Farming Under Occupation in Palestine

The olive tree is ubiquitous, it is holy, and it is life

By Robert Massoud | 2007-04-01 12:00:00

I traveled to Palestine in November as part of my involvement with Zatoun, fair trade olive oil from Palestine. In the seemingly endless and irresolvable morass of Israel and Palestine, Zatoun was launched in spring 2004 with a goal to build a direct bridge between Palestine and North America using olive oil to serve as a symbol of light, hope, and peace, and also a life-giving substance which binds us together in the human experience of eating and sharing. More practically, the goal was to provide the farmers with cash. Long-term, the aim is to build a taste for Palestinian oil as a basis for an export market.

I went to witness the olive harvest and to learn from the farmers. The visit was as much for the farmers as for Zatoun. It was important for the Palestinians to find out where their oil was going, who was buying it, what customers thought of it, and ultimately why North Americans want to engage positively with Palestine. I went bearing a message and returned with another for us in Canada.

Farming in Palestine is indeed unique. It is definitely not what comes to mind to Canadians when we hear "farming." What we have in Palestine is another reality altogether -- a different distribution pattern of land, of people, of means and tools. The relationship between owner and land, between land and village, between land and life is of a time long gone in Canada.

In the West Bank area of Palestine, hills are everywhere, perhaps not very high but broad and wide at the base, making circumvention and transportation long and difficult. But the most striking feature is a landscape dominated by the presence and cultivation of one species of tree: the olive. If nothing else the olive tree is three things: It is ubiquitous, it is holy, and it is life.

That the olive tree is ubiquitous is an observable fact. Hardly a few square meters anywhere lack an olive tree, whether on hillside, valley, plateau, or front yard. The ubiquitousness makes it the symbol of the physical land and explains the Palestinians' attachment to the tree as an expression of rootedness to the land. It unites a people with its land and creates the shared experience.

With all the trees, one might think it does not matter if thousands or even a million trees are lost to Israel's policy of land confiscation and destruction when many more trees remain. Unfortunately, it is not a matter of simple math. The destroyed trees belonged to a certain piece of land, provided a family with their livelihood, and most importantly tied them to a way of life, to a place and to their history. Now, in one catastrophic blow, meaning and identity are lost to the families and cannot be replaced. Little wonder that Palestinians rejoice in the living tree and grieve deeply when it is destroyed.

For Canadians, the tree's most intriguing characteristic is that it is "holy" -- I have to say holy. I don't think an equivalent exists in Canada to describe the relationship of people to a tree. We may love our maple tree or apple tree yet we would not consider them holy.

The olive tree is revered. You can see it in people's faces, in their words, and in their actions. Old or young, rich or poor, landed or not, city or rural, educated or not, they all share in their love and reverence for the olive tree. I stayed with a family in a small hilltop village which had been confiscated to build to a fence portion of the dreaded Wall. The family patriarch kept repeating with obvious pride, "I tell every one of my boys , plant olive trees every year to the number in your family. That number is manageable to tend and water in the early years. That is what I have done and now I have 400 trees." Later in the trip I visited a kindergarten and felt the deep love among the four- and five-year-olds. They sang to the imaginary tree in their midst and circled around enacting the cycle from planting, to tending, and to harvesting the olives by picking or combing the branches for fruit.

One night, I attended an olive harvest festival with other fair trade oil importers from UK, Switzerland, France and Germany. We were the guests of honor before 200 farmers belonging to the Palestine Fair Trade Association and their families. We were treated to a traditional meal made with olive oil pressed that day. Freshly pressed oil has a sharp peppery bite which takes a couple of weeks to mellow. People danced energetically and sang for many hours to the music and songs which were exclusively about the olive tree and the harvest. They were enthralled in a ritual that they looked forward to each year.

The festival was an opportunity to show the farmers that they had real customers from afar who bought their oil. I carried the message that people in North America care for the lives of Palestinians, that they want to see a just peace in Palestine, and that they love the taste of their olive oil. Judging from the applause, they felt acknowledged for something positive, something good. For Palestinians who often feel forsaken by western governments and the media it was glorious to feel support from ordinary people in those countries.

The only real crop

The olive in Palestine is also life. Now more than ever it sustains people -- it and the wild thyme and sage that can be picked from hills and mountains. In an economy brought to its knees by destruction of infrastructure, strangled by checkpoints, and a starved public service sector which has not been paid in almost one year, the olive carries the bulk of the diet -- morning, noon and evening. Bread is the other staple.

The olive is about the only real crop harvested to any great degree in the West Bank. Nowadays, many of the market vegetables are sourced in Israel. The land of Palestine is fertile and can easily support its population and provide for export markets. Often while traveling one comes upon huge plains of rich black or red soil similar to what we find in parts of Canada. But water has become the limiting factor. Springs dried up long ago and the current wells have been superseded by Israeli wells that are dug deeper into the earth and lower the water level before it can reach the shallower Palestinian wells. The equipment needed for digging deep wells is prohibited in Palestine without a special permit from Israeli authorities.

Apart from the obvious assault on human rights and resulting deaths, the greatest damage and long-term effect of the occupation has been to derail economic life from farm to factory and from village to city. In Palestine, one experiences the dual bind of the Israeli occupation. They strangle internal demand and starve local industry while building dependence on imports from Israel or from other countries whose goods must pass through Israeli hands. The people of Palestine are a ready and captive market for Israeli goods and services. They are helpless to oppose it as there are no options, no strategies available in a destroyed industrial base within a prison-like environment.

How to break this vicious cycle that weakens Palestine as a viable entity and lessens prospects for peace? The perverse logic of Israel and its allies in western governments is to impose a form of peace by starving and destroying a people. People with more compassion and less ideology know that true peace is impossible when people are starving and have no hope for a better future.

Canadians desiring peace in Palestine and a just solution to the plight of its people do well to urge our government to encourage Israel to move in that direction. However that does not help Palestinians today. The most immediate and effective way is to exercise our free power as consumers. Generally, people think of using their purchasing power to boycott, as in boycotting goods from Israel, but one can also seek to purchase goods from Palestine.

Palestinians tell us they do not want charity; they want to be free to earn a living in an economy not burdened by military occupation. Western government aid policy is often geared to supply side measures -- capacity-building and improved infrastructure -- but these cannot work when there is no cash for internal demand and no external markets. It puts the cart before the horse. However, we as individuals can help to right the situation when we purchase products grown or made by Palestinians. The lower the technology level and the higher the labor component, the better, as more people and families benefit directly. An export market supplements local demand and helps to break the cycle of poverty and dependence.

For your household needs, for your gift-giving, seek out and buy olive oil, soap, handmade embroidery, wooden artifacts, any item coming from Palestine. All the better, if they are fairly traded goods. Unfortunately, products from Palestine are hard to find and generally only available through the activist network or via the Internet but it is only through our purchases that we help them become available through more mainstream retailing. It seems an enormous goal, an impossible task but when it comes to Palestine, nothing is easy. Justice and peace ought to be easier.

Robert Massoud founded Zatoun as a registered non-profit to help bridge Palestine and North America using fair trade, culturally-significant products. Sold through the activist network or via the Internet, sales proceeds are donated to youth education and planting olive trees in Palestine. Learn more at <>.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2007

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2007, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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