You can’t say you have been to Palestine if you have not picked at least one olive during your stay. Picking olives in Palestine has a totally different meaning from that it can have in most olive growing countries in the world. Rarely indeed will your harvest be disturbed by nasty land occupiers who spit at you and mistreat you, and in some cases even beat you, with the protection of the police. It will also be very unlikely that you wake up in the morning to see that your beloved olive trees, those trees you have grown and taken care of for years, have been burnt to the ground. That the portion of land where your trees stand will be taken away from you and your olive trees uprooted because they are now on a military declared zone is an equally unlikely scenario. So you don’t think this could happen and you don’t pay too much attention when alternative means of information or friends or whoever, tell you that for Palestinian people picking olives every October is a nightmare, a period of violence, threats and of being reminded (as if it were necessary) that no one stops the Zionist plan of taking up the whole of Palestine. And olive trees, as all other aspects of Palestinian lives – from school to moving around, from housing to getting married, from health issues to future plans – suffer from the consequences of this plan.
During my stay in Palestine, I picked olives on a couple of occasions, but the most instructive was when I helped picking them in the garden of the house where I was living. My neighbors came one day and we did it together – they taught us how to go about it, and showed how to gently hit the olives with a stone before putting them in a bucket and filling it with water. This is one of the most vivid memories I have of Jerusalem – and I could not realize it at that time, since I had just arrived, but I know it now. It was an intense moment because of the love that the whole process involved; because that afternoon I was starting taking in the notion that the olive tree is the symbol of Palestine, of the love of a dispossessed people for their land, and of a time that will never be again.
That was a time when Palestinian could enjoy their land, and its produce, and the season of picking olives was just another festive occasion that united families and neighbors. Today many of them cannot reach their trees (if they have not been burnt or uprooted) because of the separation wall that cuts them out. Israel uses many means to steal the land, one of this is preventing the owners to reach their olive trees, and then confiscate the land because it is not “tended”. Those who can still get to their trees must pick their olives amidst a climate of fear and threat. There are almost 400,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and the way they are spread on the land makes it impossible for Palestinians to tend to their land in serene conditions. Settlers are nasty and attack them at any possible occasions, poison their wells, spit on them, plus the already mentioned burning or uprooting olive trees. When the time of picking olives comes, settlers get even more active and take the opportunity to find whole Palestinian families gathered and to reaffirm that they are the masters of the land. At this time of the year, activists come from all over the world to help Palestinian, but though these acts of solidarity and good-will are certainly appreciated, they do not change the situation.
I invite you to read two articles, one from a Palestinian professor, Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, which was written five years ago but is still very up to the point (and lovely) and one by Samira Haas, an Israeli journalist who lives in Ramallah. If you type “Olive picking Palestine” in YouTube, you’ll find a number of interesting testimonials. I also thoroughly enjoyed the movie Lemon Tree, about land dispossession.