Resistance is fertile: Palestine’s eco-war

After uprooting thousands of olive trees, Israel’s latest plantation may pose a fire risk to its own citizens.

International volunteers help Palestinian farmers harvest olives [East Jerusalem YMCA JAI]
Armed Israelis often help uproot Palestinian olive trees from ground claimed by illegal settlements [GALLO/GETTY]

They come from across the planet and meet in the shadow of Israel’s 12m concrete wall. They strap olive saplings and water bottles to the back of a donkey, silent under its burden. Former police officers from Sweden, German punks, Australian conservationists, leftist activists from the US, South African priests, and a Celtic fringe of Welsh students join Israeli anarchists and Palestinian pacifists.

These are the guerilla gardeners of the occupied West Bank.

And it’s a growing movement, with more than 120 international volunteers arriving in Bethlehem governorate alone to assist with this year’s harvest.

“Guerilla gardening” has its roots among the Levellers and the Diggers of mid-17th Century England, but today has branches spanning the globe. From Toronto to Moscow, cabals of city-dwelling horticulturalists have sprung up in most population centres with any form of urban anarchist presence.

Seeking to “reclaim public space from its corporate governors”, these green-fingered activists plant flowers, sometimes vegetables, in waste ground under overpasses, at the side of roads and in the centres of cities where concrete has long since replaced living, breathing flora and fauna.

But in the occupied Palestinian territories, it is a slightly different story.

Here, it isn’t merely a symbolic attempt to reclaim pockets of neglected or misused terrain. Here, farmers and their band of globalist shovel-toting supporters are locked into what they see as a life-or-death struggle to resist an illegal land grab.

More than half a million olive trees have been uprooted or destroyed by Israeli civil and military forces in the past 10 years, according to the Palestinian ministry of agriculture, while the fates of hundreds of farming communities are tied to the humble plant – a tree renowned for its symbolism since before the time of Noah. The Palestinians’ largely agricultural economy has traditionally been dependent on its harvest – olive oil, soap, lamp fuel – let alone the fruit itself – as well as the olive wood Nativity carvings sold to tourists in Bethlehem’s old city – they have all been central to the Palestinian economy for hundreds of years.

But the olive tree has now found itself pitted in a battle for survival.

Farmers losing their grove

As the more-than 120 illegal Israeli settlements expand further into occupied Palestinian territory, it is Palestine’s olive farmers who often find themselves facing violence.

“When I saw them cutting down the trees, I felt as if my heart was being uprooted from between my lungs.”

Izzat Abu Latifa, olive farmer

“When I saw them cutting down the trees I felt as if my heart was being uprooted from between my lungs,” said Izzat Abu Latifa, a farmer from Jab’a, near Bethlehem.

At 7 am on Tuesday, February 22, Abu Latifa got a phone call to tell him that Israeli troops were on his family’s farmland – adjacent to route 367, a road between illegal Israeli settlements – and were taking chainsaws to the trees.

When he arrived at the field that his family had cultivated for the past 40 years, he said he found soldiers had cut down 150 trees and were poisoning the roots.

“I planted every year as many trees as I could manage and now they come to destroy what I have been working on,” he said. “Olive trees are holy; what faith, what religion allows this to happen? How does any human being have the heart to kill trees like this?”

The commanding officer told Abu Latifa his trees had been planted on Israeli state land, despite the farmer producing the legal title deeds document.

But just a few months later, under the noses of the military – and as the watchtowers loom above – the guerilla gardeners (and their donkeys) get to work.

“We’ve planted 8,600 trees this season, a total of 69,300 since this programme began in 2001,” said Baha Hilo, coordinator of the Olive Tree Campaign at the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine.

Ottoman rule

There is a law dating from the Ottoman empire in 1853, says Hilo, which states that any land left uncultivated for three years reverts to state ownership. “This law was introduced to boost tax revenues – because the Ottomans wanted food producers to produce,” Hilo told Al Jazeera.

“But Israel applies the same law and blames the Ottomans in order to confiscate land within the occupied West Bank – except that the land becomes ‘property’ of the state of Israel, not the Ottoman empire.

