Fawzi Ibrahim, 57, comes from a family of farmers. The rocky hills surrounding his home in Jalud, near the West Bank city of Nablus, are scattered with gnarled, ancient olive groves, and during harvest season, the heavy smell of oil hangs in the air.
“Of the 1,500 trees we have, my father knew each and every one,” Ibrahim says, studying a tattered map of the area. “Under that olive tree there were the Turkish headquarters in World War I. There came the Turks, the British, the Jordanians and the Israelis. All of them passed away.
“But my grandfather picked the olives, my father did and I did. My sons are doing, and my grandsons will too.”
But in both modern-day Israel and the occupied West Bank, Israeli farmers are also making claims to the trees as motifs of permanence, life and growth in the Zionist story.
Israel Trees, an organisation that facilitates and funds the planting of orchards, is one of the groups embodying that vision. On its promotional videos, fruit fields and smiling, suntanned Israeli farmers are living representations of cultivation and plenty.
“For 2,000 years the Jewish people were not in their land, but we have returned, and with it, the blessing has returned,” an American narrator explains. “They’ll do all the backbreaking work. They just need your help in buying the trees.”
On its website, supporters of Israel Trees are invited to perform “mitzvah” – a good deed – by buying a fruit tree in Israel, an act that comes with the blessings of big-name rabbis and the endorsement of groups such as United with Israel, a leading global grassroots movement.
Planting trees, it says, is an apolitical act about “showing love to the land of Israel”. Israel Trees’ founder, Shmuel Sackett, makes the same claim: “We have no political agenda whatsoever,” he says. “Nothing other than bringing life and blessing to the land.”
When it comes to expanding settlements, the practical role of trees is key [Bethan Staton/Al Jazeera]
But “apolitical” is hardly a fitting description for this organisation. Israel Trees is a project of Zo Artzeinu, a right-wing Israeli outfit whose name means “this is our land.”
“Land”, here, refers to everything between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; that is, both the territory that became Israel after 1948 and the West Bank that would be Palestinian in an imagined two-state solution.
Israel Trees plants prolifically here. Of 24 orchard sites listed on its website, more than half are Jewish-Israeli farms on Palestinian territory that has been under military occupation since 1967.
Like all settlements, these communities are widely considered to be illegal under international law .
Sackett, the persistently upbeat American Israeli behind Israel Trees, makes no secret of his total disregard for two states. Intensely and vocally religious, he is a committed supporter of convicted fighter and Jewish ultranationalist Meir Kahane, and insists on referring to all the areas he plants only as “biblical Israel”.
“That’s what it’s called, we’re not dividing it into sections,” he tells Al Jazeera. “It is biblical Israel. There is no West Bank, East Bank, North, South, East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem. It is the land of Israel given to me by God himself. To me and to my family and not to anybody else.”
Sackett’s political background is hardly neutral. He founded Zo Artzeinu in the 1990s with Moshe Feiglin, and now works as international director of the firebrand Knesset member’s religio-nationalist, ultra-right Manhigut Yehudit movement.
Among the organisation’s objectives are total Jewish sovereignty over both Gaza and the West Bank, incentives for non-Jews to emigrate and, ultimately, “the coming of the Mashiach [Messiah] and complete and final redemption”.
Sackett claimed to have “no idea” what the term “Palestinian” refers to. “Arabs did live here before 1948 but they are not Palestinians, there’s no such thing; it is all a fiction,” he says.
When I reached the land, they would come to me and fight me with weapons, and say, 'If you do not leave we will kill you.' The army was there all the time. They pushed me out; they were very aggressive. They used dogs, and sometimes sticks.
In fact, there are 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank, easily outnumbering the territory’s 360,000-strong settler population.
Ibrahim is one of them. He lived his whole life in the village, and his family home is built from the fragments of centuries, with Ottoman-era walls and 1940s art-deco details.
It is surrounded by the acres of olive groves and agricultural land that Ibrahim’s family has harvested and tended to for generations.
Today, however, the six settlements that surround the community are gradually suffocating the agricultural livelihood that Jalud depends on.
“The settlers, by force, stopped me using the land,” Ibrahim tells Al Jazeera. In 1998, he says, settlers from the surrounding outposts cut 300 of his olive trees; two years later, they stopped him from reaching his olive groves entirely.
“When I reached the land, they would fight me with weapons, and say, ‘If you do not leave we will kill you.’ The army was there all the time. They pushed me out; they were very aggressive. They used dogs and sometimes sticks.”
Among the settlements causing problems for Ibrahim are Aish Kodesh and Shilo, both of which are key planting sites for Israel Trees. Violence and harassment from both – including burning trees, attacking Palestinians, and planting trees on Jalud land – have been documented by NGOs such as Rabbis for Human Rights.
Other Israel Trees settlements, such as Yitzhar, are also notorious for attacks targeting Palestinians.
Economically and emotionally, the impact on Ibrahim has been heavy. After he was barred from his olive groves in 2000, it took seven years – much of which was spent with no income – for him to regain access to them. Even today, he is only able to access his trees for a few days twice a year.
“They will give me three days for 1,500 trees which need months to pick the olives,” Ibrahim explains. “They give me two days during the year to tend the land, even though I need more than this to look after it. I need to trim the branches, add fertilisers, things like that. In the time from 2000-2007, I lost all my trees. I’ve had to take care of them carefully, and they’ve returned to life only now.”
Aish Kodesh residents say they are threatened by Palestinians and that the land is theirs. A recent tree-planting day showcased their arguments: Run by Israel Trees and Manhigut Yehudit, it was billed as an act of defiance and a celebration of life.
Irus Braverman – who investigated these “Tree Wars” in her 2007 book “Planted Flags” – is highly critical of these non-political frames.
“For a lot of Zionist Jews in the US and Canada, the act of planting a tree is seen as innocuous, the most apolitical thing you can do,” she tells Al Jazeera. “Whatever your political values are, you can plant a tree; that’s how it’s portrayed.”
But when it comes to expanding settlements, the practical role of trees is also key. Today, agriculture occupies 93,000 dunums (9,300 hectares) of West Bank land, compared to just 60,000 dunums (6000 hectares) for built settlements.
In a recent report, Israeli NGO Kerem Navot argued that agriculture in the West Bank has a “clear territorial rationale”, thanks to the fact that trees are able to claim “large plots of land” with “relatively few resources”.
For Ibrahim, none of this is news. “When they cut down the 300 olive trees Amira Hass, the Israeli journalist, came here and she asked me: ‘How do you feel?’ he says. I said, ‘The answer is very easy: How does a man feel when his child is killed?’ My father, of the 1,500 trees, he knew each and every tree. And because of that, I need to keep them. I’m not leaving, I’m not going to give up.”
Meanwhile, in the settlements of the West Bank, a short distance from Jalud, Sackett is defiant, proud to share that his organisation recently planted 3,700 mango trees in the Jordan Valley.
“It’s our land, we’re gonna plant as many trees as we can,” he says. “What exactly is political about a mango tree?”