Saturday, October 15, 2011

10/14/11: The Peaceful Resistance Of Olive Picking

A Group Of Palestinian Children Olive Picking 

I made a very specific promise to myself before uprooting my life and moving thousands of miles away from home. That promise was to try every new thing that came my way, no matter how big or small, as long as I had the money to cover the cost. This promise has allowed me to experience so many amazing things in my short 3 months here, and yesterday was no exception to this. My co worker, Molly, told me about a Palestinian organization that was in need of foreign volunteers to help with the annual olive harvest in the West Bank. This harvest is an enormous part of Palestinian life and culture in the West Bank, and with the current situation between the Israelis and Palestinians, it is more important than ever that the harvests happen with help from third party outsiders to diffuse the tension between settlers and West Bank citizens. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to help and be apart of this. 

Before describing the experience itself, it is important to explain why third party volunteers were, and are, so coveted and needed. In the recent weeks there has been a fair number of problems between Palestinian citizens in the cities of Al-Walajeh, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, etc. and Israeli settlers near those towns. Between the building up of walls (which consequently shrinks access the Palestinians have to their olive groves and land), and the settlers uprooting and burning of Palestinian Olive trees (which, by the way, is a slap in the face to everything the country of Israel stands for), it is very hard for them to harvest their own lands without problems and confrontations. They hope that with outsider help there will be less provocation from the settlers and soldiers which, in turn, will allow them access to their trees without problems and provocations. 

Molly, Patrick (a guy from my MA program), and I left Jerusalem for Bethlehem around 8:15am, arrived in the center of the town around 9, and had about 15 or so minutes to explore before heading out to Al-Walajeh. Since Bethlehem is an extremely important city for Christians I was sure to take a picture of the famed Nativity church where Jesus was born just for my friend Stephanie. It always astonishes me being feet away from any holy site (regardless of whose religion it belongs to), and the fact that I am living in a place where there are so many of them, well, at times, it is beautifully overwhelming. 

The Church Of The Nativity

After walking around Nativity square for a few minutes it was time for us to be taken to the site of the harvest. We were taken by a lovely Palestinian girl and her French friend, had a lovely driving tour of greater Bethlehem and Beit Jala, and finally arrived near our site in Al-Walajeh. As we were driving I couldn't help but notice pockets of Israeli soldiers standing on the roads, army vehicles driving by, and Palestinian men standing around in groups watching the every moves of the soldiers. I have never looked as Israel as an occupier, and feel that, in terms of greater Israel (not the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of East Jerusalem), all the land belongs to the state of Israel NO QUESTION. However, when it comes to the other areas and territories, there is no question in my mind that the land belongs to, and should be governed by, the Palestinian people. The Israeli presence there not only causes major problems, but, in most cases, it is there to protect settlers who are an enormous part of why this conflict is still in existence. 

I just want to take this time to clarify something outright for those who have expressed that I have turned pro-Palestinian. I am only "pro" one thing, and that is peace. I am the first person who would go to battle and die for the country of Israel if it came down to an issue of her existence. I am Jewish, believe in Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, and feel just as connected to this country as I do my own America. However, when it comes to the current Israeli administration's treatment of Palestinians and their land, I will never be in support of this, nor would I ever support or fight for Israel's right to expand into Palestinian territory, thus taking more and more away from people that seek a homeland as desperately as we did back in the 1940's.

Israeli Army Vehicle Inside The West Bank

After passing the IDF soldiers and army vehicles, we parked the car, walked through what felt like a desolate, desert wasteland, and reached an area near to where the olive tree fields were. If only that were the whole story... To get to the fields we had to scale hillsides,  trek down rocky hills (with no clear cut paths mind you) and had to climb through bushes and various types of desert plants (some of which were quite prickly). I, being the poster child of athleticism and coordination (note the sarcasm), slipped while climbing down a steep, slippery hill, almost took out a very nice Palestinian man helping me, and bruised both my legs and my pride! As we were half way down the hill I could hear someone screaming for us to run, and as I looked up I could see IDF vehicles beginning to drive down in pursuit of all of us. The Palestinians were worried that there was going to be a problem so we all had to run until the tank like vehicles were out of sight. It was very sad to see this kind of fear, especially when we were going to do something as peaceful as picking olives, but luckily, once the vehicles were out of sight, it was smooth sailing from there on out. 

