Replanting olive trees in Palestine symbolizes hope for a peaceful future

Two initiatives to restore more than half a million uprooted trees

Olive trees planted in a former Israeli military camp that is being turned into a public park by Beit Sahour municipality despite the threat of ongoing confiscation, are part of a six-year joint YMCA-YWCA initiative to keep hope alive for Palestinian farmers. More than 100 olive trees were contributed to be planted at the former Beit Sahour-Osh Ghrab military camp, which was evacuated in late 2006. Some were planted on April 4, 2008, Palestinian Land Day, by the municipality’s deputy mayor, council members, staff, and volunteers; the rest will be planted later. 

Approximately 1000 square kilometers of land in the Palestinian Territories are planted with olive trees, compared to only 20 square kilometers in Israel. An average olive tree produces 9 kg of olives yielding 2 liters of oil, used for food, sacramental oil, fuel or as ingredient of medical ointments. The plain and frugal olive tree, which grows in poor soil, can live for 800 to 1,000 years and has been a symbol of prosperity and happiness for centuries. The East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine, through a Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI) begun in 2001, are using this important symbol to keep hope alive for people living in the occupied areas of Palestine, where nearly half a million olive trees have been uprooted since 2000. For the two organizations, the campaign encourages Palestinians to reaffirm their commitment to work constructively toward peace building.

Begun in 2002, the Olive Tree Campaign replants trees in areas where they have been uprooted and destroyed or in areas where the Israeli army or settlers are threatening confiscation. The original goal was to replant 50,000 olive trees in the Palestinian Territories with the sponsorship of YMCAs and YWCAs, and churches and other groups and individuals from around the world.

In 2007, after Israeli forces had uprooted 37,550 trees, many of them olive trees, in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, the Olive Tree Campaign asked its partners to mark the 40th year of continuous Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by planting 14,609 olive trees – one for each day of the occupation. By the end of the 2007 planting season, the JAI had received 8,105 sponsored trees from 1,219 known sponsors, and many anonymous sponsors, from many countries. Another 7,346 trees were sponsored through Trocaire Ireland, one of the campaign’s recent partners. By March 2008, 13,185 olive trees had been planted in 157 fields all over the West Bank; the remaining trees will be planted in the Gaza Strip.

In the first season, 2002-2003, 2105 olive trees were planted in 13 fields; in 2003-4, 3,940 olive trees were planted in 24 different fields; and in 2004-2005, 6,400 trees were planted. In 2006-2007,  the Campaign received 7,364 sponsored olive trees from 1,317 sponsors in countries including Denmark, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden Japan, Italy, UK, and the USA. More than 7,255 trees were planted in 22 locations including refugee camps, towns, villages, and cities in Bethlehem, Hebron, Salfit, Jenin and Gaza, and in 100 fields belonging to 99 farmers. In 2005-6, more than 8,000 young olive trees were planted in more than 50 fields across the West Bank with special emphasis on fields where trees had been uprooted or were threatened with confiscation.

Planting takes place only in agreement and co-operation with landowners and farmers, who participate in the planting. In addition, specialists give them the tools necessary to ensure the best future care of their trees.

As it turns out, the campaign also brings hope to volunteers who come to help with the planting. One American volunteer, who planted olive trees on a farm in Jab’a, about 15 miles from Bethlehem, thinks the farmers are keeping his hope for peace alive. Walt was planting trees with 11-year-old Isaac, the farmer’s grandson. “As I scoop out some red dirt he has just loosened up, we are surprised by a round patch of orange-colored dirt about 10 inches in diameter at the bottom of the hole. “Papa!” he exclaims at the top of his voice, “Come quickly, look at this.” His grandfather and several other men come running over. They point at the hole, shake their heads, and jabber loudly in Arabic. At this point I turn to a YMCA staff member, “What’s going on?” Abu Taha steps up to explain, with the help of a translator. “That is the rotted trunk of a large old olive tree.They cut it down. But you and my grandson will plant another one in its place, and we will have olives again!”

