38 cut olive trees and a box of eggs

by Johanna, Bethlehem team

Johanna was an EA in Fall 2013 and returned again this year as an EA in Bethlehem.

Mahmoud Shawash shows his destroyed olive trees. Photo EAPPI/J. Kaprio.

The former village councilor of Husan shows us the field of destroyed olive trees. Photo EAPPI/J. Kaprio.

In Greek mythology, warrior Goddess Athena and God of the seas Poseidon were competing over the possession of Athens. The mighty Poseidon struck his trident into the Athenian Acropolis, creating a well of salt water. While the public marveled at Poseidon’s achievement, Athena’s approach was more peaceful, she planted an olive tree just next to the well. The divine tribunal sided with Athena, for giving the city a greater gift: the first olive tree.

In the Mediterranean region, olive tree symbolises peace and prosperity. In the occupied Palestinian territories, nearly 51% of the cultivated land is planted with olive trees and and the olive oil industry makes up to 25 % of the region’s agricultural income.

But is there any peace or prosperity under the olive tree in occupied Palestine?

In the morning of 9 October the Schawash family from the West Bank village of Husan was alerted to a saddening reality – at the eve of the olive harvest season they found 38 of their olive trees cut. They had not visited their olive grove for 3 days, and their discovery was a shock.

While no one from the village was present during the time of the sabotage, which seems to have happened during dark hours, all clues seem to lead to the neighbouring settlement of Betar Illit. After all, it was only two days before that settlers of Betar Illit set fire to 15 olive trees in the village of Nahhalin and four months since they torched 60 olive trees in Husan.

The sight of the field is devastating. The cut parts of the trees laying on the ground have already lost their green color and the olives have dried.

Mahmoud Shawash, head of the affected family tells us that the trees were 40 to 50 years old.

“We wait for 10-15 years for the olive trees to grow, only to find them destroyed over night, he says with glum voice.”

Olive cultivation is the main source of livelihood of the Shawash family. Altogether they have 300 trees.

Mahmoud Shawash estimates that the loss of the cut trees is between 40 to 50 gallons (150-190 liters) of oil. One gallon earns the family over 500 NIS (130 €). It would have been challenging enough without the devastation of the trees. As the weather has been dry in the region throughout the whole year, the harvest this year is poorer than average.

JKaprio_Olives_09102014

The Shawash family estimates they lost 40 to 50 gallons of oil, a total loss of 20,000 to 30,000 Israeli shekels. Photo EAPPI/J. Kaprio.

Settler attacks against olive trees are a constant threat to Palestinian farmers. In various incidents yearly, Palestinian-owned olive trees get damaged, poisoned, uprooted, burnt down or harvested by settlers. Between 2009 – August 2013 altogether over 38,000 trees [3],[4]. I remember just too well last year my EAPPI colleagues firefighting alongside with Palestinian farmers in Yalud, where Israeli settlers set fire to hundreds of olive trees.

Only rarely do any of these acts of settler violence against Palestinian trees bear consequences to the perpetrators. According to Israeli NGO Yesh Din, between 2005-2012 only 1 out of 162 complaints lead to prosecution.

But why would the settlers commit to such an act?

“The settlers want to scare us out of our fields,” Mahmoud Shawash tells me firmly.

His fear is not without foundation. For the Israel Civil Administration, which has the authority over the Area C of the West Bank, a farmer who continuously cultivates a piece of land over 10 years becomes the de facto owner of it. However, as the land registry process has been halted since the start of the occupation in 1967, land ownership after this year goes without official documentation.

In addition, Israel follows the Ottoman Land Code which allows the state of Israel  to confiscate land that has been left uncultivated for a period of three years and although by law state land should be allocated for the benefit of the local Palestinian population in the occupied territories, in reality it is usually allocated to Israeli settlements. Moreover, in a number of cases, Palestinian land owners have suffered losses of land as a result of Israeli authority imposed access restrictions to their fields, such as restricted permits and the separation barrier that in many parts of the West Bank separates farmers from their fields. Settler violence adds to these challenges.

Indeed in the bigger picture, these acts of sabotage, committed by individuals but unpunished by the system, conveniently support an ongoing strategic land grab that Israel is carrying out in the occupied Palestinian territories, for the benefit of the Israeli settlers.

Betar Illit, which was established in 1984 on the lands of Husan village, is the one of largest settlements in the West Bank and among the most rapidly expanding ones. Israel’s recent announcement to confiscate 4,000 dunums (990 acres) of Palestinian land near Bethlehem, in order to allow for further settlement expansion, benefits the Betar Illit settlement and directly affects its neighboring villages, including Husan. This recent development causes anxiety among inhabitants of Husan as well as other Palestinian villages in the area.

PCostello_Betar Illit settlement_Bethlehem_Oct2014

Beitar Illit settlement. Photo EAPPI/P. Costello.

In the field, work continues nevertheless. On 18 October, I find myself back at the Husan olive groves, where we have been asked to join and help with the olive harvest. While we are picking olives right next to the fence of the settlement, there is a cheerful spirit of a family gathering and news exchange between some of the international volunteers that have come for help. Lots of Arabic coffee is consumed and stories are told.

