I recently spent two weeks in the West Bank, aka Palestine, helping with the annual olive harvest. It was enlightening, fun – but also depressing. Six years ago I did the same thing when there were more checkpoints, but fewer attacks on Palestinian farmers by Israeli settlers. Now, according to UN figures, attacks have quadrupled, peaking earlier this year to unprecedented levels of vandalism and theft.
All is not bleak however, as somehow the Palestinian spirit endures. Despite nearly 60% unemployment among young men, many of whom are university-educated, they manage to hold their heads high, laugh – and chain-smoke, a sign of the underlying tension that never goes. A few days ago, Israeli authorities announced that Palestinians were banned from using Israeli buses in the West Bank (Palestinian land until the 1967 invasion). Yet another nail in the coffin, further dehumanisation that makes daily life nigh impossible.
The list of iniquities is long – but I’ll describe one detail. Going through the Qailandiya checkpoint between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem (part of the concrete wall that separates Israeli-controlled territory from Palestine), I followed a young Palestinian woman. She carried a bulky handbag on her shoulder, had one toddler in her arms, and held the hand of an older one. Could she get through? No. They have made the turnstiles as tight as possible – just enough for cattle maybe? Read my blog of a few years ago, to get a true idea of the separation wall – a Kafkaesque horror.
But back to the olive harvest… Sometimes it felt like sweetness and light, as above all it’s a sociable occupation and, traditionally, a good excuse for family celebration. Kids played around us or lent a hand with the harvest, and members of the extended family came to help. The limestone hillsides glowed in the autumnal sunshine, while many of the trees dripped with huge clusters of fat and healthy olives – gratifying if you’re picking. The farmers and their wives that we accompanied (as protective presence) were mostly charismatic people who also knew how to lay on a gourmet spread. Lunch in the groves was therefore sheer mezze delight, much needed, as we would collapse later after a 10 – 11 hour day.
Distant views of Burin, the little village south of Nablus where I was staying with six other volunteers, made it look quite idyllic, with cypress trees spiking the huddle of Ottoman stone houses and curtains of crimson bougainvillea. Closer to, you saw daubed graffiti that included portraits of Arafat and a poignant image of doves of peace. If only. Burin had little to offer – a handful of shops, two mosques, a basic café – but incredibly open-minded inhabitants. Public transport consisted of share-taxis, or services (with French pronounciation), so you couldn’t be in a hurry. Here’s the main ‘square’ below – not exactly hopping.
But when you raised your eyes to the hilltops on either side of Burin, it was another story. Rows of concrete buildings and houses, some with red-tiled roofs, were the extremist illegal settlements of Yitzhar and Bracha, the former the location of an orthodox seminary, so particularly belligerent. At night their lights blazed, as did those lining the access roads snaking up the hillside, while Burin had to make do with minimal street-lighting. If we went out at night, torches came in handy.
These settlements are the main source of attacks on the olive groves. Stones, axes and fire are their favoured weapons, but also guns, and they are able to act with impunity, as the IDF (Israeli Defence Force – the army) simply turns a blind eye. In the last year, Burin villagers have lost 1600 olive trees and 500 almond trees. Since the murders of three Israeli schoolboys which triggered the Gaza invasion last July, the IDF has gone into overdrive, imposing even more curfews, making arbitrary arrests and night raids and setting up flying checkpoints. I witnessed this in Burin, where on four occasions access to the village was blocked off. In one case, in the morning, it meant teachers from other towns could not reach the village school, so the kids had to go home.
Above is an olive grove just below Bracha (visible on the brow of the hill), whose Palestinian owners were unable to till the ground or prune the trees due to Israeli access permits. This is the forlorn result – with barely any olives.
When we were invited to tea with one generous-hearted woman, Dilal, she told us how one night last winter the IDF had burst into her home and made her sit with her Downs Syndrome foster daughter for three hours while they ransacked the house. Her son seemed severely depressed, unemployed like most of the young men, and with little hope for the future. The luckier ones get away to employment in the Gulf or Jordan, while some work in Israel itself, usually paperless and so exploited.
At every turn there is injustice, and for the 100,000 farmers dependent on olives for their living, the future is hardly rosy. As the years slip by and Israel’s illegal settlements expand (Netanyaju has just announced even more), settler populations increase and now approach 600,000. According to one Palestinian, a decade ago settlers wouldn’t dare come into the village – now they do, and aggressively.
Yet there’s still something wonderfully timeless about the olive groves. The trees are rooted in Palestinian heritage going back 3,000 years. Picking in a sociable group, you can cut off from the grim daily reality, enjoy (literally) the fruits of your labour, the luscious green olive oil that is often just days old and swamps nearly every dish, and above all try to adopt the remarkably resilient Palestinian spirit. It’s an impressive one.