Planting olive trees: a nonviolent act of perseverance and steadfastness

by Ken, Yanoun team


Planting olive trees is an important part of spring for the 80,000 families in Palestine who depend on the olive harvest for income. Photo EAPPI/J. Byrne.

Planting olive trees is an important part of spring for the 80,000 families in Palestine who depend on the olive harvest for income. Photo EAPPI/J. Byrne.

It’s 9:00 am on a warm sunny morning in Burin. The weather is unusually mild for the time of year and the farmers are complaining about the scarcity of rainfall.  We’ve been asked to accompany the villagers while planting new olive trees to replace the ones Israeli settlers from the Yizhar settlement destroyed. Our transport arrives: a tractor and trailer containing about 50 olive tree saplings. The many passengers make room for us as we climb aboard and, precariously balanced, we set off on a 2 kilometre long journey across the valley and up a steep incline to arrive at a ploughed field just 300 metres from the fence surrounding the settlement.

Mamoun, from the rural development association in Burin and also one of the coordinators of this event, shows me the blackened remains of olive trees burned by Israeli settlers in an adjacent field. He believes in a conspiracy theory that I’ve heard before: that this arson is not a random act but part of a coordinated attempt to undermine the Palestinian rural economy.  He explains that “they know what they are doing. There is some genius thinking for them”. He also cautions us that farmers are often “beaten” in this area, especially if they get too close to the fence.

There is more to this event than just planting trees: it is both a memorial and a political statement. Attached to the saplings are photographs of Palestinian nationals. Some are long-term prisoners in Israeli jails; others have died in resisting the occupation. One photograph is of a local boy, aged about 10, who recently died of a brain tumour in spite of eventually receiving expert Israeli medical care. I realise that the man standing stoically alone in front of the tree is the boy’s father. At the risk of intruding on his private grief, I offer my condolences on his loss and a prayer for him. He thanks me for my concern in a most dignified way but then continues his vigil.

Planting trees is hard, sweaty and tiring work and our team pitches in. At a scheduled break I search for a stone to sit on, mindful of an earlier conversation with Mamoun about the local flora and fauna in which he mentioned that there were “many snakes” including a “Palestinian cobra”. Mamoun senses my anxiety: “don’t worry”, he says, “it’s winter and they’re sleeping”.

I ask Mamoun about his organization. He explains that it’s primarily concerned with improving agricultural productivity, and especially in helping farmers to become self-sufficient despite the diminishing amount of land accessible to them. It also organizes a women’s handicraft cooperative, promoting health education, and setting up a savings scheme to help parents pay for their children’s university education. All this depends on volunteer help without external funding.

This initiative seems to worry the Israeli military intelligence, as if being a community activist is somehow subversive. Mamoun’s office has been subjected to no less than six night-time raids by the army. He and, by association, his family are on a ‘black list’. When his 64 year old father enquired as to why his application for a permit to work in Israel had been rejected the answer was “ask your son”!

The planting ends ceremonially with the unfurling of a ‘solidarity’ banner and the obligatory taking of photographs. Everyone is in a jubilant mood. The trees have been planted without provoking a reaction by the settlers, and the army has kept its distance even though it has captured everything on video from beginning to end.

Mamoun sums up the feeling of the workers when he says “for every one tree they [the Israeli settlers] destroy, we will plant ten trees more”.

I’m convinced that against all the odds this continuing emphasis on nonviolent resistance will eventually win the day for the Palestinians as it did for Gandhi in India and Mandela in South Africa.

Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, about what he calls a ‘third intifada’ believes that “it is the one that Israel always feared most – not an intifada with stones or suicide bombers, but one propelled by non-violent resistance and economic boycott”.

The final word naturally belongs to Mamoun: he warmly thanks our team “for your support and for showing solidarity with us”, and the other workers beam in agreement.

Protective presence still needed to keep Yanoun alive

EAPPI has maintained a round-the-clock presence in Yanoun since early 2003. The presence of ‘internationals’ as witnesses to  document and record incidents has largely acted as a brake on further settler attacks but the situation is still volatile.

by Ken, Yanoun team

Two EAs on their morning walk for protective presence. Photo EAPPI/K. Hodgson.

It’s 06.00 on a chilly morning in Yanoun as we begin our daily morning walk between the upper and lower villages. The sun is slowly rising over the Jordanian hills bringing warmth to the valley; the old olive trees stand sentinel in the fields as both human and animal life begins to stir. Suddenly the tranquility is shattered by two Israeli military vehicles that roar towards us, slowing only to make a quick appraisal of these new incomers before continuing on their way. This is a stark reminder that we are in Area C of the West Bank, fully controlled by the Israeli army and subject to military law. The walk is part of our protective presence in the village, designed to reassure the villagers and to deter the Israeli settlers, who occupy the ridges overlooking the village, from carrying out acts of harassment and intimidation.                           