A Section Of The Hills We Had To Climb Down
Once we reached flat ground, though we were still elevated, we could look out over the entire Al-Walajeh valley. On top of the hill was various settlements (Har Gilo, and so on), and below was beautiful desert land, filled with olive trees ripe for cultivation. Maybe it's because I grew up in a desert, but I felt very much at home here. 


When we finally reached the bottom it was time to jump in and start picking. The Olive trees were so beautiful and stocked with delicious looking fruit! I can't believe anyone would ever think of uprooting or burning such a beautiful thing, but I was very glad to see that these trees were unharmed and able to be fully harvested. I am not the outdoors type, by any means, but I very much enjoyed working for, what I like to call, the peaceful West Bank resistance. This was the peoples way of showing that the occupation of their land wouldn't stop them from living life, and enjoying it in the process. 

A Beautiful, And Fruitful, Olive Tree

Getting Ready To Start Picking

A Man Up In The Tree Picking 

Molly Getting Work Done 

Me Being Outdoorsy! 
As we were picking the olives, people were collecting them in huge sacks, hats, bags, folded up t-shirts, and pretty much anything that could be used to carry the fruits. Tarps were set up around the trees so that olives could be dropped to the ground and then later collected to be put into large bags. Everyone was picking, singing songs, catching up with friends, and enjoying the beauty of the day. Every so often you would hear a man should out something in Arabic, and then seconds later loud voices would ring out in song. It was such a powerful thing to witness, and another beautiful part of this culture. The best part was that I could understand a lot of what was being said in Arabic :-) I took this as great progress in my quest to become trilingual! 

More Picking! 

A Group Of Locals Getting Ready To Lay The Tarp

Harvest Time! 

A Local Boy Resting In The Tree's Shade

Collection Tarp 

Molly And I Taking A Photo Break 

Here is a quick video of one of the songs the people were singing during the harvest! Excuse the poor quality and sun shots! 

As the hottest point of the day was approaching I decided to take a little rest in the shade. While I was there I met three of the sweetest Palestinian girls from Hebron, and we spent about 45 minutes just talking, sharing music, finding out about one another, and so on. I was so excited because one of the girls thought I was a local from Bethlehem, and she was surprised to find that I was foreign! YAY! I was able to practice my Arabic, make new friends, and really immerse myself in the culture. They loved hearing all of the Arabic music I had on my iphone, and we spent a good chuck of time singing and listing to various popular songs. They were also excited to share with me popular American shows, music, and movies that they loved, and I discovered they liked Oprah, the Vampire Diaries, Twilight (they were all team Jacob), Gossip Girl, and Rhianna. It was a really fantastic experience meeting them! 

Meeting The Locals 

Around 1pm it was time to pack up and head back into Bethlehem. The day was finishing, the picking was done, and we wanted to get back to Jerusalem at a decent hour. I decided to head home to Tel Aviv for the weekend so I wanted to make sure I could get there before the start of Shabbat. 

The Hike Back Up The Hill 

Participating in the olive harvest, seeing the situation in the region, and being able to be of service, was so profoundly amazing, and I am so glad that I chose to partake in this. The locals were so thankful, appreciative, and gracious, and I will not hesitate to volunteer with this organization again in the future. I am hoping to forge a great relationship with them during the years I am here, especially as I begin to research for my thesis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the two state solution. I made it back to Tel Aviv just before the start of Shabbat, am LOVING being back in my own apartment, will get to see some friends this weekend, and then it is back to East Jerusalem for my last week in the office at PIJ. I can't wait for school to start, but I will miss Jerusalem desperately! Luckily I plan on going back and forth quite a bit :-) 

Until Tomorrow and Chag Sameach to all those celebrating Sukkot <3,
Jordana Simone 

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