Last Friday a friend told me she was going with the Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli organization, to a village called Sawya to help with the olive harvest. I invited myself along, eager to see Israelis and Palestinians interacting in such a positive way.

Sawya is a hilltop village located between Ramallah and Nablus. When the Oslo Accord maps were being drawn up in 1993, nearly all of Sawya’s land was designated Area C, which means Israel has total security and administrative control of it. Virtually every new home built outside the circle of Sawya’s built-up area in 1993 is slated for demolition by the Israeli government. Meanwhile, illegal Israeli settlements all around it continue to expand, and the people of Sawya find it increasingly difficult to access their land.

I caught a service taxi to the village on Friday morning and arrived just as two busloads of Israelis and Jewish Americans pulled up. Most of them were rabbinical students or members of an eco-kibbutz near Eilat. A tall, energetic rabbi in a t-shirt, baseball cap, and work jeans was the leader. He was an Israeli with an American accent and a full grey beard. He split everyone into two groups, and I joined the one heading to the olive harvest first.

My group must have been the eco-kibbutzniks, because they were all dressed like Stanford hippies. (One of them, it turned out, actually was a Stanford hippy. Small world.) The odd man out was a guy in his thirties with a neatly-clipped beard and a green t-shirt. When we were introducing ourselves, he said, “My name is Daniel, and I’m sorry to say that last time I was here, I was wearing green.” He meant he had been a soldier in the Israeli army.

Our Palestinian guide was an amiable man in his early forties named Abed, and he talked for a while about the work he did for women’s empowerment in Ramallah. He said women were slowly becoming more empowered in Palestinian society, and that a few mayors and several members of the Legislative Council were women. More and more women were also attending university. But they had a ways to go, especially in the more conservative towns and villages.

He had met his wife at one of his empowerment workshops, he said, but unfortunately she had an East Jerusalem ID, which meant that if she moved to any part of the West Bank behind the Wall, she would lose her ID along with many freedoms and privileges. As for Abed, he was strictly forbidden from living in East Jerusalem, and even to visit he had to get a permit. He has a daughter but rarely sees her.

He talked also about Sawya, its land, and the settlements. Pretty basic stuff, but it all seemed to be news to the kibbutzniks. The questions they asked made it clear they didn’t have even a basic grasp of the situation. It was good that they were there, but it had taken me a year before I felt I had a decent handle on the situation (condensed neatly for you in my book). I desperately wished I could do a Vulcan mind meld with these kids. Or give them each a copy of my book.

They were also missing out on the essence of the harvest. It was pleasant enough, but two hours with a bunch of internationals could hardly be called a real olive harvest experience.

We had a small picnic lunch on the hillside before we left, overlooking a small valley and another hill across the way. The settlement Rehelim was built on that hill. Abed told us about how many Palestinian olive trees the Israeli army cut down to build settlements, settler roads, and the Wall. “Or sometimes, like you see this junction here…” He pointed to a crossroads of settler roads in the valley. “You see there are olive trees all around this junction. If someone attacks a settler car at this junction, the Israeli army cuts down all the olive trees.”

Daniel, the ex-soldier, protested, “But that’s legitimate. That’s for security reasons.”

“Maybe,” I piped in matter-of-factly. “But the settlements aren’t legitimate. The settler roads steal Palestinian land as well. And if you cut off people’s ability to resist here, they might take it to Tel Aviv.”

As we were walking to meet the other group, I started chatting with Daniel. When he learned I lived in Ramallah, he asked, “Have you spent time in Israel, too?”

“Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time in Israel.”

“Have you spent any time in the settlements?”

“Yes, I’ve spent time in settlements.”

“That’s good. It’s good not to dehumanize anyone. I mean, a lot of the settlers are just living there because it’s cheaper. You can get a much nicer house in a settlement for less money than you’d pay in Israel.”

My jaw tightened involuntarily as countless images of the devastation wrought by settlements flashed through my mind. “I’m sure it was very economical for many white people in South Africa to enjoy the privileges of Apartheid,” I said. “But this is no reason to allow such policies to continue.”

Tour of Oppression

We found the other group soon, and now it was their turn to harvest olives for two hours and our turn to go on a small tour of West Bank oppression. Our first stop was the Huwara Checkpoint south of Nablus, where the rabbi got out and told us a few basics about checkpoints and roadblocks and settlement policies.

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He spoke about the work of Rabbis for Human Rights to help Palestinian farmers access their lands and the difficulties they faced. Palestinians were often denied access to their land, either because it was in Area C, near a settlement, near a settler road, near the Wall, on the other side of the Wall, or because settlers were causing problems in the area and Palestinians were barred from the area ‘for their own safety.’

