Olive Trees, West Bank

Series 3 No.12 - Freed Speech

In this region, where virtually everything – animal, vegetable, mineral – is charged with political significance, the ubiquitous olive tree has a mute eloquence all its own


As for you, my captive
olive tree,
a splendid evening to you,
my tree of enduring captivity,
branches of the everlasting journey...

(From ‘The Evening Wine of Aged Sorrow’)*

At a recent event in East Jerusalem in his honour, the acclaimed Palestinian Israeli poet Taha Muhammad Ali was reading from a new bilingual volume of his work, and once again I was struck by his own likeness to the venerable olive tree – the profoundly lined face crowned with silvery glints in the lamplight, the age-old rooted resilience against the odds. Indeed since that evening the theme of the olive has, like the poetry, persisted in my thoughts.

In this region, where virtually everything – animal, vegetable, mineral – is charged with political significance, the ubiquitous olive tree has a mute eloquence all its own. On the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where the tall grey slabs of the Separation Wall suddenly block your way and wind off into the low hills, the rows of olive trees – which continue unseen on the other side – greet me soberly every Sunday morning, leaves trembling slightly. Together we wait for two young Palestinian boys, Yakub and Majid, to come through the checkpoint with their mothers for their regular dialysis treatment in a West Jerusalem hospital. Unsurprisingly, the NGO that brought us together began as The Olive Tree Movement before it became Humans Without Borders.**

Because olives are vital to the Palestinian economy, and the olive groves on the West Bank constitute a visible, vulnerable expression of land ownership, they have long been the target of sabotage by Jewish settlers. In response, anti-Occupation human rights groups and peace organizations in Israel have developed programmes of practical help for Palestinian olive farmers. Last time I went with other volunteers for a day’s olive-picking across the Green Line, I brought back these impressions.

On a chill Thursday morning, Abu Rami is at the wheel as we leave Jerusalem, pass the checkpoints and head north into the West Bank. A seasoned activist with Israel’s left-wing Peace Now movement, he’s fielding calls to his mobile from both sides of the Green Line, switching between Arabic and Hebrew as reflexively as he changes gears. Our minibus speeds through the hills on route 60 under a dawn slung with low clouds. ‘It’s not going to rain, is it?’ he asks. ‘Not according to the forecast,’ someone assures him. His passengers are eight volunteers on their way to join Palestinian farmers for the all-important olive harvest; this, like other agricultural activity, has been severely hampered by settler violence, army restrictions and/or the Separation Wall. Another few weeks and the olive-picking season will be over.

A coordinated network of such sorties into the West Bank has been in operation for several years now, taking a message of solidarity to Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Prominent among the various groups involved is Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), a widely respected organization which calls itself ‘the rabbinic voice of conscience in Israel’ and has received several awards. Today’s trip is part of its year-round activities. Arik – RHR executive director, rabbi Arik Ascherman – has already briefed us on essentials: avoid confrontation, stay calm, protect the Palestinian farmers, take photos that can be used as evidence. The day’s plan has been coordinated with the Israel Defence Forces. We are given information sheets with contact numbers for RHR, the Israel police, the IDF, and each other, in case we get separated.

My fellow travellers are all Israelis. Beside me are a computer programmer and a librarian, both semi-retired, both old hands at the business of demonstrations and confrontations. One breaks off from an account of an anti-Wall rally to point to a garage we've just passed (by now we are a few miles south of Nablus): ‘See that place? A few weeks ago an Israeli took his car there to have it fixed – because of the cheaper prices – and they killed him.’ The other shakes his head slowly, ‘Probably thought he was a settler.’

Newly greened by the first rains, the hills sweep by in an age-old rhythm of terraced olive groves and sinuous valleys. We’re not far from biblical Shiloh, where the daughters of the city danced in the vineyards and were seized by the Benjaminites. Curiosity has had me flipping through Judges to that last chapter. Its final sentence carried a shock of recognition: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did as he pleased.’ All who heard or read the speech by Israeli writer David Grossman at the memorial gathering for Yitzhak Rabin a few years ago will remember his stinging indictment then, which time has only confirmed: Ein melekh be'israel – ‘There is no king in Israel…. our leadership is hollow…’

Today we’re being assigned to three Palestinian villages on the West Bank that have asked RHR for help in the face of settler aggression. I and Maya, a woman in her mid-fifties, are dropped off at Karyut, population about 3,000, where we’re joined by two young female volunteers, from the US and Sweden. Outside the community centre, its metal gate daubed with a huge Palestinian flag, a member of the village council beams a welcome and we head off on foot down the hill and across the valley, rich red earth clinging to every tread as we sidestep mauve patches of autumn crocus. 

(A sudden flashback to a similar scene a few years ago, not far from here. We were a Saturday busload from Haifa, organized by Ta'ayush – the Arabic name means ‘living together’, ‘life in common’ – an Israeli association set up by Jewish and Palestinian activists during the early stages of the second Intifada. Most of the group had already been dropped off at the designated villages; the remainder, about fifteen of us, were waiting beside the bus to be ferried by the villagers to outlying olive groves in a scrambled assortment of cars and vans. Then an IDF patrol came by and there ensued a lengthy debate between the officer and our coordinator. Precious time was passing; our frustration mounted. At one point the two men moved a little way off, presumably for discretion’s sake. That was our cue to dive into the waiting vehicles. A surreal moment as we sped off down the dirt track – Palestinians and Israelis crammed together, chortling at the small shared victory.)