Upper Yanoun is home to seven households of 30 persons. It’s only 300 metres from the boundary fence of the Itamar settlement outpost of Giv’ot Olam. A very short distance across the valley outposts ‘836’ and ‘777’ named after the contours of the hills they occupy, look down on Middle Yanoun, which now is no more than one house occupied by a household of six the other two houses having been abandoned. About a kilometre down the valley Lower Yanoun is home to a further seven households of 44 persons. The muezzin’s call to prayer from the Lower Yanoun mosque often accompanies our evening patrol as far as the old Nablus road; we have been warned by the settlers not to go any further.

Outpost Hill 777 through binoculars. Photo EAPPI/C. Schelbert, 2012.

Outpost Hill 777 through binoculars. Photo EAPPI/C. Schelbert, 2012.

In the late 1990s Itamar settlement began annexing the nearby hills and establishing outposts on Palestinian land along the ridge above Yanoun. The settlements in Palestine are illegal under international law but the Israeli government continues to promote and support their development with impunity. Settlement outposts are even illegal under Israeli law but they’re spreading across the land. Yanoun is in a strategic position and is blocking the advance of these settlements towards the Jordan valley.

With the settlers came violence: the villagers repeatedly experienced physical assaults, threats of shootings, vandalism of personal and community property, and theft of land and crops. The violence escalated to the point that in October 2002 the villagers decided to evacuate their homes. This was the first exodus in recent times of a Palestinian community from its village in the wake of settler attacks. The village was mostly reoccupied a few days later but only because of intense interest from the international media and with the support of Israeli peace activists.

Rashid Murar, head of Yanoun, says of EAPPI’s continued protective presence, that “if the internationals leave the village in the morning, we will leave in the afternoon”.

The villagers’ troubles don’t end there. In 2012 the Israeli army declared part of Yanoun’s land as a closed military zone, denying the villagers access to cultivate their fields but allowing the settlers to confiscate it, establish outposts and to cultivate the land. This action prompted a violent clash between the villagers and the settlers; the army sided with the settlers.

Altogether the villagers have now lost more than 70% of their land to Israeli settlers. The villagers are now confined to grazing their sheep on the lower slopes and farming in the valley bottom. The hilltops and fields beyond are off limits; the villagers risk being shot on sight if they attempt to reclaim their land. The steadfastness of the villagers in spite of the difficulties they face is truly awe inspiring.

As I’m writing this article, I receive a phone call: the settlers have attacked Lower Yanoun! We race to the scene to be met by a heartbreaking sight.  In a field just beyond the boundary of our evening walk 45 out of 115 olive trees, aged between 100 and 200 years old, have been cut down by Israeli settlers sometime during the night; many of the other 70 have suffered severe damage from a chain-saw.


Israeli settlers cut down olive trees in Yanoun. Even if replanted, it will take 5 to 10 years before this family can bring in their current income from these trees. Photo EAPPI/K. Hodgson.

On the opposite hillside a lone, armed settler watches the crowd that has gathered. A representative of the Israeli Civil Administration (staffed by army personnel) and a contingent of army and police arrive to assess the situation. A prolonged and heated discussion takes place. In the middle of all this Avri Ran arrives on the scene: he’s a dedicated Zionist alleged to have been the inspiration for the fanatical ‘hilltop youth’ movement, and he’s also our neighbour. None of us knows what he wants but a short while later he drives away.

I ask one of the farmers what the Israeli authorities will do about the incident. He replies, with a fatalistic shrug, “they will take photographs and then ‘Khalas’ [finished]”.

This sad story doesn’t have a fairy tale ending but the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture has told the villagers that it will replace all of the trees and others lost in a recent storm. But it will take between five and ten years for the trees to be become commercially productive; in the meantime the families will lose a much needed income.  The settlers know this. Some Palestinian farmers even believe that such attacks are part of a coordinated strategy to undermine the Palestinian rural economy.  Our part in this story hasn’t ended either: we’ve been asked and agreed to provide a protective presence during the tree planting. The work starts next week. 

Tuqu’ – a village under siege

by Alison, Bethlehem team 

An Israeli soldier cries as a Palestinian woman pleas for her olive trees not to be destroyed. Photo EAPPI/A. Morgan.

An Israeli soldier cries as a Palestinian woman pleas for her olive trees not to be destroyed. Photo EAPPI/A. Morgan.

It will be like killing our mothers…

A loud buzz of chainsaws greets our arrival following a call from Tuqu’ – a Palestinian village of about 12,000 people, south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. We find Israeli soldiers overseeing the destruction of row after row of mature olive trees.