Even when the Palestinians were given permission to access one of these ‘hot spots,’ the permissions were often revoked without warning or decreased from three days to one and a half without reason. The presence of Israelis and internationals was often the only thing that could convince soldiers either to protect Palestinians from settlers or to allow them as much access to their land as they were legally entitled to under Israel’s military authority (inadequate as it usually was).

Just as the Rabbis for Human Rights were congratulating themselves for their good work, he said, they began to realize that what they were doing was even more inadequate than they feared. They were only helping a relatively small percentage of Palestinians access their land, and only during the olive harvest itself. If farmers didn’t have access to the land for the rest of the year — to prune the trees, plow the land, and do other maintenance work — the olive yield was much smaller. The rabbis tried to incorporate this reality into their activism as well, but it was impossible to keep up with all the damage control that was needed.

He also talked about cases where settlers had stolen families’ entire days’ olive harvests at gunpoint, not because they wanted the olives but to deprive Palestinians of their livelihood. Much worse, sometimes they cut down or burned hundreds of trees at a time. Olive trees, with their ancient years and deep roots, were powerful symbols of Palestinian ties to the land. Settlers apparently hoped that by destroying these trees, they were solidifying their own claims to the land.

In Burin, a lovely village where I once enjoyed a huge dinner with a family who invited me in while I was on my way to Nablus, forty trees were just cut down by settlers in response to Israeli police evacuating three illegal structures in various West Bank outposts. In Al Mughayir, a Palestinian village northeast of Ramallah, which like Sawya is surrounded by Area C land, two hundred trees were cut down by settlers from an ‘outpost,’ a small ideological settlement satellite built in contravention even of Israeli law.

According to the The Economist, one man named Mr. Abu Awad, who lost 70 trees due to the settlers’ rampage in Al Mughayir, “lost income worth around $3,400 that he would have earned from this year’s harvest. But that is not all. ‘I planted these trees with my own hands 35 years ago,’ he says.”

I’ve heard families have heated arguments over the fate of a single tree. Each tree is like a member of the family, raised and cared for and climbed and combed over many lifetimes, an endlessly renewable source of dignified income and indispensable olives and oil. It is nearly impossible for Westerners to grasp what these trees mean to their owners. Losing 40 at once, or 70, or 650 in the case of one Jayyous farmer in 2005, is felt as a kind of massacre.

(For a small taste of the anguish of losing a grove, see this video.)

The rabbi mentioned that in recent years, the Israeli army has gotten better about protecting Palestinians from settlers and allowing them access to more land so they could harvest their olives with less harassment. This apparently isn’t saying very much.

The rabbi went on, “Whenever there’s talk of a settlement freeze, or a temporary outpost structure is demolished, the settlers often go on a rampage, destroying trees or private property or assaulting Palestinian farmers to make the Israeli government ‘think twice’ about doing it again. They call it ‘exacting a price.’”

This isn’t his opinion. According to Haaretz, “Extremist settlers often vandalize Palestinian property to protest Israel’s removal of small, illegal outposts in the West Bank—a tactic they call ‘the price tag.’”

According to The Economist, “Many of the settlers pursue a ‘price-tag policy,’ deliberately instigating violence and mayhem so that the Israeli military and political establishment is loth to take action, such as evacuating the 100-plus ‘illegal’ settlements [i.e., settler outposts, which are illegal even under Israeli law], for fear of further violence… Whenever there are signs of [peace] negotiation, [settlers] increase their attacks—among other things, on olive trees. They want to show who controls the land. Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Israeli government has plainly emboldened the settlers… When the ruling politicians seem to back the settlers, the Israeli soldiers feel less obliged to protect the Palestinian farmers.”

It was impossible for me to keep my mouth shut when the rabbi spoke as if settler vigilantism were some kind of inevitable force that Israel was totally helpless against.

“Don’t you think that if the Israeli army actually punished the settlers who did these things, they would stop immediately?” I said loudly enough that everyone could hear. “Imagine if they treated the settlers the same way they’d treat a Palestinian who assaulted a settler or damaged Israeli property.”

The rabbi winced and looked away. He knew as well as I did that it was a rhetorical question. “Unfortunately, there’s a double standard when it comes to enforcing laws here,” he said.

Just then an Israeli soldier approached our group. The rabbi asked him what the problem was. The conversation was in Hebrew, but the gist of it was that he didn’t have a permit to stand near a checkpoint and give a talk. We got back on our bus and headed back to Sawya.

While we were on the bus, someone asked the rabbi, “What do you say to people who say the Biblical covenant is still good, and thus it’s a religious imperative to redeem the Land of Israel for Jews?”