“Our campaign is to help Palestinian farmers maintain ownership of their property – and once olive trees are planted, it is evidence that the land is being cultivated.”

The joint YMCA-YWCA project is primarily an advocacy campaign, says Hilo. “We take the stories from the ground to the sponsors of the trees,” he says.

“When a field is taken by Israel, it’s no longer just the farmer who it is being taken from, but from all the international sponsors all over the world.”

On Abu Latifa’s land, Hilo’s team of volunteers get to digging and planting.

“The Israelis had destroyed 100 trees. We came back with 300”

– Baha Hilo, Olive Tree campaign coordinator

“In another example, there is Ahmed Barguth from Al Walaja [another village on the outskirts of Bethlehem]. In June last year, the Israeli military put his family under house arrest, and then destroyed his farmland to build a road. We called up the sponsors of the trees, and a few months later, we went in with about 50 people. The Israelis had destroyed 100 trees. We came back with 300.

“We got all the olive trees and we all lined up in an assembly line and we each took a pickaxe and got to work. The army kept their distance that day and there was no confrontation. We had people from Norway, Japan, the UK, Finland, the Netherlands and Italy.

Among the group were “church members, retired doctors, youth workers, teachers, retired military men”, aged between 18 and 84 years old. “Men and women, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, communist – you name it,” said Hilo.

“We’re not a militia, our weapons are our pickaxes and shovels, our hands and our olive trees.”

The ‘blessed’ tree

The tree is deemed holy, blessed by Allah, according to the Quran, and can live to be hundreds of years old. In Jerusalem’s Garden of Gethsemane, it is claimed the olive trees are the very same plants that Jesus and his followers prayed under.

“We’re not a militia, our weapons are our pickaxes and shovels, our hands and our olive trees.”

Baha Hilo, Olive Tree Campaign coordinator

“When you’re driving on brand new roads, and you come across a 500-year-old olive tree on a brand new road junction – you have to ask yourself: ‘Where did that tree come from? Has it grown there for hundreds of years, and this road just happen to come across it?’ The answer is: ‘No, of course not. This is a tree which has been taken from somewhere else – from someone else – and probably from someone whose family has been tending to these trees for generations,'” says Hilo.

When Al Jazeera contacted the Israeli government for comment, spokesperson Mark Regev denied knowledge of the use of the Ottoman law, and the Palestinian horticultural resistance campaign, saying: “I’m not aware of it.” 

In the 2009 paper Uprooting identities: The regulation of olive trees in the occupied West Bank published in the Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Prof Irus Braverman uncovered some strong opinions on the subject:

“Like children, their trees look so naive, as if they can’t harm anyone. But like [their] children, several years later they turn into a ticking bomb,” Chief Inspector Kishik, of Israel’s Civil Administration, told her.

The Israeli quest to “make the desert bloom” is older than the state of Israel itself. Since the 1920s, members of the pre-Israel Zionist movement attempted to massively boost food production, to prove to the British administrators of its “Palestine mandate” that the country could provide homes to more Jewish immigrants.

Indeed, since 1901, the Jewish National Fund has planted more than 240 million trees, mostly pine, across Israel – notably in the occupied Golan Heights.

Covering up history

But the planting of European pine trees was also intended, after 1948, to cover the remains of decimated Arab villages, says Alice Gray, professor of environmental studies at Al-Quds Bard Honors College.

 “While Israel is widely credited… with having ‘miraculously’ greened the desert, less widely acknowledged is the fact that they destroyed the lower Jordan river system, the Dead Sea and the Coastal Aquifer while they were doing it.”

– Professor Alice Gray

“The JNF’s planting campaign ensured that farmers would be unable to return to their land, as pines alter the chemistry of the soil – preventing the development of agricultural crops,” says Prof Gray.

This rezoning of the land to state-owned plantation “de-legitimises” other forms of land use, such as grazing by Bedouin herds or low-tech faming by fellahin [peasants], she told Al Jazeera.

“While Israel is widely credited with being at the cutting edge of thrifty water use techniques, such as drip irrigation and wastewater treatment and reuse, and with having ‘miraculously’ greened the desert, less widely acknowledged is the fact that they destroyed the lower Jordan river system, the Dead Sea and the Coastal Aquifer while they were doing it,” said Gray.