The Palestinian farmers remonstrate with the army. They have land ownership documents dating back generations from the Jordanian, British and Ottoman administrations, but soldiers ignore their arguments and hold them back at gunpoint. I notice a woman pleading with soldiers who order her away, but she will not let up. An Israeli Border Guard, a young woman who speaks Arabic, is called to deal with her. I watch as the young soldier stands listening and silently drops her head, turning her face to wipe away tears.

Finally, the buzzing stops, but it is a temporary reprieve. The Israelis have declared this ‘state land’ and the farmers are given four days to cut down hundreds more trees themselves, or the world’s fourth largest army will return to defend Israel from the olive trees.

‘How can we do this?’ asks one farmer ‘It will be like killing our mothers!’

Emotional harassment in Area C

About three quarters of Tuqu’s land is in Area C, under full Israeli military control, although Israel was supposed to give the Palestinian Authority full control of this area within 5 years of the Oslo Agreement. Tuqu’ has already lost hundreds of hectares to the illegal Israeli settlements of Teqoa, Noqedim and Ma’ale Amos that surround it to the north, south and east. 

Our team comes regularly to Tuqu’. It is one of four Bethlehem villages where we accompany children to school as part of a UNICEF ‘Access to Education’ programme. Every day, children of 6 to 18 must run the gauntlet of armed Israeli soldiers and we have been present when the army shot tear-gas at the schools. The soldiers obstruct the school entrances with jeeps, and patrol the footpaths with guns, forcing the children to walk across rough fields or along the busy road.

‘It is emotional harassment’ says the mayor.

Recently we met a 16 year old boy who showed us the X- ray of a bullet still lodged in his back since a recent military incursion into Tuqu’. The mayor also tells us that over 20 children have been arrested in the last three months.

Quickly a new settlement is born

The Israeli forces set up concrete blocks and new warning signs. Photo EAPPI/A. Morgan.

The Israeli forces set up concrete blocks and new warning signs. Photo EAPPI/A. Morgan.

Two weeks before the trees were cut down, Tuqu’s mayor called us because Israeli settlers, accompanied by soldiers, began putting up Israeli flags and tents on Tuqu’ land each afternoon. Following this we saw the army erecting a series of concrete pillars along the roadside, with two red signs warning Israelis that this was a dangerous Palestinian village. Soon after this, settlers erected a large marquee and put up provocative posters with a picture of a car being fire-bombed. The Palestinian landowner protested, but the military commander told him the settlers would have  the land for two days for a party.  There was nothing the farmer could do to stop this, but the village held a peaceful protest, whilst a large Israeli military force guarded the settlers.

The people of Tuqu’ know that this is how it starts; a few tents, some flags, then some caravans – an illegal settlement outpost is born. With Israeli state protection and financial inducements it will soon grow to thousands of settlers. More land theft, house demolitions, movement restrictions and violence against local Palestinians will follow.

Two days after the party, the settlers are back. They include a vigilante group called Women in Green* led by a Belgian-born woman called Nadia Matar. We ask what she thinks about the 16 year old Tuqu’ boy who was shot it the back whilst going to visit his grandfather.

‘ He was probably throwing stones.’ She replies ‘Kids who throw stones should be shot in the head. ’

Children at non-violent protest in Tuqu'. Photo EAPPI/A. Morgan.

Children at non-violent protest in Tuqu’. Photo EAPPI/A. Morgan.

During a visit to Tuqu’ a week after the tree cutting, we see scores of settlers coming towards the village, many bringing young children. A large number of Israeli soldiers position themselves across the road and fields, aiming their rifles and teargas cannons at Palestinian children coming out with their parents for another peaceful protest. The settlers hold a ceremony and light candles. It is Hanukkah, and they tell us they are giving this area a new Hebrew name.

International Law and Israeli settlements

Under international law it is illegal for Israel, as an occupying force, to transfer its own population into the occupied Palestinian territories. Despite this, Israel’s massive settlement programme has continued unabated for decades, with thousands more homes being planned during the current Peace talks. With many settlements to the east of Bethlehem and other Palestinian centres, the Israeli strategy seems clear: to expand the eastern settlements westward to join up with Jerusalem, bisecting the West Bank and corralling the Palestinian population into a series of isolated areas.

EAPPI is keeping international agencies informed about these developments in Tuqu’ and a legal challenge is underway, supported by UNOCHA and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Watch video documentation of Tuqu’:

Tuqu’ Village Olive Trees Cut Down & Women in Green settler action

Israeli Settlers and Israeil army harass Tuqu’ Village in the West Bank

*Women in Green (WiG) is a right wing group that opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and supports Israeli settlement of the West Bank, which it proposes Israel should annex. WiG also opposed Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon.  Nadia Matar, the Belgian-born leader of WiG claims that the ‘Arabs’ in the ‘Holy Land’ are descended from relatively recent immigrants, and should be ‘transferred’ to neighbouring Arab countries.