Friday, October 31, 2008

Olive Picking with Ibdaa

Olives are a staple in Palestine. Every meal has home-made olives or tasty olive oil. People use olive oil soap in their homes. They carve olive wood into prayer beads, candle holders, and nativity scenes.

I've been told some of the olive trees in Palestine date back to Roman times. The trees aren't just part of the landscape - they are the landscape. They cover the hills outside Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the plains outside Gaza, adding texture and color.

October is olive harvest season in Palestine. There are international delegations, festivals, and other activities to mark the olive harvest each year. But Israel's illegal construction of settlements, walls, and creation of "security" zones is threatening the cultural and economic importance of olive trees by confiscating and uprooting groves of trees.

When I go back to the US after a trip to Gaza and describe the restrictions on movement, the destruction caused by bombings and tank shellings, and the lack of basic goods, people always ask me how families in Gaza are surviving. I tell them I don't know. Of course, not everyone survives. 252 patients have died in Gaza since June 2007 because they were not allowed to seek medical treatment abroad and the shortages of medicine and electricity in Gaza have devastated the medical system. 62 children have been killed this year as a direct result of the Israeli occupation. And the economic situation in Gaza is desperate with 80% living below the poverty line.

But I learned something last week when Dr. Mona called me from the olive groves outside Beit Hanoun. The real answer is that the people in Gaza support each other. Dr. Mona went with a group of local volunteers to help farmers pick their olive trees near the very militarized border between Israel and Gaza. They went there and donated their labor. But more than that they gave moral support to these farmers who were scared to walk to their lands because they could see Israeli tanks in the distance. Dr. Mona held out the phone so I could hear some of the volunteers and farmers singing traditional songs as they worked their way from one ancient tree to another.

This morning I had the chance to go to the village of Nahalin to help families harvest their olive groves with 25 children, staff, and volunteers from Ibdaa. Nahalin is about 20 minutes southwest of Dheisheh Refugee Camp. The village is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements and their bypass roads. Much of their agricultural land has been stolen.

The first place we went with the villagers was to a grove of olives next to the settlement of Betar. This settlement, like all settlements, is perched on the top of a hill like a military fortress with an army jeep patrolling the edges of the settlement.

We only stayed in Nahalin for three hours since some of the girls had to get back for their basketball game. We were completely exhausted from these few hours work since none of us are used to it. But it was also energizing for me to witness bonds being built between people from a refugee camp and a village. Israel has worked so hard at creating divisions between Palestinians. They've closed roads, constructed checkpoints, privileged Christians over Muslims, and tried many other colonial divide and conquer tactics.

It was just a few hours but today children and adults from Dheisheh Refugee Camp who were uprooted from their farmlands 60 years ago went to pick olives like their grandparents and great-grandparents used to and they broke some of the barriers and stereotypes separating them from other Palestinians.