The Rape of the Olive Tree

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The Palestine Minister of Agriculture stated recently that 100,000 fruit and forest trees have been razed by Israeli Army bulldozers since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accord in 1993, of which 18,000 were ripped up since the outbreak of the Intifada last September. Olive trees represent one of the tree crops which are being systematically destroyed; thousands have been uprooted. This is a human and environmental tragedy of colossal proportions which will require generations to repair.

Israelis maintain that their aim is to remove the cover from which Palestinians throw stones onto the roads which have been built to service the illegal Israeli settlements. However, all observers believe that this is a lame justification which belies the facts, as the vast majority of the uprooted trees were far away from the settler roads. Far more believable is that this is part of the collective punishment being inflicted on the civil population, along with the tight external siege, the slicing up of the Palestinian areas and restriction of movement between them, the pummelling of the Palestinian economy, the massive shelling of civilian areas, and the restriction of the movement of fuel, foodstuffs and medicines into Palestine: all brutal tactics of a powerful occupying power designed to bring the Palestinian populace to its knees. As one Israeli soldier said, “we starve the beasts” referring to the Palestinian inhabitants of Bethlehem..

My heart aches when I think of the Israeli rape of the olive tree. To Palestinians, the olive tree is of special spiritual and emotional significance. It is a symbol of peace, goodwill, domestic plenty, family roots and identity. It is the symbol of Palestine, the symbol of home. Even before a Palestinian lays the first cornerstone of a new home, he plants an olive seedling in the garden as a prayerful harbinger of blessings upon the home and its dwellers.

The olive tree is also venerated for its hardiness and its age. Although olive trees bear fruit at 5 years of age, they are not in full production until 15 or 20 years and continue to live and bear fruit for hundreds of years. A couple of the trees in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem are said to date back to the time of Jesus Christ. Old venerable olive trees become like members of the family, spanning generations and representing family continuity and tradition. As one Palestinian olive farmer put it,”olive trees have roots in the ground like the Palestinian people”. Another old farmer called out to the heedless robot of an Israeli Army driver bulldozing his beloved olive trees, “these trees you are demolishing were planted by my grandfather”. Yet another cried, “these are my sons you are destroying”. Is it a sick psychological compulsion on the part of the Israelis to destroy these symbols of identity and connection to the land in order to wipe out 2000 years of Palestinian history as they wiped out all signs of Palestinian habitation in the more than 400 Palestinian villages they razed to the ground after the establishment of the state of Israel?

The olive tree is not only an emblem of peace but also of national wealth and family sufficiency . In the wedding service of the indigenous Christian Arab Orthodox church, which dates back to the 4th century, one of the benedictions invoked by the priest upon the newly-wed couple is: “May your home always be filled with (olive ) oil and wheat”. Olive oil and wheat are the staples of the Palestinian agricultural community.

Olive trees are one of the major tree crops in Palestine. Olives and the oil pressed from the ripe olives account for a quarter of the Palestinian agricultural output. Hundreds of villages live almost entirely on this income. For a family it means being able to send a child to school, paying a doctor’s fee, carrying out home repairs, buying new shoes, settling a dowry on a marriageable daughter, and if worse comes to worst surviving on wheat bread dipped in olive oil. Thousands of Palestinian villagers have had their livelihood ruined by this savage devastation of their lands and crops. But this is not all. The fall is the time of year for the olive harvest, when the olives must be picked or else rot on the trees; but last fall the farmers were prevented from reaching their olive groves to pick the olives by the Israeli imposed siege and Israeli army restriction on their movement. Farmers who were able to reach their lands were harassed , intimidated, and beaten by Israeli settlers; a few were killed, one of them brutally tortured before dying.

My heart aches when I think of the suffering of the Palestinian people, of the savage brutality being inflicted on them by a power-mad occupier. I ask myself where are those Israelis and Jews who we are always told are compassionate, peace-loving, humane, who always rally to the helpless? Where are those Jews who are said to be liberals, who have suffered and should know the meaning of suffering? Why don’t they raise their voices against what is being done in their name to the Palestinian people?

My heart aches for the beautiful old olive tree in my grandfather’s garden in Jerusalem. I wonder if it still stands back of the house, and if the Jewish family living in my grandfather’s home love and care for it as much as my grandparents did. We are told that even the warlike barbarians of ancient Rome respected the olive tree as a symbol of peace and goodwill. To the present day barbarians of Israel the olive tree é or rather its destruction é represents one more way of oppressing the Palestinian people, of “starving” them, of punishing them for daring to fight for their freedom from occupation.

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