The Olive Tree

On the links between family, olives, environmental destruction and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Art by Ash Duncan.

“We will die here, here in the last passage.

Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree”

— “The Earth is Closing On Us” by Mahmoud Darwish

Standing tall in front of our suburban Sydney home is a large olive tree. It’s big enough that if you drove or walked past, it would be hard to miss. I often joke to myself that its presence is how you would know we were Palestinian. Its presence, a reminder of our heritage.

Driving through Palestine, the hills and land are laced with olive groves upon olive groves – from Tulkarem to Jerusalem to Hebron — embodying and defining the landscape. Many of these trees are centuries-old, some dating back 4,000 years. They signify a deep attachment to the land, inherited over generations and generations. They have become rooted in the Palestinian collective consciousness. For Palestinians, the importance of olives and the olive tree are bound up in a rich history. More than just featuring in the cuisine, it is one of the many ways Palestinians assert their belonging to the land. Forming a part of the Palestinian national identity, especially amid experiences of exile and dispossession, they symbolise steadfastness and resilience. In the Palestinian cultural imagination, they feature prominently in poetry, film, music, and literature, especially in contemporary narratives about resistance to the Israeli occupation.

In Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, the trees represent immortality. In a time where Palestine and Palestinians are often associated with ‘violence,’ ‘conflict,’ and ‘death’, this provides a significant contrast. It also signifies the resistance of a people whose historical existence and identity is continuously denied by their occupiers. Through documentaries and films, the ongoing battle between the Israeli state and Palestinians for the right to their land is commonly depicted. One example is Budrus (2009), a documentary detailing the resistance of Palestinians from the village of Budrus against the construction of an Israeli ‘security barrier’ inside their village, which would result in the loss of 300 acres of land and 3,000 olive trees in the process. 

Every year my extended family, who live in a rural town near Tulkarem, partake in the Olive Harvest, a seasonal tradition. Mum tells me that olive picking is a delicate process. After gathering them, they pick and single out the white or hard ones, storing them for pickling or selling, whilst the green and black ones are pressed in refineries to make olive oil.

Many Palestinians depend on the olive harvest as a source of income to support their families and livelihoods. Overall, olives contribute a large portion to the Palestinian agricultural economy, estimated to exceed $84 million in profits annually. They are then sold in domestic and foreign markets, pressed into olive oil, or produced into olive oil soap. An Oxfam report in 2010 found that profits from olive oil could double if Israeli restrictions, such as access to land, and settler violence ended.

Attacks on olive trees by Israeli settlers while Israeli soldiers stand idly by in the West Bank are, unfortunately, a recurring occurrence and are quite well documented. This is often coupled with instances of assaults, theft, vandalism, threats and hold ups, enacting violence against Palestinian farmers. Since Israel first occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israeli authorities and settlers have destroyed around 800, 000 trees. The destruction of centuries-old trees is symbolic, and to many Palestinians it is reminiscent of being uprooted from their land during the Nakba in 1948.

Israel continues to seize land and enact environmental destruction by razing down groves to make way for more settlements, apartheid walls, and military zones. This is part of a larger ploy to reduce ownership of Palestinian land which not only limits the chances of establishing a potential state but deprives Palestinians of their rights, needs, and freedoms.

The very pride and joy of Palestine is wrapped up in a painful political history, making its significance as a symbol of resistance all the more powerful. With the recent news about Israel’s plans to annex its settlements in the West Bank, it is worth wondering how many more olive trees will be destroyed in the process. 

Ultimately, no matter how many trees are destroyed you can never truly destroy a culture and identity that is so deeply embedded in the land.