As our world leaders shift towards the right-wing opinion, civilian support for unity and justice continues to grow. The number of advocates meeting in Palestine for the ‘Keep Hope Alive’ campaign reached an all-time high this year with over 120 volunteers from around the world including the UK, USA, Sweden, Japan, and India just to name a few. Many had coupled their journey with a religious pilgrimage to the holy sites of Jerusalem but were still taunted by Israeli border control in order to confess that they may be participants in humanitarian efforts.
The Keep Hope Alive campaign (http://www.jai-pal.org/index.php/en/campaigns/olive-tree-campaign/olive-picking-program) which began in 2002 is jointly organized by the Advocacy Initiative (JAI) and the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), it’s main objective is to lead a group of international volunteers to participate in olive harvesting. It is usually very difficult for Palestinian farmers and their families to do this task alone as are often harassed or violently attacked by settlers (colonizers illegally living on the land) or even by the Israeli military themselves in order to prevent them from utilizing their land. The purpose of this is to exploit an old Ottoman law which states if a landowners land is baron for five years it can be taken by the government, which they then do to build illegal settlements. (Zionist) Jews from all over the world then move to occupied Palestine and settle here. The Israeli government is manipulating this for colonization of Palestine. Thus this initiative supports Palestinian families against land confiscation and annexation by the illegal occupation. The presence of International volunteers is hoped to deter these actions to some extent as any military aggression would result in international uproar. Our passports served as our weapons in solidarity, even though soldiers could still come at any time and demand we stop. We didn’t encounter any military resistance on this visit, however, on one day there was a very unsettling siren to be heard. Not sure what it was but he just continued to harvest the olives.
Villages at the highest risk of occupation were selected; Al-Khaer, Hussan, Wad Fuin, Nahhalin, and Teqou. These were in the closest proximity to settlements, the very construction of these settlements is a violation of international humanitarian law and an illegal activity. Confiscation of these lands will help connect the network of settlements and slowly take over larger blocks of land.
As we would drive to the fields we would pass walls built by Israel to annex the land, we would pass checkpoints, our freedom of movement was entirely dictated by the Israeli military, we could only hope that they would not block our route and increase our journey times, the ‘yellow gates’ we passed were renowned for often being closed. Once at the field, we would carry our equipment from the coach – ladders, buckets, and tarp (plastic sheeting) to catch the fallen olives and hike to the field where we would being work. The Palestinian landscape varied from village to village, but it was always incredibly beautiful. Some of us would climb the trees and the olives would fall down onto those picking below, we termed this sensation, ‘olive rain’ there was something very therapeutic about this. The species of olives also varied from tree to tree. It was ok if we could not pick every single olive and those left on the trees were often taken by poor Palestinians who had no land. We all wore olive green T-shirts with our slogan printed on them, ‘Live like an olive tree, giving, forgiving and free’. Palestinians would honk their car horns at us and children would follow us in the streets and wave with genuine smiles, our presence was very welcomed. Each family we supported were of great hospitable nature, they would cook us lunch in the fields of Palestinian cuisine and bring us coffee brewed on the open fire to keep us going. One family even made us homemade cookies which were presented by their youngest children, there was a huge amount of hospitality and appreciation.
As we begun work in the village of Wad Fukin we heard a siren, not sure what this was perhaps a scare tactic we ignored it and continued to work. This village is completely surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements (colonies) and has been subjected to various acts of unrest including having raw sewage dumped on it. Settlers have also dug wells in the field to steal the water and sell it back to the Israelis. Trees are often cut, damaged and destroyed. I spoke with Ameen al Manasarl’s one of the landowners, it is his only source of income, he has the paperwork to prove he owns this land, however, the Israeli government is still trying to dispute this, he went to a lawyer but cannot afford the huge fee of 100,000 shekels that is required to continue his case. He told me, ‘life is very difficult here, if you are in the house they will just kick you out, they are not just taking our land but they are also taking our history and our heritage’.
In the Husan village I met Nadim Hamara who has already lost ten acres of land to the illegal occupation, he told me, ‘on Saturdays during Shabbat local settlers shout and throw stones at me and my family’. Nadim is a qualified nurse, he told me during the second intifada in 2000 he had worked in A&E in Beit Jala hospital and had witnessed the suffering of the overflowing numbers of injured people. He described how Israeli tanks had been stationed at the hospital entrance so the hospital staff could not leave for 40 days in fear of being shot and became dependent on charities and foreign aid for survival. I asked Nadim if he is allowed to travel outside of Palestine, humbly he revealed he had been to Ecuador as part of relief mission after the earthquake in 2016, with 14 other nurses and doctors for two weeks. Such a selfless man, and here we were now trying to support him keep his land.
On another day We heard the Khutba (Islamic speech after prayer) on the loudspeaker coming from a local mosque, the tone sounded a bit aggressive, ‘It must be about the occupation I thought’. I asked Muhaned what it was all about, ‘they are just talking about how to be a good Muslim, how to use the toilet etc. he said. I was surprised, ‘They aren’t talking about the occupation?’ I said. ‘No they cant’. This was a huge contrast to those I had been in London, every khutba was either about Palestine or remembering our brothers and sisters in Syria. I told Muhaned this, he was surprised. It surprises me sometimes as much as information doesn’t get out of Palestine, it doesn’t seem to get in either. The increase in hope if the Palestinians only knew of the strength of world solidarity.
The olive trees were especially fruitful in the village of Teqou due to water springs beneath the surface, I noted a loud buzzing sound and turned to see to my horror there was a big water pump in the field which was re-routing the water to local illegal Israeli settlements, the fence labeled ‘Corrosive Substances’. This action was highly visible and without any regard for the Palestinian way of life or remorse.
The day had come to an end, the last tree had been picked and we were all about to head back to the coach, but then I saw Dan on his hands and knees searching or something, he had lost his hearing aid. Everyone, even including the farmer’s children and family, frantically began to search the field for any signs of this silver earpiece, it was a little bigger but it still felt like we were looking for a needle in a haystack, it could have been anywhere. We searched for a good 15 minutes but had no luck, we had to leave. Despondently we boarded the coach and got back to the YMCA in the hope the farmers would find it later. As we arrived at the YMCA we began to unload the equipment. At the very end I heard loud cheering and I looked and I saw Dan being hugged, they had found his hearing aid it was on the very LAST tarp! It really was a miracle.
These are just some of the stories from families which were supported by olive harvesting efforts. This international support keeping the hope alive in Palestinians to remind them they have not been forgotten by the people, even if it feels like our governments have.