International visitors and volunteers also regularly join in the olive picking campaign that takes place in the fall. This year's Olive Picking Program, organized by JAI in cooperation with the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), is scheduled for the last week of October in 2008.

This story was compiled from information about the Olive Tree Campaign on the JAI website, stories from vol. 4 no. 1 of the Olive Tree Campaign Newsletter, and stories from earlier editions in the Newsletter archive.

In 2005, the Palestine Fair Trade Association and its partners in Canada, the USA, and Europe, launched a program called Trees for Life that aims to plant tens of thousands of olive trees in Palestine each year between Tree Day (Feb. 15) and Land Day (Mar. 30) to empower Palestinian farmers and enhance their economic and production capacities. Like the Olive Tree Project, Trees for Life is intended to offset the destruction of trees by the Israeli army, Israeli settlers and the newly-built wall separating Israel and Palestine. Farmers, who must meet specific criteria, apply to the PFTA through its office in Jenin. Partners include Canaan Fair Trade, Zatoun, and the Olive Co-operative. The PFTA currently works with 1,700 farmers in 39 olive oil producing co-operatives throughout the West Bank, including 20 organic co-operatives with 375 members in Jenin and Nablus that produce organic olive oil and almonds. For more information on fair trade initiatives and how they support olive farmers in particular, see this summary by the American Friends Service Committee.


1000 olive trees donated by International Committee of the Red Cross are uprooted in West Bank village

It was difficult for 87-year-old Jamil Khader to discover that nearly all of the 1,400 olive trees his extended family planted in February had suddenly gone missing, having been uprooted and stolen. "He became very ill when I told him. He was hospitalised and was in bed for a week," his son Khalil, from the small town of Jeet in the northern West Bank, told IRIN.

The family reckon that the trees were uprooted in March but they did not find out about it until 16 April, when they got to the land, which they do not do regularly because of its proximity to the nearby Israeli settlement of Kedumim. "We only go to work the land in coordination with the [Israeli] military. I am afraid to go alone, as the settlers have pulled guns on me in the past," Khalil said.

The family and aid workers blamed settlers from Kedumim for the missing trees.

"There have been many violent incidents against Palestinians in that area of the West Bank," said Emily Schaefer, a lawyer from the Israeli rights group Yesh Din, which specialises in such cases. "In the three years we have been operating, not a single [Israeli] was convicted for uprooting or damaging Palestinian olive trees," she said, noting that from her research she was doubtful anyone had ever been brought to justice by the Israeli authorities for such crimes.

Jamil was born in Nazareth, in what is now Israel, in 1922. During the spring of 1948, as the first Arab-Israeli war waged, his family became refugees. "We left Nazareth with nothing at all," he said, retelling his life as a policeman with the British during World War II, a soldier with the Arab armies in 1948 and later as a police officer with the Jordanians when they ruled the West Bank. The last job gave him enough money to purchase the plot of land near Nablus, which has become the family's most important possession. They, like others, have become increasingly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood as harsh restrictions on movement have cut them off from their former jobs as labourers inside Israel.

"I am completely reliant on agriculture; I don't have any other work," said Khalil, who is also registered with UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. "The olive trees and the other products from the land help support my family and my brothers and their children."

With the local economy faltering, aid agencies had stepped in and tried to help: Of the missing trees, 1,000 had been donated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which said Jeet and the neighbouring villages were especially vulnerable due to their limited land access and proximity to Israeli settlements. "It is very disturbing to see that the farmers yet again have had their trees uprooted. Unfortunately it proves how difficult daily life is for these people," Helge Kvam, a spokesman for the ICRC in Jerusalem, told IRIN.

This was, in fact, the fourth time in a decade that the village's agriculture had been attacked. In the 1990s arsonists burnt down many hectares of olive trees. In 2005 another wave of violence destroyed most of the remaining trees. In 2007 the Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights purchased and planted some 500 olive trees, hoping to improve the local economy. But over the following four months nearly all those trees were destroyed or uprooted and taken away.

