October 18th was our 'free day.' (Read about it on the group blog and see photos, too!). We hopped in a bus and went to Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, followed by a swim in the Dead Sea. Being so buoyant was a very bizarre sensation, but so much fun. I floated on my stomach and lifted my arms and legs out of the water like Superman. We covered ourselves in mud, and after a brief stint as scary-looking sea monsters, rinsed off and continued to just play.
If you've been keeping up with my blog, you know that our group came for the Keep Hope Alive Olive Tree Campaign. This project is through the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine. Twice a year, internationals come from all over the world to be in solidarity with Palestinians through this program, and to help with the olive harvest (or planting, if one comes for the February trip). After returning to Beit Sahour from our 'free day' floating adventure, we had the opportunity to hear Baha and Kristel, two organizers of the Olive Tree Campaign, speak about its purpose and history.
First, some quick statistics related to olive trees in Palestine:
-they account for 40% of the Palestinian economy
-at least 700,000 have been destroyed by the Israeli military and Israeli settlers since 2001
-Currently, there are around 600,000 Israeli citizens ('settlers') living in illegal settlements inside the West Bank
The olive tree is a well-known symbol of peace, and is significant for all 3 Abrahamic faiths. But the Joint Advocacy Initiative didn't decide to rally the international community around the olive tree for this simple reason. The olive tree, rather, is a great entry point to the conflict in Israel/Palestine because in addition to representing peace, it has social/political/economic implications, too. You can't talk to someone about olive trees in Israel/Palestine without talking about farm land owned by Palestinian families, and the deep sense of identity and connection they have with the land. You can't talk about olives without mentioning the 700,000 olive trees that have been destroyed by the Israeli military and Israeli settlers; the thousands of acres of land that used to be covered by olive trees and is now the site of settlements, Israeli-only bypass roads, and 'buffer zones' for each. You can't talk about olive trees without telling the story of Palestinian farmers who still 'own' their land…but who are prevented from reaching it because of walls and checkpoints.
You can't talk about olive trees without mentioning a particular Israeli law--the one that is modeled after a law during the Ottoman empire which states that land that is uncultivated for a period of 3-5 years can be seized by the state.
So the incidents of violence against olive trees by Israeli military and Israeli Settlers aren't just random hate- and fear-fueled outbursts. Blocking Palestinian farmers from reaching their land isn't just an unfortunate consequence of 'needed' security measures. It's not just a way to make their lives economically impossible. Rather, destroying olive trees is a means of LAND GRABBING. If the Palestinians can be prevented from cultivating their land, their land is legally up for grabs. It's part of the process that started in 1948 of taking Palestine off the map, piece by piece.
This is why the work of the Joint Advocacy Initiative's Olive Tree Campaign is so important. Not only does it help spread awareness about the realities that Palestinians face; not only does it promote peacemaking, dialogue, and international cooperation; not only does it show Palestinians that there are people all over the world who are in solidarity with them--it literally safeguards the land of Palestinian farmers. It buys them a little more time to hold onto their land. Israel can prevent or make it near-impossible for Palestinians to access their land…but its much more difficult for them to prevent Internationals from doing so (this has happened in years past, but did not happen this year). Where a Palestinian I.D. will prevent a Palestinian from going, we Internationals with our passports of many origins can go. We can join hands and harvest olives and plant trees and help these farmers keep their land and their livelihoods…for a little while longer, at least.
Sadly the violence against and destruction of olive trees by Israeli military and Israeli settlers continues even today, and these incidents are regularly documented. Just two weeks ago, 120 trees that were planted by last February's Keep Hope Alive group for a particular Palestinian family were destroyed by Israeli Settlers. As Baha told us this story during the presentation, the sadness on his face was evident…but so was his resolve (a resolve shared by all of those working with and for the Olive Tree Campaign). "They destroyed some of our trees," he said. "But we will plant new ones in the same place. And if they destroy them again, we will plant new ones again. This is how we fight back."
His words reminded me of a phrase I have seen many times during our stay in Palestine: "to exist is to resist."