“A lot of people ask me that,” said the rabbi. “What I tell them is that even if the covenant is still good, in the hierarchy of values, human life is much more important than land. Thus if giving up land means saving human lives, it’s a moral imperative,” he said. “Some people don’t believe giving up the land will save lives,” he added parenthetically, “but that’s another story.”

Personally, I thought the question itself was ridiculous. Why on earth should anyone consult religious texts when it came to property rights? Especially when the actual owners had valid property deeds? To me, this question was exactly equivalent to, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

My answer would be, “I couldn’t possibly care less, just get off my land.”

Alas, people with religious (pre)texts and guns—that’s the problem.

The rabbi gave another small speech when we met the other group at Sawya. At the end he sighed deeply and said, “Look, this work we do is not fun. It’s not nice to see what’s happening here and to think it’s our nation doing it. But it’s a moral duty for us to be here. Not only that, it’s also in our self-interest. Think about it. We won’t survive here very long if we don’t have neighbors who see us as human beings. I’ll give you an example. One time the army had captured a Palestinian kid, maybe twelve years old, and had tied him to their Jeep to use him as a human shield while they shot tear gas at some demonstrators. The kid was terrified. I was the only one stupid enough to walk through the tear gas and try to free the kid. The soldiers stopped me and beat me, but eventually the kid was released. Later he told his friends, ‘A tall man in a kippah saved me.’ A tall man in a kippah. He said this to his friends. How can his friends demonize someone in a kippah after that? It’s just one example, but these things can have ripple effects. Another time I was harvesting olives and talking with a man, and it turned out he was a member of Arafat’s presidential guard. Can you imagine? But here’s the thing. I could be wrong, but I think that after he saw the work we did, if there comes a time when he has to choose between violence and non-violence, I think he stands a better chance of choosing non-violence.”

Perhaps the rabbi was right. Either way, doing these good works is indispensable while the occupation is still in full force, stealing land, using children as human shields, and assaulting Palestinian farmers. But as long as the occupation goes on, these injustices will be happening in thousands of places where a rabbi doesn’t happen to be watching. As long as the occupation goes on, they’re only dealing with a few symptoms, not the disease.

The overwhelming majority of Palestinians already choose non-violence (and often get arrested, beaten, or shot for their trouble). But the trigger for violent resistance will always be there until the occupation is ended, with liberty and justice for all.

Sawya

Soon the volunteers left and I was the last person remaining. It was only two o’clock. I asked Abed if I could have a quick tour of the village before I headed back to Ramallah. He said sure, and we caught a ride up the hill to the village’s main street and went on a walk around town. It was a typical Palestinian hilltop village with old stone houses (and newer cinderblock additions), narrow winding roads, and spectacular views everywhere.

Across the valley to the east we could see half a dozen picturesque hilltops, nearly all with settlements or settler outposts on top of them. The main settlement was called Eli.

“All of these mountains belong to Sawya,” he said. “You see that hilltop there, the one with the new outpost on it? It belonged to my cousin, who passed away several years ago. It takes an hour and a half to walk there from here. For me, making the trip once is difficult. But my cousin, even when he was 65 years old, used to make the trip twice a day to work on his land and eat his meals in the fresh air.”

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Sawya’s lost mountains. Nearly every hilltop in the frame has a settlement or outpost on it, including the one on the far left

I shook my head. “It’s hard to imagine what this land must mean to you.”

“It means everything to us,” he said passionately. “We have memories in every corner of this land.” He pointed to the north. “Rehelim settlement is there. A while ago we were given special permission to visit part of our land near that settlement that we hadn’t seen in twenty years. I was especially excited to see a spring that we used to go to with the purest water you can imagine. We had such good memories in all of this land, but especially there. And when we got there… I couldn’t believe it. It had been turned into a pond of sewage.”

He shook his head in disbelief. “It is a paradox. The settlers talk about ‘redeeming’ the land. How is it ‘redeeming’ the land when they treat it this way? What is even the purpose of taking land if you treat it this way?”

He pointed to the gently-sloping northern face of one of the hills. “And you see this area here? It has the best figs. Many fig and olive trees. But you can see, the Israelis built a ring road around the outpost on top of the hill, for ‘security.’ They do this for all the settlements and many outposts. The guards can use these roads to get anywhere in seconds. And then they build another, bigger ring road to protect the first road. If you cross any of these roads, if you even get near them, they will often come and question you, and maybe they arrest or shoot you. Many people will not go near this area anymore.”

Abed shook his head. “Our village is more than 500 years old. Their settlement is twenty years old. Ours hasn’t grown past our one hill in 500 years, but Eli took over all those hills in just twenty years.”

