At this time of year, Palestinians of all ages come together to help to collect the olive harvest, and we were fortunate enough to have been invited by our friends here at Birzeit to help collect olives on their grandfather’s land.
Olives represent 25% of the agricultural resources here in the West Bank, and many families make their living on the harvest of olives for food and export productions such as oil, soap and other products. Yet their deeply rooted significance in the conflict has become a touchstone of the beauty of Palestine – and the ugliness of occupation.
Dating back to Ancient Greece, the olive branch has come to represent a symbol of peace and of the fertility of Palestinian land. However, 1.2 million olive trees have been destroyed, uprooted, torched or stolen since the occupation, and with relentless speed the Israelis have annexed land through the apartheid wall, which means that many Palestinians have been prohibited to harvest their own olives due to permit restrictions and land confiscation.
As a result, the friends who we travelled to Qalqilia with had not been able to access the land we were to work on for over ten years. The Israeli government only permitted their grandfather and grandmother to access their land, which had once been rightfully theirs, and with each passing year had found it increasingly difficult to harvest the olives alone.
However, as the checkpoint had been unmanned for a week, the family decided to cross this year to help with the harvest. As our taxi drew up to the checkpoint, there was a frantic exchange in Arabic as the taxi driver expressed that he did not want to take us through. After some convincing, we did drive through the checkpoint, but after a short while he refused to drive any further fearing the wrath of the Israeli army were he caught on this side.
We walked the rest of the way to the fields, and en route were flanked on one side by the looming Israeli settlement that had been illegally constructed on their grandfather’s land. In the West Bank, much of the architecture and materials used to build Palestinian homes merges with the landscape and serves as merely a speckle to the natural beauty of the valleys here. The settlements, however, looked like they had been cut out of the worst of garish Florida real estate, and pasted defiantly on the slope above the farm lands. The rows and rows of white-washed, chrome-glistening apartments with shirtless men lounging on the balconies looked like a Truman Show microbubble, completely jarring with the landscape surrounding it.
Nevertheless, when we got to the fields we got stuck in with the rest of the family, helping to pick the olives from the trees, which were collected on large tarpaulin sheets underneath us. I’m not sure that sampling the bars of Ramallah the night before is a particularly good preparation for olive harvesting, so we quickly found a shady spot and sat on the floor picking olives from the cut branches. By doing so, we were apparently reinforcing the stereotype of women during the harvest, but I was far too hot and hungover to be a feminist at that precise moment in time.
We spent a wonderful day with the family, as they chattered in Arabic and we politely tried to make ourselves look as useful as possible. The radio played all day, and we were told of how they used to listen during the Second Intifada to the devastating reports of violence and destruction that swirled around them the last time they had been able to take part in the harvest.
Nonetheless, none of this was evident as we stretched out in the shade to be treated to what they offered as a picnic, but was more like a Palestinian feast, which our British scotch eggs and cocktail sausages could never even possibly rival. Whenever being entertained by Palestinian families, I always have no trouble consuming the same amount as I usually would in a week – not only because it is so delicious, but also because of the generosity and pleasure they always seem to take in hosting us. I still can’t quite believe the amazing Palestinian hospitality shown to me since I’ve been here, the people I’ve met have genuinely been some of the warmest and most generous of anywhere I’ve travelled.
After lunch, we finally succumbed to the heat of the olive groves, and decided to walk up the hill overlooking their grandfather’s lands, where we found a shady tree to snooze under as the gradually fading daylight played amongst the leaves above us. Our friend who had not been there for more than a decade walked across the hill and told us of the caves in which they would hide as children during incredibly drawn-out games of hide and seek, and showed us the trees they used to swing from before they were banned from this area.
If spoken with melancholy, these recounts may have been heart-breaking, but the beautiful and happy day we had spent there showed to me the resilience of the Palestinians against all the adversity and suffering they had encountered in the last 60 years. The olives we were collecting were not for sale, but instead to produce the olive oil which would be used by the family throughout the year, and testifies to the fact that the Palestinian lands are not a commodity to be pushed and pulled apart by the Israeli government and international treatises. There is a connection between the Palestinians and the land here that seems to come from having to struggle for the very earth itself, the roots that bind the olives trees and the Palestinian people to their beautiful country.
As we stood on the top of the hill, we looked out at the landscape punctuated by the ugly Israeli watch-towers, manned by cameras and armed guards, and our friend took me by surprise when after a brief silence he asked, “What will we do with these watch-towers when Palestine is free?” As we entertained wrapping it in fairy lights and making a Palestinian Eiffel Tower, what really resonated with me is the seemingly endless supply of defiant hope amongst the Palestinians I have met here, whose relationship with their land seems to be as much a part of their soul as the very ground that they walk on. Freedom may appear far off for Palestine, and there are times at which I feel utterly disheartened, but the attitude of people here has quickly put me in my place and showed me to find great pleasure in a beautiful country I still feel so lucky to be living in.