Palestinians die for their land and olive trees

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On October 17 a Palestinian farmer was shot dead by Israeli settlers near the village of Beit Fourik.

On October 26, a 75-year-old farmer was tortured to death by a group of settlers near the same location. In between, many farmers have been wounded by armed settler attacks.

The death of those Palestinians was by no means an accident, as many Palestinian deaths are justified. In both cases, the killing was deliberate, and like earlier killings, they will go unnoticed and unpunished.

And in both cases, both men were harvesting their olive trees, a remaining symbol of a confiscated land, stolen at gunpoint. The olive branch has come to be known as a symbol of peace. For Palestinians, the olive tree is also a symbol of peace, courage, defiance and life. For the Israeli army and Jewish settlers, the symbol of the olive is simply, death. When many Palestinians innocently believed that the Oslo peace accord is bringing them a just peace, they rushed to the streets waving olive branches, celebrating the long awaited justice and peace.

Seven years later, Palestinians realized that Oslo was nothing but a wicked experience that brought little peace, and much poverty and humiliation. And as they began to pass their martyrs one by one to crowded grave yards, they attached olive branches to the caskets and around the newly watered graves, a symbol of continuation and resistance.

Olive harvests have always been a festive occasion for most Palestinians, even for the refugees who own no land and no olive trees. Complete strangers help each other harvest the land. Young children help to clean the olives from small branches that fall as men and women stand on high ladders, collecting the olives with enthusiasm and a great sense of joy.

Beit Fourik however, like other Palestinian villages in the West Bank has long lost that festive spirit that used to come with the olive harvest. The once small Israeli Jewish settlement of Eitamar near Nablus has stripped the harvest joy, as armed gangs of settlers are dedicated to stealing Beit Fourik’s land, to burn and destroy it’s olive trees and to endlessly expand at the expense of helpless villagers.

Two years ago, 75-year-old Al Haj Mohammed Al-Zalmout was killed at dawn by a gang of settlers. The settlers may have feared that the sound of their bullets would gather nearby farmers, so they surrounded the man and savagely crushed his skull with rocks. His own son, Udi then failed to recognize his father’s face.

The old man’s donkey was still there, as were the harvested olives of the remaining four trees which sat on a nearby blanket. Nothing was done since then to protect Beit Fourik from barbaric individuals who thought that killing the old man would bring terror to other villagers, provoking them to abandon their land.

Despite the daily assaults, harassment, beatings of young and old farmers, destruction and seizure of the land by Eitamar settlers, supervised and aided by the Israeli army, Beit Fourik has never given up its claims to its land and to the remaining olive trees. As the Israeli army went on the rampage a few weeks ago, shooting, killing and shelling Palestinian towns and villages with missiles and apache helicopters, Jewish settlers also went on a rampage.

The recent violence and iron fist of the Israeli army was a golden opportunity for West Bank and Gaza settlers to abuse more Palestinians, including the villagers of Beit Fourik. It was time to steal more land, to destroy more trees, and to expand the borders of Eitamar.

On October 17, Farid Manasra, joined by three other family members, met at their land to resume their harvest. Despite the expected threats of Eitamar settlers, the young men insisted on harvesting their olives on time, after all, the land was theirs as it had been their family for many generations.

Little did the men know, Eitamar settlers were hiding nearby, waiting for the "zero hour". Minutes later, Farid was laying dead after being hit by a bullet, and all his relatives were wounded. There is little doubt that the young man’s casket was showered with olive branches, as his fellow villagers held his dead body high with pride, delivering him to the grave yard where Al Haj Mohammed al-Zalmout was buried two years ago. And like Al Haj al-Zalmout’s olives, Farid’s harvest must have been carried to the grieving family, a gesture of pride and a vow for resistance. With every drop of blood and every new martyr, Palestinians grow more attached to their land, to their olive trees and to their harvest. No wonder Palestinian painters equate the olive trees to ever-standing martyrs.

Perhaps once we understand the deepening intimacy between Palestinians and olive trees which for them is an icon of lasting resistance, we may be able to understand what a Palestinian poet meant when he said, "If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would have become tears…"

* Ramzy Baroud is a contributor for reporting from the US