I ran across this picture recently of myself perched in an olive tree near Caritas Hospital in Bethlehem. As it happened, one day as I was making my way to friends in Bethlehem I felt a little rambunctious, and, looking up at an olive tree, I saw a branch that looked ideal for climbing.
It didn’t take a second thought to give into my passion and climb! It wasn’t high, but it felt so good, almost as though the olive tree and I were kin.
As I reminisced over this picture, I thought of all the Palestinians who have suffered greatly in losing their olive trees through land confiscation, making way for the 450-mile separation wall. Such uprooting of olive trees has had huge consequences.
It is a fact that olives provide the main source of income for 10,000 Palestinian families. Then too, every time an olive tree is uprooted, it is not just the economy that is affected but also the cultural identity of a people. It is destroying the Palestinian identity that is dependent upon the olive groves. As one Palestinian cried: “You are killing my mother.”
Up to this date, more than a million olive trees have been destroyed due to the Israeli Occupation and the wall. Many of these trees were more than 1,000 years old, truly representing to the Palestinians the presence of their ancestors.
The wall has not only destroyed the lush, neatly lined olive groves and reduced the fertile land for farming by thousands and thousands of dunams (4 dunams equal 1 acre), but it has effectively separated villagers from their fields, families from medical and educational sites, employees from their site of employment.
Everything takes longer now for the Palestinians: longer to reach destinations, longer in time allotted for traveling to work, longer overnight stays from family so as not to have to work one’s way through checkpoints through the wall every day.
Though Israel was given the right by the United Nations to build the wall in 2000 on the green line — the agreed division between Israel and Palestinian Territory — Israel intruded farther into the West Bank, confiscating at least 10 percent more of the land without the rest of the world raising their voices to protest. Thus, besides the destruction of more olive trees, the Palestinians’ major aquifers and wells now became the inheritance of Israel as the wall jagged irregularly farther east beyond the green line.
Olives have a long history in this part of the world. As early as the fifth to third centuries B.C. in the Mediterranean there is evidence of the use of olives as part of human nutrition. In Syria and Palestine, the first stable communities were organized around the cultivation of olives and olive presses.
In the Gaza Strip, the Philistines were the Palestinian population who left, more than others, traces of the structures for processing olives. Artifacts show they used olives for food and providing light, for the use of cosmetics and in curing the body. Today, olive oil is a fundamental dietary element, starting with breakfast by dipping bread in oil and zatar — a combination of marjoram, lime and oregano.
“But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God: I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.” (Psalms 52:8)
This and many other quotes in the Bible suggest that Jesus, the apostles and the people of their time also appreciated the olive tree.
Perhaps it is the tree’s antiquity. Or perhaps its appearance, so gnarled and jagged, so rough and weathered in limbs, that causes a person to stop and gaze with awe and puzzlement.
The fact that a tree can continue to grow for hundreds of years, to grow green each spring, to produce an abundance of fruit each autumn shows that the tree is truly a symbol of enduring life and enduring trust that yet again the fruit will come forth. And that yet again the mercy of God will be evident for the people as they struggle on for liberation, for a voice in the world.
Therefore our friend the olive tree shouts out to each of us: ”Keep climbing, folks.”