North Africa, West Asia

Palestine: Olive trees don’t catch coronavirus

While the world struggles to face the coronavirus pandemic, the Israeli army scrambles to uproot olive trees.

Nancy Hawker
18 March 2020, 12.01am
Bare land where olive trees were uprooted by the Israeli army in Wad Foukin on 9 March 2020, with the settlement Beitar Illit in the background
Picture by Joint Advocacy Initiative. All rights reserved.

The Israeli armed forces were busy on 9 March 2020. The army implemented a closure of the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the Israeli Purim festivities, and locked down travel between Bethlehem and its surrounding areas so as to contain the coronavirus outbreak. That would seem like a full work schedule. But the military still found the time to uproot 400 olive trees in a Palestinian village.

The olive trees had only been in the soil a few weeks when the army decided they would come out again. They had been planted by international volunteers on 14 and 26 February. It is hard work, planting a tree. It requires expertise, money and space. Volunteers fundraised in their home communities to pay for their visit to Palestine and to sponsor tree planting organised by the YMCA’s Joint Advocacy Initiative. Each planting day costs the organisation around 6000 shekels (GBP 1350), covering the transport of volunteers, the purchase of saplings and gardening tools, and the administrative costs of coordinating the volunteers’ activities and processing olive growers’ applications for support. And there’s the carrying of trees and tools, the digging of holes, and the securing of saplings. On 14 February 2020, twenty-six North American and British volunteers and a handful of Palestinians went to do this back-breaking work in the lands of Wad Foukin.

Wad Foukin is a village of some 1500 inhabitants, west of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. The slopes primed for planting were located right on the edge of the West Bank, by the 1949 armistice line known as the Green Line. It was selected after an evaluation of applications to the YMCA’s Joint Advocacy Initiative because Wad Foukin is hemmed in by constantly expanding Israeli construction. The villagers are engaged in a court case to reclaim expropriated land. International volunteers support the villagers’ right to access their lands by planting trees.

Resting on a shovel, Bob, a retired parish priest from London, said: “It just seems like the right thing to do. Who could object to a tree?” Jeff, a pastor from Florida, said: “Our motto is to keep hope alive. We want to help the Palestinians claim their land where it is at risk of Israeli takeover.” Olive grower Muhammad al-Hroub, known as Abu Mustafa, demonstrated how to gently slip on the sleeve that protects the young branches from hungry mountain gazelles. Then he insisted that everyone take a break for tea or coffee.

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Abu Mustafa’s grandson Adam toddled along, dragging a well-loved and long-suffering sapling, to the encouragement of his uncles. Adam then asked to be picked up and carried, sapling and all, the better to help with moving the trees from the truck through the rocky terrain. One of the volunteers playfully threw her gardening glove at the head of another volunteer, accusing him of taking the best mattock. Satisfied with their efforts, they wrote Valentine Day messages on the white plastic sleeves. Then they went to Abu Mustafa’s home for lunch. “Lunch with the Palestinian hosts is perhaps the most meaningful event of the day,” said Jeff. The back-breaking work has its rewards.

Wad Foukin 14 Feb 2020.jpg
YMCA-sponsored olive tree saplings planted by volunteers in Wad Foukin on 14 February with Tzur Hadassah in the background
Picture by Nancy Hawker. All rights reserved.

The Israeli town of Tzur Hadassah (pop. 9000) creeped over the hill just above the fragile saplings and the cheerful gardeners. Across the valley, the settlement of Beitar Illit (pop. 55000), illegal under international law, lumbered like an overinflated spiky pufferfish. Abu Mustafa looked pleased. “How many of these trees will survive? All of them, god willing. In a year or two you’ll come to visit and find a beautiful olive grove.”

Where there are olive trees, it makes the land look Arab

The Israeli army had other plans. On 9 March 2020 around 9am, eight or nine uniformed soldiers of the Border Police arrived together with more than ten men in civilian clothing, some of them armed, and proceeded to remove the trees. Abu Mustafa soon arrived, warned of the military presence by his children, and pleaded for the operation to stop until he could bring the land ownership papers. One officer sent him to another, and he walked up and down the hill asking the soldiers to leave the trees be because they were on his family’s land. “I told them: ‘What do you have against olive trees? They are useful. In a few years I’ll make olive oil, and sell it in Jerusalem, and you can buy it and put it on your salads!’ But the officer said: ‘Where there are olive trees, it makes the land look Arab.’ Maybe if we’d planted a vineyard, it would have stayed in the ground.”

Abu Mustafa posted some of his interaction with the soldiers on his Facebook page. In the video, which shows the white protective sleeves strewn on the ground like solders slayed in battle, Abu Mustafa can be heard shouting: “You are telling me to be careful not to trip on the rocks? After all this, you are worried for my health? You should worry about yourselves. How can you accept the logic of what you are doing, of what your country is doing, stealing land? You are thieves.” By 10am all the trees were gone. A yellow sign in Hebrew and Arabic appeared at the eastern edge of the previously planted ground, saying that the area was state land. And the YMCA’s 12000 shekels’ (GBP 2700) worth of effort – planting labour not included – lay in the mud that apparently belonged to the State of Israel.

Muhanad Al-Qaisy from the YMCA’s Joint Advocacy Initiative said: “It’s heartbreaking to see all the work we did getting destroyed in just one hour.” The Israeli army’s spokesperson, the army’s Civilian Administration offices in the West Bank, and the police spokesperson were contacted for comment on 13 and 16 March, but no answers were provided by the time of publication.

The villagers promptly removed the Israeli border demarcation sign. Their understanding of borderzone access has a longer history than last Monday. It was the subject of UN deliberations in 1949, when UN observers accompanied expelled villagers back to Wad Foukin after it had been demolished by Israeli military forces. And they returned again after being expelled in 1967.

