Olive groves in the Holy Land are priceless heirlooms of Palestinian communities. For twenty years they have also been battlegrounds over the survival of those communities.
Since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, scores of Palestinian olive groves and other farmland have been taken over for vague state purposes. Usually the trees are deliberately destroyed without compensation to the owners or regard for the personal and economic difficulties which follow. Certainly simple justice is not considered.
Palestinians have cultivated their olive groves for generations. Olive trees live hundreds of years and testify to the Palestinians deep roots in this land. They have been carefully nurtured since their planting as seedlings. The annual olive harvest regularly asserts the peoples connection to the land. Family and village histories can be measured in these trees. They are living witnesses to generations, and each rededicates itself to preserving and respecting them.
Clearly, the olive tree is more than a symbol. It embodies the Palestinians attachment to the land. Their destruction is an attempt to sever that connection.
The livelihoods of families and village communities have been ruined when those trees are bulldozed, cut down, or uprooted by military authorities or unidentified vandals who want to drive the Arabs from their land. This government policy is also a psychological attack on the Palestinians sense of personal, familial, and communal history.
Awareness of this injustice toward Palestinian farmers is bringing together people to plant the seeds of justice so that the fruit of peace might grow. They protest the destruction of the trees and work to protect fruit-bearing lands owned by Palestinians.
Their actions include planting olive seedlings where trees have been destroyed. Even though it will take generations for them to grow to the maturity of the previous trees, planting these seedlings expresses a communal dedication to the land and to future generations.
In the Qattaneh village in the Ramallah region, more than 200 Israelis and Palestinians showed their solidarity with the villagers by non-violent action in defiance of the military authorities even in the face of arrest and punishment. They planted seedlings to replace more than 2000 olive trees uprooted in Qattaneh. Government authorities met their efforts with arrests and the destruction of the seedlings.
Peace in the Middle East will follow justice for the oppressed. Justice begins with the specific actions of individuals and communities.
In the battles of the small olive groves, planting and nurturing seedlings are acts of reconciliation after more than forty years of assaults on Palestinian culture and life. They rededicate the land for these people.
At the same time, existing olive groves must be preserved and respected. Their fruit may be bitter, but all people need to be nourished by it and by the peace the olive branch represents.
If the trees are destroyed, what fruit of todays labor will future generations taste?
Michael Healy is editor of Catholic Near East.