The first day of the harvest goes by smoothly, no settler stones thrown on the harvesters and no curse words towards them, as has happened in the past. At least almost. A small incident during the day of harvest gives me a taste of what working next to a settlement can be like. While taking some photos of our work in process, we notice a couple of settlers filming us from a nearby house. It doesn’t take long until the military arrives. To my suprise, they want to speak to me. Question is, do I work for the television? And if I do, they would need to see my film. Unfortunately for them, I am just an ordinary person with an ordinary camera, and so they let us back to our work.

On our way home through the village of Husan, we pass by a group of settlers from Betar Illit, buying eggs from a farmer from Husan village. It makes you wonder, how is it consistent that members of the same community who destroy trees at night, buy daily commodities from the same village during the day? Perhaps the answer lies on the fact that olive trees need humans to take care of them… Exactly what Athena wanted to show when she offered the olive trees as a present to humanity, for them to provide food, oil and wood over generation… Peace needs humans who will take care of it.

JKaprio_Statue of Athena in central Athens_Greece_2010

Statue of Athena in central Athens. Photo J. Kaprio.

In line with Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention, the Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal, and their continuous expansion is the single biggest obstacle to what the olive tree symbolises: peace.

*The article 38 cut olive trees and a box of eggs originally appeared on Johanna’s blog.

Despair and Hope: The history of Fawwar Refugee Camp

Fawwar Refugee Camp

Fawwar Refugee Camp. Photo EAPPI/R. Pond.

by South Hebron Hills team

Our first visit to Fawwar Refugee Camp was to meet and hear the story of Khalil Muhammed, a 11 year old boy who was tragically shot by the Israeli army on 10 August. On our follow-up visit to Fawwar Refugee Camp, we find ourselves sitting in the city center talking to Mohammed Abed Al Fattah Al Titi, known as Abu Akram. Several of his descendants sit on the floor cushions facing us, at times helping Abu Akram to clarify his story.

Abu Akram is an old man who tells us the story of the Nakba in 1948 and how he along with his family and neighbors from the village of Iraq Al Manshelha were forced to leave their village and become refugees in their own country. He clearly remembers the exact date, 14 May, 1949. He still dreams of going back to his village and his house and proudly shows us the key to his house in Iraq Al Manshelha, which he still has.

Both of our visits with the people of Fawwar Refugee Camp have painted a picture of both despair and hope. On the one hand, Fawwar is a community created out of a war. The only purpose of the refugee camp is to house exiles and their descendents. Yet, out of this situation comes ray of hope and promise for the future. Perhaps not Fawwar itself, but the people who live there. Although the residents of the refugee camp do not know when or if they will be able to return to their homes or be compensated for their loss, many still have the keys for their homes, which is a symbol of hope that they will one day return to their homes. The symbol of the key is prominently displayed throughout the community in murals and graffiti as a visible representation of this hope for a future return home.

Mohammed shows the key from his home. He is one of less than 5 survivors from the original inhabitants of Fawwar still living in the community.  Photo EAPPI/R. Pond.

Mohammed shows the key from his home. He is one of less than 5 survivors from the original inhabitants of Fawwar still living in the community. Photo EAPPI/R. Pond.

A Dire situation

Fawwar refugee camp is located in the South Hebron Hills, close to the city of Hebron. Its inhabitants originally come from 18 communities, mainly in the Gaza, Beersheve, and Hebron areas. Currently, a population between 9,000 to 10,000 lives in an area less than one square km. According to an official of the village, the poverty level in Fawwar is 10 times worse than the official poverty level in Palestine. Fawwar suffers from an inadequate sewage and school system. The refugee camp is the scene of frequent clashes with the Israeli army with many inhabitants bearing the wounds to verify the confrontations.

Fawwar exists under the constant eye of the Israeli army, which has placed a base and watch tower on the camp border. A large Israeli settlement and outpost also neighbor the community. The Israeli army frequently raids the community at night, searches the community, and sets up flying road blocks, not only continuing the harassment in the community, but also maintaining an atmosphere of tension.

Khalil Mohammad Al Anati's grandparents

Khalil’s grandparents with his younger brother. Photo EAPPI/R. Pond.

When we first entered the camp, the parents of Khalil were suffering both grief and anger over the senseless loss of their young son. They showed us a picture of Khalil, which was posted all over the camp.

They asked us: “What do you think this picture of Khalil says?” The told us that they think he is asking: “Why did you shoot me?”

The question still echoes, unanswered.

Signs of hope and promise

Before we leave Fawwar we have the opportunity to visit the Palestinian Child Cultural Centre where Shadi Titi, a physics teacher who volunteers as the Centre’s manager. She introduces us to T. Khalil Nasser, who leads a youth Drama group currently rehearsing for a play In The Camp which depicts life in Fawwar for youth and which the will play in Hebron in the coming weeks. Interviewing these enthusiastic young people gives us hope for the community.   Many are fluent in English and all individually spoke of their desire for peace and love for the future. Not one hint of hate or despair was reflected in their attitudes.

