sadly displacing the Palestinians almost on a daily basis.
There are many loopholes used by the Israeli authorities to take this land such as laws which state if the land is not used for X number of years it can be taken by the Israeli government, and shockingly I found that many farmers are intimidated and harassed not only by the Israeli military but also the illegal settlers into not planting trees so the land can be taken. They are often beaten with the aim to be intimidated into leaving their own land and homes.
Our aim was to go and plant trees to occupy the land for specific farmers, who were in the high risk areas that were closest to the extending settlements. Sadly even land with trees planted on it can be forcibly taken, they are often destroyed or even stolen (which we later experienced ourselves). Despite these risks there is less chance of the land being taken if the trees are planted by international volunteers, we are more likely to make formal complaints and report to the media. There are many charities which allow internationals to sponsor trees and these are often monitored and the sponsors informed if their tree has been destroyed.
I didn’t know any of this background before I arrived in Palestine, when I saw how much of the land has actually been taken I was shocked. Such a beautiful activity of planting trees, had now been tainted in order to counteract something very sinister. Not only was this activity looked down upon by the Israeli authorities because it was resisting the illegal occupation of the land but also that it was giving them a beacon of hope. I saw many things in my short time in Palestine, but it was very clear Israel wanted to diminish any cultural aspect of Palestinian culture, and the olive trees was a main one. To me this was heartless, I was fast realizing the occupation was a very complex one with many, many levels of control, not only physical but also physiological which was very frightening.
Interestingly something I had read before leaving for Palestine, was put into context in my mind. I had come across this extract from Jewish Law, Bal Tashhit:
“thou shalt not destroy.”
The passage reads:
‘When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for thou mayest eat of them but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which thou knowest that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down that thou mayest build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee until it fall.’ (Deuteronomy 20:19,20)
Ecology in Jewish Law and Theology” in Faith and Doubt, © Norman Lamm, 1971, KTAV Publishing House.
The destruction of trees which provide food is forbidden, even in wars over land, there is a similar principle in the Biblical law and the Holy Quran. So what is happening in Palestine is not only illegal but it also contractions the Holy Scriptures. It is simply colonization, a political agenda nothing more. 60% of the West Bank has been taken by Israeli authorities to construct illegal settlements, in violation of international and humanitarian laws.
We had to get to work. Planting trees was not easy. Firstly we would have to arrive to the fields, and many times we had to stop by an Israeli watch tower which meant we would have to get off the coach as quickly as possible, the driver joked that we should, ‘fly through the windows’. This was to avoid us from getting fined, but also to prevent alerting the military of our presence as they would come and intervene. Often roads are blocked so fields cannot be accessed easily or at all. On one occasion we had to go to a different field as a blockage had been put up on the one we had planned to go to and there was no longer any access for us. On another occasion after we had finished planting we were not allowed down a highway because we were in a Palestinian vehicle (Israeli and Palestinian vehicles have different number plates for identification). What should have taken us a 6 minute drive took us an extra 2 hours. I can vividly remember the soldiers smiling at us giving us a, ‘thumbs up’ gesture because they knew they were making our lives difficult. Sadly this is a daily occurrence for Palestinians, in a way I was glad it happened to us so we could experience the feeling of being made to feel less human and worthy than others. It reminded me what I came here to fight – inequality.
Once off the coach we would need to take a short hike up the mountain. They were long but beautiful walks, I remember the first time I walked to the field and I looked across to see the illegal settlements on the horizon. The scary thing was how close they were to the field, the land I was standing on could be taken in a matter of days, but also if the settlements were occupied their tenants could easily see us and report us to the Israeli police and military. We could only hope if this did happen it would be once we had finished for the day so all of our efforts would not be in vain. Many of my group were over 60, sometimes members would walk very slowly and need to stop to take breaks to catch their breath. sometimes I would stop with them and slow my pace to make sure no one was left to walk alone. I had a lot of respect for them. They showed me there is no age limit if you really want to do something you will make it happen. Some days children from the group leaders families would also join us, which was also really nice.
We would need to unload and load the vehicles of equipment and the trees would be bought to the fields, we would then have to carry these out and they were quite heavy when lifting 3 or 4 at a time over a long distance, but I would always find the strength from somewhere. Each field had different terrains, but the ground was mostly rocky, we had to pull out huge rocks to allow us to dig deep enough. We were digging with a spade and a pickax, I hadn’t done any gardening in a long time and this was going back to basics, you really had to put your back into it. It was physically very demanding work but I really enjoyed it, the following day we would all have aching muscles but it felt good and we were ready for another day of planting. We would team up in pairs, it was nice to switch up and speak to different people and we were all very different but the one thing which united us was our disgust for the injustices going on around us. The farmers would also work with us together. Everyone would do what they could and we would all help each other out, there was a real sense of community even family. We would dig holes, place the trees in with a stick and then cover with a plastic case and place stones around it. The white plastic case was to prevent animals from eating the trees, this also made it very visible once fields had been plants and it was a beautiful sight.