Olive groves are often destroyed, but international activists are quick to help re-plant them [GALLO/GETTY]

The latest development in this struggle of eco-warfare is the planting of a 12 km strip of eucalyptus trees, at a cost estimated at 7 million shekels ($2m), along the edge of the Gaza Strip. The planting has already begun, according to the Israeli military.

“We are planting trees that will grow and provide cover,” Lieutenant Cololonel Ilan Dayan said. “A person firing an anti-tank missile needs a line of sight to the target. If he doesn’t have one, he has a serious problem.”

Jewish National Fund chairman Efi Stenzler added: “We believe that the same JNF trees that have protected Golan Heights residents from the Syrians will now protect the residents of the south.”

Major General Tal Russo, recently appointed commander of Israel’s Southern Command, said the project reminded him of his upbringing on a kibbutz. “For me this is the completion of a cycle,” he said. “I was born into the strategic security forestation in the Hula Valley, which was then used to defend from Syrian shelling. This was the first project placed on my desk as I came into this position. The project … expresses the brave connection to the communities surrounding Gaza, and allows us to upgrade our mission of defending the southern communities with environmental benefits.

“Despite Hamas’ recent efforts to challenge us, we stand strong. We are training, preparing and equipping ourselves to defend the residents of southern Israel. We will not accept the threat to [our] communities and will continue operating to preserve the peace in the south.”

The risks of introducing non-native species

But planting the non-native eucalyptus, which agriculturalists note “has a reputation for developing extensive root structures”, may pose other risks, such as lowering the water table in an already arid zone. 

One other problem with planting eucalyptus trees close to communities they are intended to protect is the reported increased danger from fire. It is not necessarily that the trees themselves are explosive, per se. But, on a hot day, the vapour of the trees’ oily sap forms a highly flammable cloud. In addition, the leaf and branch litter in eucalyptus forests is drier than other trees’ litter due to the nature of the trees’ canopy preventing sunlight aiding decomposition.

Following the Sydney bushfires of January 1994, Reuters reported: “The explosive nature of the eucalyptus and the abundance of fuel produces a very intense fire that ‘crowns’ – leaps from tree top to tree top … The fierce blazes have been stoked by the highly volatile oils of the eucalyptus tree, which vaporise under intense radiative heat as the fire approaches and explode, with flames sometimes towering as high as 230 feet [70m].” [Michael Perry, “Sydney Bushfires Fuelled By Exploding Eucalyptus,” Reuters World Service, January 10, 1994]

This is no problem for the trees, it turns out. Eucalyptus trees are noted for their ability to withstand fire. Indeed, a strong fire every five years or so is understood to aid the development of a eucalyptus forest.

The same, however, cannot be said for those who have their homes near to such forests. When fire tore through the Berkeley-Oakland Hills eucalyptus groves in 1991, 24 people were killed as 3,000 homes were destroyed.

“The explosive nature of the eucalyptus and the abundance of fuel produces a very intense fire.”

Reuters report on the 1994 Sydney bushfires

Back in Palestine, the guerilla gardeners aren’t the only grassroots green group poised to blossom in the occupied territories’ parched valleys. In addition to her classroom teaching, Professor Alice Gray also runs Bustan Qaraaqa, a permaculture-oriented agriculture project which teaches Palestinian and international volunteers innovative water management and farming techniques.

“I hope that there is a general increase in the consciousness of the connection between politics and the environment – and a realisation that we are not passive actors in all of this, that everyone has the power to take control to some extent over their relationship with the environment and start trying to interact with it constructively. Of course, we think that permaculture provides a tool-set for doing this,” says Prof Gray.

“It is also about not accepting the power-structures prescribed by the oppressors and trying to creatively circumvent them somehow – which works right up until the point that they bring the bulldozers and the big guns. This is why it is not really enough to ‘go home and garden’ – we also need the political and legal activism that will try to contain the most destructive elements of the occupation.
“All we are doing here is trying to ensure that there is a country left that is worth arguing over when all is said and done …  Whenever the hell that is.”

You can follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell

Source: Al Jazeera