The Olive and the Occupation
Neil and Marilyn Stevens

A Palestinian landowner (right) sits amongst his destroyed olive trees in Khoruba, West Bank. Photo: Christian Peacemaker Teams

Olive picking may sound like a pretty benign activity, but if you are a Palestinian farmer in the West Bank it's the only time in a year or more that you are allowed into your orchards by Israeli settlers and soldiers.

Palestinian farmers must apply for a permit each time they wish to enter their olive orchards if they are near one of the settlements. The olive harvest occurs each autumn but the trees must be pruned, the land tilled and fertilized throughout the year. To submit to the process of getting permission to access their own property, from the very people who illegally separate them from their land, is demeaning at best. Often, the permission is refused. When farmers try to enter their fields without permission, and even sometimes with, they are subjected to harassment and beatings by some settlers. The Israeli Army supports the settlers either directly or by conveniently ignoring what is going on.

In October, 2008, on behalf of our Task Force, we traveled from Syracuse to the West Bank to participate with other volunteers from England, Holland, Norway, Scotland, Sweden, and the U.S. in peaceful support for Palestinian farmers by helping them harvest their olives. The farmers were usually, though not always, allowed into their orchards with us. We believe that creating a major incident in the presence of an international group of people on a peaceful mission would be too embarrassing to the Israeli army and political leaders.

Even with us accompanying them, farmers had to negotiate with the army to access their own land. In most cases we were allowed into the orchard, although sometimes there was a long delay while "higher authorities" were contacted. In one case where we just approached and then entered the orchard, we were quickly "guided" by over 30 soldiers, trucks and jeeps.

We met different kinds of settlers. Some we encountered were very arrogant and provocative, but we were able to hold peaceful conversations with others. Many settlers there had little financial resources and were given large stipends by the government to move to the settlements. Others are "ideological settlers" who hold fundamentalist beliefs that they have a divine right to the land. One settler strutted around with his machine gun to make the point that he could go where he wanted to, and indeed he could. The army presence did nothing to restrict his movements or any other settler's. However, it was made explicitly clear that neither the farmers nor we could move about at will.

At times we were able to talk to the soldiers. Those we talked with seemed to have the same lack of information that our own general public has concerning Israel's occupation and growing annexation.

One orchard we found stood empty with no olives to pick. The trees were in sad shape because the farmer and his family were unable to prune or otherwise take care of them. Since it was readily accessible to the Israeli settlement, we were suspicious that what olives were available had already been picked.

Our presence there was always much appreciated by the Palestinians with who we came into contact. We had many long conversations with the Palestinian family we stayed with in Beit Sahour. Our experience taught us firsthand the daily struggles of these people who desire only peace and the opportunity to care for their families.

Neil and Marilyn are members of the NCNY United Methodist Conference Task Force on Peace with Justice in Palestine/Israel.