Palestinian olive groves, often a casualty of the conflict with Israel, are a new center of peaceful activism.
Early last spring, Maher Abu Seba'a planted 240 olive trees on his plot of land outside al-Khader, a small Arab village nestled in the Gush Etzion valley, a region surrounded by Israeli settlements and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) outposts. Five months later, Abu Seba'a and his brother went to the land to irrigate the trees, only to discover that 228 of the olive trees had been destroyed. All of them had suffered the same fate: the agriculture tube used to protect the tree had been lifted, the tree beneath had been cut or uprooted, and then the tube had been returned to make it appear that there was no harm done.
Abu Seba'a went to the IDF, which has surveillance cameras on the land 24 hours a day, to ask for help in finding out who had done this to his trees. The IDF told him that they were not able to help. He then went to the Palestinian Authority in al-Khader to ask for their assistance. They, too, said there was nothing they could do. The farmer was distraught. But then he got a call from Alice Gray, a professor of environmental studies at Al Quds University and the leader of a group calling itself "The Green Intifada." Gray had heard about Abu Seba'a's trees and offered to help him replant his olive grove. A few weeks later, Gray, along with a group of local college volunteers and activists, did just that.
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Abu Seba'a's story is not unique. On one of the world's most bitterly contested pieces of land, natural resources have long played a central role. Together with water and mining rights, the right to one's trees and the fruit that they bear has come to be inseparably linked to the political struggle at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Palestinians, the olive tree has been a source beauty and connection to the land. Furthermore, with olive trees bringing in roughly 20 per cent of the total agricultural output in the Palestinian Territories and about 4.6 per cent of the GDP, many Palestinian families depend on the olive harvest for their livelihood. During periods of conflict, however, the Israeli military has viewed the groves as areas that might conceal illicit activity and, because of their value, removing trees has also been used in the past as a form of collective punishment. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, the Israeli authorities have uprooted more than half a million trees in the West Bank since the eruption of the first intifada in late 1987.