On one of our days of planting we were in a field next to an electrified fence, which was also covered in barbed wire. Behind it was another eerie looking watch tower. We found tear gas canisters in the field which were made in the USA. A few members of the group were Americans and both the Americans and British discussed how we felt disgusted that our tax money is spent on never-ending wars, it was a reminder that when we go hope we need to write to our local MP’s about our views. I saw something which looked like a small drone in the sky, I wasn’t sure what it was, but one thing for sure was that I knew we were constantly being watched.
A major part of our presence on the fields was to show the farmers and their families we were supporting them, and that the international community had not forgotten them in the face of such raw injustice, we were there to stand in solidarity with Palestine. For the first time in a long time I felt my presence somewhere was actually making a difference, even if the political impact was very small, I was showing someone that I cared, that we cared. This alone made all of our efforts worthwhile for me personally. We were acknowledging their presence and their right for freedom, we believed in hope for their future and we were going to stand by them.
One of the most beautiful things was meeting the Farmers and their families, we couldn’t speak the same language but the appreciation, love and respect was very apparent. The families would make us coffee before we started work and provide us with lunch on the field once we were finished. This was a great experience, every time we would have something different and it was all delicious traditional food. I think food is a great way to exchange cultures, it is a universal language, after all we all need to eat! I hope one other thing us internationals can take away from this experience is how delicious Palestinian cuisine is, I myself have looked up recipes since I returned home and taken my friends to Palestinian restaurants. It’s something we should celebrate and pass on to future generations. Eating in the field was a very reflective experience the landscape was beautiful, it felt like going back to the essence and I appreciated every minute of it.
We were lucky with planting some days but not all. On one of the days just as we finished the Israeli military showed up, but it was too late to stop us we had completed what we had set out to do. That was a satisfying feeling, but I later found this did not always guarantee anything. As a nice surprise on our second day we were joined by the ambassador of Ecuador, showing his solidarity with the people of Palestine. It was nice to know there were people in high positions who would openly show their support and physically make the trip to Palestine.
On another day, we were two-thirds of the way in planting and the Israeli military came and requested us to stop planting, they had weapons as they came onto the field, it was very intimidating for us because of course we were unarmed, unless you were to count our spades. There was no legal reason they should stop us so we asked them why and we were given an invalid reason, something along the lines of, we did not own the land ourselves even though we said we were friends with the farmer they wanted us to stop. There was nothing we could do. Threats to arrest the farmer were made if we did not agree to stop, so we did. We had already established there was no point in trying to reason with them, they were not open to negotiations and we knew everything was civil and ‘peaceful’ in front of our eyes but once we were to leave, the farmer’s family would have to deal with any repercussions so we did not want to cause any additional trouble. Our group leader requested the solider in charge to guarantee our trees would be left untouched, he did not answer. I knew this meant they would have no protection. It struck me how young the soldiers were but I also felt a great sense of authority from them. It was very hard to exercise self-restraint in trying to attempt to reason with them. Sometimes you have to learn to fight some battles and leave others.
I was happy we planted 350 trees on my birthday, the majority of us volunteers were religious, we would say a prayer / make a wish for each tree to grow and live a long life. Even if you do not believe in God there was so much positive energy on the fields you would have felt it, it really didn’t matter what you believed, as long as you believed in – justice. We even signed one of the sticks with messages of peace in several different languages, it was beautiful. I felt really happy, on the anniversary of my birth we would be giving life to trees and giving hope. Unfortunately the following day we heard the devastating news all 350 trees had been uprooted and stolen, yes STOLEN. If someone had told me this happens I would not have believed it, but it was happening to the trees I planted myself so it was very real. There was no real system of police complaint, a case was reported but nothing ever happens. We could not return to re-pant the field as it had now been deemed a ‘crime scene’ and taken over by the military. The police was called. It may seem like they were trying to resolve the issue and find whoever was guilty (we suspect illegal settlers opposite the field) but in reality it was to prevent us from going back and re-planting the trees.
My heart was broken I thought it being my birthday it would have bought us special protection. What it bought us instead was a lesson that I’ll never forget. Some things in our lives are out of our control, but we must never give up and always remain hopeful. The Palestinians reassured us this land would be re-planted and if those trees were taken, it would be re-planted yet again. There was great resilience, I found a lot of strength and beauty in this. It made me very grateful for what I have in life and the appreciate the things which I take for granted, but also that if you really want something, it’s not always an easy path but you must never give up the fight if it’s for something you truly believe in and most of the time that path is never easy.
I can tell you there is no better feeling than to look out at the field and see the hundreds of trees you have planted. Rain was forecast for the entire time we were planting, but miraculously it didn’t rain at all, it would have made logistics very hard for us. Literary as we finished our lunch after planting our last tree, the heavens opened and it began to rain very heavily. The timing was so perfect, it was almost poetic. The trees needed the water, and the timing had me wondering if it was a sign from God. It was very emotional being the last day, we all felt such a great sense of achievement, but also deep sadness that we couldn’t keep going. If any of us had cried in that moment, no one would have seen the tears.