The olive tree is the symbol of peace, and of prosperity. It is plain and frugal, surviving in poor soil, lasting for thousands of years and yielding precious fruit and oil. The annual Olive Tree Planting in February is part of a programme called Keep Hope Alive. The intention is to support Palestinian farmers by protecting their land from being taken over by settlers.
The sites chosen for tree planting were strategic. The farmers are prepared, their legal ownership of the land established; the risk posed by neighbouring settlements or outposts assessed so that the most vulnerable land gains from planting; the hundreds of olive tree brought from the nursery and the group of internationals assembled to start the planting.
Bethlehem is now surrounded by settlements on all the hill tops and therefore all the Palestinian lands in the valley are at risk. In the four days that we were out planting, the Israeli military were in evidence –photographing us as we went about the intended planting of 200 trees per day.
The land of Palestine is rocky and uneven, requiring resilience and strength to distribute the saplings across the site and then dig them in. But our group of some 20 people including Stephen Sizer, augmented by other international volunteers worked with vigour. By lunch time the olive trees had been duly planted and we were ready for the lunch prepared by the farmer’s family.
We were warmly welcomed by families who saw us supporting them in this practical way and drawing international attention to what is happening. It is said that trees planted by “internationals” are less likely to be uprooted by settlers – more than 1.4 million olive trees have been uprooted by the Israelis across the occupied West Bank and Gaza since 1967, almost 800,000 uprooted since 2000 to make way for new settlements and settlement roads.
Another day the farmer’s home had been separated from his land by the wall which he could access only by going through checkpoints so endangering the land to confiscation. As we drove towards the field to be planted we passed huge signs in red warning Israelis not to enter due to the likely danger, indeed it is illegal for them to enter the Palestinian controlled territories.
The most striking observation is the complete separateness of Israelis and Palestinians. No longer do they meet or share territory – always segregated by walls, wire, checkpoints and the ever-pervasive military presence. The Palestinians are contained, locked in a separated Apartheid state, unable even to move from one Palestinian village to another. They are not allowed to expand their homes or build a new house, so there is fierce overcrowding but the settlement expansion goes on relentlessly – 15,000 settlement homes in 2018 alone. Each subsidised and built with its own access roads, schools and services.
The Israeli expansion programme seems relentless and impervious to international law. There is no current peace process, no political momentum, no way of mutual co-existence, no effective peaceful way to resist. Yet, the Palestinians survive, holding on to their homeland. To survive is to resist.
So we planted olive trees as a symbol of peace and solidarity, trusting that they might come to maturity and yield fruit. We planted to keep hope alive for a peaceful future.