With the ICRC donation now missing, residents feel at a loss and do not know if it will be possible to continue counting on agriculture as a source of livelihood, which was their fallback option. In response to the incident, the Israeli military said it fell under the jurisdiction of the Civil Administration which in turn asked IRIN to contact the Israeli police. A police spokesman could only say that as the Palestinians had filed a complaint the case would be investigated, and suggested contacting the military.

This story, entitled West Bank farmers face ruin after trees uprooted, was datelined Jeet, West Bank, 27 April 2008, and distributed by IRIN, the humanitarian news agency. IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks), part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, provides news and analysis about sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia for the humanitarian community while also ensuring that affected communities can also access reliable information, so they can take informed decisions about their future. IRIN, founded in 1995, is based in Nairobi, Kenya.


ISRAEL-OPT: Palestinian villages come under attack

AWARTA, NABLUS DISTRICT, 21 September 2008 (IRIN) - Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the dream of a “greater Israel” was over, a day after settlers raided the Palestinian village of Assira Qabaliya, in the northern West Bank, causing extensive damage and wounding several people, in what was a reprisal attack. “There will be no pogroms against non-Jewish residents,” the outgoing premier told his cabinet on 14 September.

Police said an investigation had been launched but no arrests made. The Knesset (parliament) internal affairs committee convened an urgent meeting to discuss the event, sparked when a Palestinian stabbed a boy and burned a house at a settlement outpost.

Video footage showed settlers attacking the Palestinian village with Israeli soldiers present. “If the army is here or not, the settlers will attack,” a Palestinian resident told IRIN.

The Israeli military issued a statement saying: “The command and commanders’ orders are that a soldier shall not stand by and will act to prevent violent disturbances.” A security source said two firearms were confiscated from settlers who attacked the village.

Shortly after Olmert’s speech, settlers went to Awarta, another town, and burnt down more than 400 Palestinian olive trees, according to residents. "The trees burned for hours," said Asad Loolah, who told IRIN he lost about 50 trees. It took almost an hour for a fire engine to reach the scene, due to the Israeli-imposed restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank. In addition, residents reported that Palestinian ambulances were delayed in reaching the injured the day before in Assira.

In August, “37 people were injured as a result of attacks carried out by Israeli settlers, the largest number recorded since January 2005”, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the occupied Palestinian territories said. “The lack of adequate law enforcement by the Israeli authorities seems to be a key factor contributing to the persistence of the settler violence phenomenon over years,” the agency wrote in its recent Humanitarian Monitor, released on 12 September.

“There is Yitzhar, there is Brakha and there is Itamar,” Hani Darawshe, a resident said, pointing at the surrounding hilltops, each with an Israeli settlement, established on what Palestinians say was their land. Near to each settlement lay several "outposts", satellites of the main colony, taking up more Palestinian land.

“We have been living here for hundreds of years,” said Darawshe, added that structures in the village dated back to Roman rule. The land they have left is largely off limits to them. “I need to get coordination from the [Israeli] military to access my land,” said Loolah. “They give me access only two or three days a year. I don’t have the chance to prune or water the trees and not enough time to pick the olives.

"See, it is dried up and messy," he says, pointing at the inaccessible land, where he says he and 15 other families had many trees burned down. With the olive harvest set to begin after Eid el-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, in early October, he is concerned about his expected yield, an important part of his livelihood.

This story was prepared and distributed by IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks) is part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, but its services are editorially independent. IRIN, founded in 1995, is based in Nairobi, Kenya. 


For other stories about tree-planting activities, see:

Planting hope for the future: Kenya's Green Belt Movement

Re-establishing forest ecosystem in Uganda fights climate change

People around world meet challenge to plant a billion trees in one year

Tanzanian botanist honoured for reforestation efforts

Cooperation helps nomads fight desertification in Mauritania

More than 100,000 Tanzanian homes built with bricks fired by agricultural waste

Click a day plants 16 million trees in Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forest