A few of the stone houses of Karyut balance on the skyline behind us as we finally reach the terraces where Salomon and Aziz, wiry and grey-stubbled, are already hard at work. ‘Buonas díaz!’ comes the unexpected greeting from Salomon, who brought back from his years in South America an exuberant fluency in Spanish. They’re picking on the lower terraces; the upper ones, abutting the new settlement of Shvut Rachel, are too risky to approach unaccompanied, as attacks by settlers are commonplace. This is the first year the council of Karyut has approached RHR for help. A couple of weeks ago the villagers had made an early start on their own and rocks were hurled at them. One man had to be hospitalized.

We climb to the topmost terrace, where only a patrol road and a fence separate us from the new houses on the crest, their hallmark red-tiled roofs visible for miles. Here the olive trees, untended for four years, have a wild, unkempt look. We set to, ‘milking’ the branches and letting the purplish olives patter onto the sacking cloth spread below. It’s not long before an army jeep approaches. Polite greetings are exchanged. Has there been any trouble? we are asked. No, all quiet. They stay on anyway, evidently assigned to keep an eye on things. Some time later, the settlers’ security patrol draws up near the jeep and a young man comes half-running towards us, waving his arms and shouting in Hebrew: ‘Thieves! Thieves! Clear off! This is disputed land!’ We point out that the IDF – the patrol is still there – has raised no objection to our picking, and resume work. The man eventually stalks off, muttering threats. We are all aware that had the two villagers been alone, the outcome would have been very different.

We’re making good progress, when two soldiers from the jeep walk over and quietly say they’ve received orders from their commander not to allow any work on these upper terraces – the ‘disputed land’ – next to the settlement, since such activity could serve as cover for a terror attack. But look, we reason, today we are four women and two old men – not a likely threat. All the same, they insist, just move down four terraces, out of sight of the settlement. How about two terraces, we counter – bargaining being a way of life in these parts – so as not to skip so many trees?

The picking activity begins to shift downhill, not without protest. At one point the Swedish student, a steely beauty straight out of Nordic mythology, goes over to the two soldiers. Out of earshot, their exchange has a potent visual eloquence: confronted by this indignant goddess, the two young conscripts appear to say less and less, as if they’ve briefly forgotten their lines, musing instead on the lost joys of normalcy.

In bursts of sun between the clouds, the waiting olives glow dark and plump as grapes. Most can be reached from the ground, but we climb up for the topmost. When we’re tempted to go after every last one before relinquishing a tree, Aziz and Salomon keep the pace brisk – Khalas! Enough! Move on! Whatever their inward pain and bitterness over The Situation, they keep a laconic good humour. It seems that over the years, disillusion has learned to comport itself graciously, even as it sharpens the wits. ‘A peasant… / the son of a peasant,’ writes Palestinian Israeli poet Taha Muhammad Ali, ‘there lies within me / a mother’s sincerity / and a fishmonger’s guile.’

Salomon's genial son Ahmed, an unemployed graphic designer, arrives with a tractor, a donkey and lunch: humous, pitta, falafel and 7-Up, which he dishes out with a flourish. Talk revolves around matters of food and family, with English the lingua franca, but only just. One senses, though, that even if we visitors were fluent in Arabic, deep-seated political views – beyond reports on this or that incident – would not be discussed with us. In any case, no fluency could adequately convey one’s sense of outrage and injustice at what is happening here, so it’s something of a relief to let actions speak instead. 

Eventually the three men call a halt for the day. The sacks of olives are hoisted onto the ledge behind the tractor, Salomon sets off astride the donkey, Aziz starts the engine, and we four women perch on the wheel rims. Back in Karyut, passing villagers hail us in Arabic-inflected English and – surprisingly – Hebrew. Ahmed invites us into his spacious new house. Sitting on cushions we sip cinnamon tea served by his wife, and admire his cherubic daughter.

Dusk has already dimmed the contours of the West Bank as Arik’s car heads back to Jerusalem. Long before we reach the army barrier where the road cuts through the looming Wall, updates on the day’s activities start coming in on the car phone. ‘We're still on the hill,’ one woman is saying. ‘Their donkey's lame so it’s a slow business getting the olives to the road…. There’s trouble…. I’m trying not to get arrested….’ The accounts are unrelievedly grim: pickers turned back, closure orders, stones and threats from settlers. We learn that the Karyut council member who had taken us out to the groves had been warned, after escorting other volunteers to a different site, that if the settlers saw him there again they would kill him. Guard dogs have been tied to olive trees as a deterrent, a grove has been set ablaze…. Appalled silence now as Arik drives on. ‘Things seem to be getting worse,’ someone comments. ‘Yes,’ comes the matter-of-fact response. Settlers have stepped up their violence in reaction to the government decision to dismantle ‘illegal outposts’. On the other hand, he points out, there is a High Court ruling in place – following a petition submitted by RHR in 2004 – that the army is responsible for protecting Palestinian farmers and their property during the olive harvest. (Arrested on more than one occasion for trying to block house demolitions in East Jerusalem, Arik has a first-hand acquaintance with the legal process.) He keeps a copy of the ruling in his pocket for those instances when army personnel need reminding. The car phone rings again: for next week’s ploughing in the south Hebron hills, says the caller, will rav Arik please send volunteers … just to be there in case of trouble….


whose Wall is it anyway?
mine says the quail
pinned to its shadow

mine says the boy slotted
by halves through a gap
to sell trinkets

yours says the grey
stilted thing stalking
what small hope

*Taha Muhammad Ali, So What: New and Selected Poems 1971-2005, trans. Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, Gabriel Levin (Copper Canyon Press, 2006). The same evening, Adina Hoffman presented her new biography of Taha Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century (Yale University Press, 2009).

**Humans Without Borders is an Israeli non-profit organization whose activities include arranging for volunteers to take chronically ill West Bank Palestinians, often children, from the checkpoints to their hospital appointments in Israel.

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