They are jewels in the mountains. They are beings of the Palestinian identity, many thousands of years old. They are an ancient and powerful symbol of resilience, of cultural heritage, and of historic ties to land. It is said that if one wishes to get married, they do so after the olive harvest. If one desires to build onto their home, or to buy new clothes for their children, they do so after the olive harvest. Drought resistant and able to grow in poor soil conditions, olive trees have been central to Palestinian economy and identity for many centuries. However in the most recent, they have been both a source of celebration as well as sadness.
Olive trees paint the ancient landscape of Palestine from Nablus to Tulkar, from Bethlehem to Hebron, and from Ramallah to Jerusalem. At the time of harvest, roughly mid-October to the beginning of November, families take to the trees and begin their yearly collection rituals. Although every other season is considered the “big” haul, the fervor for which Palestinian farmers and families tend to their trees is never understated. Salah Abu Ali shares, “I am honored to be this tree's servant. The connection goes back to my father and grandfather. I feel so connected to this tree, it's as if it's part of my body and soul." Families will often combine forces for the harvest as well, joining together to go plot by plot for both efficiency as well as old fashioned family fun.
Another peculiarity arises at this time of year, the colchicum flower. This flower, commonly known as the meadow saffron, traditionally signifies the fast approaching winter, but it also has another interesting quirk. Its roots extend well past the stalk into the soil by nearly a meter. Here at the base is found a bulb-like corm. Children and adults alike would dig down into the dirt to reach the corm, resembling an onion. Then, upon raising it from the earth, they would ignite the oils found on the bulb and use it as a lantern! Although this tradition is largely lost, perhaps it will be refueled as the younger generations become inspired by times past.
The colchicum seen above ground is only half the story!
In addition to their personal, historic, and symbolic significance, olives are a primary source of income for approximately 80,000 Palestinian families. According to the UN, nearly 48% of the West Bank and Gaza is populated by olive trees, which contributes 14% of the Palestinian economy. 93% of the olives go towards making olive oil, while the rest is made into olive soaps, pickles, and table olives. Many farmers depend on olives for upwards of 25% of their income.
During peak season, a visitor might see hundreds gathered in the olive groves with buckets, tarps, donkeys, and pick-up trucks. Up in the trees, some harvesters use plastic combs to drop olives onto tarps below, while others may beat the branches with sticks to drop the precious fruits. Once on the ground, the olives are tossed around in a metal pan in order to separate leaf and fruit. While others may use leaf blowers to accomplish this task, many consider such an act insulting to the tradition! Yet no matter how the harvest is accomplished, one thing is for certain: the relationship Palestinians have to these trees is sacred. They serve to remind Palestinians of the deep tie they have with their land, as well as their strength and resilience when such a precious commodity and cultural symbol is under attack.
Unfortunately, these attacks have come in multiple forms. One is the separation barrier between Israel and Palestine, which has displaced Palestinians from their land and their trees. Another hurdle are ‘settler only’ roads, which may keep farmers from getting to their land without proper permits. However, these permits are difficult to acquire and the process currently lacks a cohesive set of requirements for obtaining such papers. Additionally, individuals or related family members who have been arrested for demonstrating are more likely to be denied access to their trees. A final assault is the heartbreaking direct destruction of trees by settlers and the Israeli military. Many would compare this loss to that of losing a brother, a sister, or a child. Yet, as much as the olive is a symbol of conflict, it is also a symbol of hope.
A group of international volunteers at harvest
In many areas, one will find an eclectic mix of Jewish workers, Arab workers, and thousands of volunteers who come from Israel, the United States, and Europe to aid in the harvest. Many internationals, and Palestinians alike, believe that their presence helps keep the peace between harvesters and settlers. Organizations such as To Be There, and Zaytoun, arrange trips to Palestine for volunteers during the harvest. Not only do these volunteers serve to help keep the peace, but they also are exposed to cultural exchanges, historical workshops, and can witness the Palestinian experience in person. Additionally, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem understands the need to protect both olive tree and olive tree caretaker. They urge the Israeli military to keep conflicts at bay and aim to create peace between people on both sides of the line.
The olive harvest is a tradition as ancient as Palestine, and paints a poetic narrative of the relationship between people and planet. Olive trees can survive the toughest of conditions and will plant roots deeply into the land which they call home. Many thousands of years old, these trees have stood the test of time, and remind Palestinians they too stand up to this test. Through thick and thin, through sun and drought, year after year, the olive’s bounty replenishes the spirit of Palestinians everywhere, and reminds us all that only together will we be able to create lasting peace.