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December, 2003

The Bitter Harvest Of Palestine
By John Ross

AWWARTA VALLEY: I dig my thumbnail into the newly-picked olive and the rich oil spurts into my palm of my hand.  I am picking "zitoon" (in Spanish, "aceituna") in the harvest of the Awwarta valley of Nablus, Palestine, a millennium-old tradition that finds voice in the Old Testament-only now it is not the Pharoahs or the Romans that seek to crush the farmers and seize the fruit of their labor but the Israeli settlers and the brutal army and police that protect them.
   In this in the most ancient of lands, where even the children seem old, the struggle to stay on the land remains fundamental to the survival of villages like Awwarta, a hillside cluster of 5,000 Palestinian farmers and their families (another 5,000 live in the diaspora, mostly in Jordan, Europe and the US).
   At night the settlement of Itamar, where 300 security troops vigorously protect 150 Israeli settler families, scowls down on Awwarta from heights that ride the ridge like an unidentified flying object-sometimes almost at whim the settlers will cut off the juice, leaving the villagers in darkness just to remind them who controls the power in this biblical valley.
   In season, the Israelis will steal the olives and burn and strip the trees. Two years ago Mohammod, (not his real name), could still harvest 2,000 kilos east of the settlement fence, but this year his bounty has been reduced to 400. Saleem arrived in his grove of 10 trees this season to find them already prepicked by the settlers. Now in the villages, crazy settlers like a bushy-bearded gentleman named Victor curse and poison the wells and fire off their Uzis to scatter the Palestinian pickers. Stray donkeys are stolen and disappear behind the Itamar fence. International solidarity workers who accompany the farmers are detained and deported on the spurious grounds that they defend terrorists. Villages like Awwarta are no longer allowed to sell their own oil to outside buyers, although ISM (International Solidarity Movement), which sponsors an annual olive harvest project, does manage to smuggle some out. The dynamics of tension in Awwarta are not unlike those in the Chiapas highlands after the Acteal massacre at the height of the coffee harvest six years ago this December.
   In early morning under the daily swoosh of the Israeli jets the "Terrorists," mostly older men and women in kaffias and headscarves, plus many young children on furlough from the local grade school, load up their patient donkeys with ladders, tarps and buckets and head out to their trees, small family plots first defined under the Ottoman empire, neat rows of green against the red-brown valley floor and hillside where gazelles are sometimes spotted by the pickers. Much as their grandfathers before them, they beat the olives from the branches with stout sticks, and a green rainfall spills onto the tarps spread below where the women sort and clean the fruit (there are seven distinct types of olives-none of them stuffed with pimientos). This year Awwarta and other Nablus valley villages were assigned special days when it was "legal" according to the Israeli government to pick their own olives-these days were often changed or curtailed when settlers complained that the "Terrorists" were picking too close to the fence, and ISM activists and Rabbis for Human Rights sought to intervene to ward off police and army harassment.
   Mosher and his family invite me to pick from his dusty trees beneath the Itamar gate and as we glean the dry gnarly branches he sings me the bitter hymns of Marcel Khalifa and the words of the great Palestinian poet of repression Mamoud Darwish (there are many Darwishes in Awwarta). "They tell the world of how hard our life is, but no one will listen," the twenty-year-old grade school teacher insists as we pull black olives from a tree that is perhaps twice my age, and I am sixty-five years old.
   After sunset the farmers will load up their donkeys to transport the harvest to the town olive press, a gleaming Italian machine of which the village is justifiably proud. Men mingle and smoke. comparing this year's yield to the past and complain loudly about how the Israelis have seized their trees to create a "security perimeter" where migrant workers from Thailand and the Philippines now pick Awwarta's olives for about 50 shekels a day.
   The olive groves of Awwarta are the heart and soul of this village's identity. Throughout Palestine, villages have lost perhaps a half million olive trees to the settlements since Israel was declared a nation 55 years ago, and without their trees and their land the villagers are being forced into a global commodity culture that above all negates the Palestinian identity.
   But for farmers like Saad, a burly member of the Awwarta city council, resistance to this genocide has become second nature. We sit around his large table, filled with hummus from his garbanzo patch, yogurt provided by his few cows, flat bread baked from his wheat fields on olive wood fires taken in the pruning of his trees, and of course, many ripe olives (even the pits are dried for fuel to heat homes in the cold winters), and Saad sighs "This is why I love this land -- no matter what the Israelis do to us, we will never leave it."
 

 

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