They didn’t want to end up like the nearby village of al-Qabu, which was depopulated in 1948/49, when Israeli military attacks prevented the villagers from returning after armed conflict in the area had ended. Now the site of al-Qabu is an Israeli park named after rightwing Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and the al-Qabu villagers’ descendants live in Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem. The park was afforested with fast-growing pines, which covered the Palestinian agricultural landscape. Begin Park’s trees were sponsored by the Jewish National Fund, which has charitable status in many European and North American countries despite contributing to colonisation policies.

Wad Foukin’s campaign to maintain access to their lands is ongoing. Sometimes they are helped by some Israeli residents of Tzur Hadassah, which is a politically mainstream Israeli commuter town. In the Israeli parliamentary elections of 2 March 2020, 33 Tzur Hadassah residents voted for the Arab-led Joint List, out of a voting population of 6051. These leftwing Jewish citizens are probably the ones who occasionally walk down the hill to check that armed Jewish supremacists are not harassing the people of Wad Foukin, and who also object to their town’s expansion towards Wad Foukin.

On the other side of the valley, “only” 316 voters in Beitar Illit (out of 26014 with the right to vote) voted for the Jewish supremacist parties of Naftali Bennet and Itamar Ben Gvir. The vast majority of Beitar Illit voted for conservative ultraorthodox parties. Wad Foukin residents, sandwiched in the valley between the two, did not vote in the elections, of course, because they are not citizens of Israel. They hold military-issued Palestinian ID cards. Their political engagement is expressed, among other ways, by demonstratively planting trees.

EcoPeace Map Wad Fukin.jpeg
Map of the area around Wad Foukin
EcoPeace Middle East -

No one was there to help Abu Mustafa protect the olive trees on 9 March: the YMCA staffers were delayed by the lockdown in coronavirus-stricken Bethlehem, the leftwing Israelis were away, and long gone are the UN observers. However, Abu Mustafa came back in the next days, and with new saplings donated by the Palestinian Agricultural Development Association, set to planting once again. “I’m less upset now that I’ve replanted the land.” Abu Mustafa sounded upbeat on 13 March. “Actually, I’d say the soldiers were decent to me on Monday (9 March). How so? They didn’t shoot me. I was calling them thieves and insulting their country. In some places, I could get shot for that.” These are low standards for decency, but sometimes you take what you can get. A year ago, Ahmed Manasra, a young man from Wad Foukin, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers when he got out of a faulty car near an irregular checkpoint.

The Palestinians have unequivocally rejected Trump’s plan because it does not meet any standards for decency

So Abu Mustafa lives to do battle another day. But what will the long term look like? According to Trump’s “Deal of the Century”, it seems that Wad Foukin, just inside the West Bank on the eastern side of the Green Line, would have the opposite problem to the one faced by the citizens of Umm Al-Fahem, just inside Israel on the western side of the Green Line, but farther north. The rough maps included in the “deal” show Wad Foukin to be incorporated into the borders of the state of Israel, whereas Umm Al-Fahem would be turned over to Palestine, itself devoid of sovereignty.

While the mapping work done by the UN for the 1949 armistice line was undertaken by a US-led “Mixed Armistice Commission” comprising Israelis and Arabs, the mapping work envisaged for the “deal” is allocated to a “joint US-Israeli” committee. The Palestinians have unequivocally rejected Trump’s plan because it does not meet any standards for decency: sometimes, you don’t take because you can’t get anything.

“It’s a long-term project. Olive trees take a long time to mature. I’m 53 years old and I might see the first few harvests of olives. But the trees live a long time. I want my children and their children to enjoy their trees on this land. I don’t care where the border is exactly, whether the land is called Israel or Palestine. Let’s suppose the army calls it Israel. Aren’t people inside, in Umm Al-Fahem for instance, allowed to plant trees?” Asked Abu Mustafa.

In fact, the people of Umm Al-Fahem, who are Palestinian citizens of Israel, have seen much of their agricultural land confiscated. Even if the reality is, as many observe, inching towards a one-state solution encompassing Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, then what would be in store for Palestinians would be a very low grade of citizenship, possibly resembling the status of East Jerusalem residents.

And as long as the International Criminal Court or other supra-governmental agency is not endowed with sufficient clout to apply international law in Israel/Palestine, then reality will not be inching towards trees growing through the ruins of Beitar Illit, as they are growing through al-Qabu. On the contrary, Beitar Illit is expanding, with spikes.

And if the Palestinians in general, and Wad Foukin in particular, are excluded from making decisions about their future, how excluded are the trees that presumably ended up on a rubbish heap? Canadian politicians in the 1970s dismissed environmentalist campaigns for the prevention of fish stock collapse. Rather, they heeded the anglers’ motto: fish don’t vote - fishermen do. That exclusion sealed the fish’s fate. The trees’ favourite scenario, if they could imagine one, would probably involve the YMCA, the Palestinian Agricultural Development Association, and the Jewish National Fund planting trees together wherever a spade can strike and rain can fall, while the police and army protect forests from loggers and climate change skeptics.

The human species, regardless of nationality and hostile borderzone practices, depends on trees’ ability to live. Trees are the most effective and obtainable “technology” for capturing carbon emissions that are driving climate change. Trees also help with water retention in the ground, with enabling local biodiversity, lowering temperatures, and preventing topsoil erosion. In a region where climate scientists are predicting a rise in temperatures above the global average, it might be a good long-term plan to let the trees vote. At least their timeframe is longer than the election cycle. Short of that, just let the trees grow. They don’t catch human viruses.


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