Visiting the community, we cannot help but be affected by both the despair of living in a refugee camp and also the overwhelming desire to move on to a better way of life.   We also cannot ignore the many individuals bearing the scars, wounds and in some cases the handicaps that resulted from encounters with the Israeli army. But in this seemingly hopeless situation, friendship and generosity abounds. Walking down the only business street of the community we are greeted with many offers of friendship and support.

Despite many generations who have lived under these terrible circumstances, they still hold out hope and promise for the future. We must not forget that all humans have the right to all human rights and to live a dignity. So do the people of Fawwar Refugee Camp. Let us hope that they finally will get the future they so rightfully deserve.   

Certainly those that have the education will be able to move to a better environment. But there are many, who for no fault of their own but simply from being refugees who live in poverty, have little education and very little opportunity to improve their lives without significant support from outside. They do not deserve to live in their current environment. We will continue to visit our new friends and be inspired by their hope for the future.

*Read more about our work in the Southern West Bank.

EAPPI around the world: Austria

EAPPI IS A WORLD-WIDE NETWORK.  OUR EAPPI NATIONAL COORDINATION OFFICES IN 26 COUNTRIES WORK HARD TO RECRUIT EAPPI HUMAN RIGHTS MONITORS AND COORDINATE THEIR ADVOCACY WHEN THEY RETURN HOME.  TODAY, WE CONTINUE OUR SERIES IN WHICH WE GET TO HEAR FROM THESE DEDICATED SUPPORTERS OF EAPPI ALL OVER THE WORLD.

Today, Simone, an EA in 2013 from Austria shares 4 Reasons why she became an EA.

EAs enjoy a break during a long day of harvesting olives.  These everyday encounters are what EAs often remember most. Photo EAPPI/M. Schaffluetzel, 2012.

EAs enjoy a break during a long day of harvesting olives. These everyday encounters are what EAs often remember most. Photo EAPPI/M. Schaffluetzel, 2012.

The thought of leaving a familiar environment and saying ‘good-bye’ to family and friends for a long time probably does not seem attractive to many people. And if – even to this fact – the journey ends up in a country that is usually only known by less positive headlines from the news, the idea of staying there seems almost lunatic.

On the other hand there are people whose faces light up thinking of such a journey, who feel the zest for action and who spare no effort to set out and leave their familiar environment for a certain time.

I belong to the latter group and the decision being an EA and going to Palestine and Israel was decided quickly. Here are 4 reasons I decided to join:

1. Knowledge is not to be equated with understanding.

I studied the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I read many books and articles and attended many lectures. But it’s hard to understand how everyday life in the Holy Land is like. Living in Palestine, to accompany people on their way to work, and listening to them over a cup of tea brings reality a significant step closer. My conclusion after 3 months as an EA: I do not only know more, but I understand a lot more than before. Yet, I still do not comprehend everything.

2. Unique encounters.

In Jerusalem or at the Dead Sea it’s almost impossible not to collide with a group of pilgrims. Huge crowds running back and forth behind a guide with an umbrella or any symbol of recognition from the Western Wall to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Al Aqsa Mosque. Of course I too visited all these sights and enjoyed the atmosphere of the Souq (Arabic for market) in the old city of Jerusalem. But the very special, unique and unforgettable moments I experienced far off the beaten paths. Drinking tea with Bedouins in the desert, sharing bread and cheese under an olive tree after a hard day picking olives, baking bread with a Palestinian housewife, experiencing the endless hospitality of the Palestinian people and being a small part of their everyday life for a short time.

3. Being part of a change!

The aim of EAPPI is not to offer an exciting time in Israel and Palestine to foreign volunteers, but to accompany locals on greater mission: to support the Palestinians and Israelis in their effort to end the Israeli military occupation, to document human rights violation, to support nonviolent resistance and provide partner-organizations with reliable data concerning the occupation and its effects for the people. All this efforts target one big thing: To achieve a change in a long-lasting, deadlocked situation and to contribute a sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

4. Giving people hope who gave up hope!

Some changes can happen overnight. Some changes take time. I witnessed how quickly it can happen that buildings are destroyed, olive trees are uprooted and with it the livelihoods of many families may be at risk. I also have seen how long the procedure takes for Palestinians to obtain a work- or building permit and how long cases can take in Israeli courts. Even if I’m not in the position to have a direct influence in the ad hoc situation, I noticed that our presence as EAs gives people hope. We listen to them, we tell their stories at home and bring the situation to the attention of people in our home country. Many people opened their door for us and gave us their confidence in the hope that their stories are heard and ultimately lead to change.

These are some of the reasons why I committed myself as an EA in Palestine and Israel. 3 months away from home – separated from family and friends – I found a new home, a new family and new friends. I experienced situations that brought me to my limits and let my personality grow. I had wonderful and unique moments that made my life richer. The memories I have from this three months as an EA give me motivation again and again: Be the change you wish to see in the world!

Do you want to know what EAPPI is doing around the world? Read more from SwedenAustralia, the UK & Ireland, and Canada.