By now the sun was going down, and I had a choice to make: I could try to find a service taxi back to Ramallah or stay the night in Sawya and harvest olives for real the next day. Abed guessed what I was thinking. “If you want, I can try to find you a taxi,” he said. “Or you can stay with my sister.”

I didn’t have any plans in Ramallah the next day, and it had been a while since I harvested in a new village, so I accepted the invitation. We stopped to have tea and grapes on another relative’s porch on the highest point in Sawya to watch the sunset. The shadows of the blushing hills got longer and longer, and the villages and settlements all around began to glow as they turned their lights on for the night.

We walked back to his porch under a crescent moon and sat with his brother Ibrahim, a tall man with a thin face and friendly English. His wife was a lovely woman with a shy smile and eyes that looked like my grandmother’s when she was a young woman. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, but when her hijab slipped slightly, I saw streaks of premature white in her hair. Ibrahim’s adorable sons, aged 2, 6, and 8, ran around the whole time playing and laughing. The youngest, Yazid, looked exactly like his mother.

After we had chatted pleasantly for a while, I asked if Ibrahim had any other children. There was a strange silence. Then Abed said, “His oldest son, my nephew, was killed a few years ago. A settler ran over him with his car.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, aghast. “I have three nephews, and if anyone hurt them…” I couldn’t finish the sentence.

“It wasn’t an accident,” Abed said grimly. “And this is not my opinion. The settler admitted in court that he deliberately ran over the boy. He said it was revenge for his own son having been injured some time earlier by Palestinians who threw stones at his car.”

I paused for a moment, speechless. “Was the settler punished?” I asked, with a sinking feeling that I already knew the answer.

“He was given a one-year sentence, and his driver’s license was suspended for three years.”

“That’s it?” My outrage was unnaturally muted because I had heard so many stories like this before — a necessary kind of psychological scar tissue to keep the ulcers away. But even if the physiological manifestations of anger are attenuated, something deeper is injured whenever I hear a story like that.

“He only served six months in the end,” Abed said with the same hollow numbness.

“You know, this is our life,” said Ibrahim. “You can see us, we smile and joke and laugh and do what we can. But many of us are like an old tree. On the outside you see that it’s a tree, but on the inside, it’s black and hollow. Many Palestinians are totally destroyed as human beings.”

Talk gradually turned back to pleasanter things, because one can’t dwell on the worst of life all the time. The dark abyss is only touched on now and then and otherwise ignored in public and grieved in private. You can manage to forget it for hours at a time. But it’s always there.

The good is always there, too. The sun and the fields and children who are still alive.

We had fareeka (wheat soup) with baked chicken for dinner that night at Ibrahim’s house and watched movies in English on MBC2. Ibrahim had a relatively nice house because he had managed to get a permit to work in Tel Aviv. He spoke fluent Hebrew. Like Abed, he didn’t demonize Israelis. He just wished they would protect everyone equally under the law.

Sawya’s Olives

The next morning we got up early and headed to the groves. It was a delightful day. Ibrahim’s three adorable sons were there as well as Abed’s sister’s son and daughter. The son was a blue-eyed, cheerful pre-teen, the daughter a dark-eyed and clever young woman who followed me around and chatted with me all day. Abed told me proudly that they were both first in their class at school. Their father had died a few years earlier, and their mother was a teacher.

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The kids

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The moms

We talked and harvested and picnicked all day. Abed spent an hour asking the kids questions about history and geography, and they enthusiastically competed with each other to answer them. After a while he pawned the job off on me, despite my limited Arabic. The first question I asked was, “What’s the biggest country in the world?”

The eight-year-old said, “Algeria!”

Abed said, “No, not in the Arab world, in the whole world.”

“United States!” his blue-eyed cousin said.

“No.”

“China!” the dark-eyed niece said.

“No, not the largest population. The largest area.”

“Um… Um… Europe!” That was the six-year-old.

I laughed. “No. Give up? Ru…”

“Russia!” they all said in delighted unison.

I took some pictures of them, and they insisted on taking some pictures of me.

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Me in a tree

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Goofing around while the women work!

The funniest moment of the day came when I was trying to take a picture of Abed and his three nephews, but I couldn’t get them all to smile at the same time. Finally Abed said in English, “Say cheese!”

Yazid, usually a quiet child, yelled, “TEEEEEEZ!”

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Everyone burst out laughing. (Teez is a bad word in Arabic. It’s an impolite way to say ‘buttocks.’) He didn’t understand why everyone was laughing. He was just happy to be the center of attention.

In a little over twenty-four hours, a new village had been colored in on my map with faces and friends, views and porches, children and stories. When it was time for me to leave, they made me promise to come back as soon as I could.

As I was walking toward the road to find a service taxi, the children gathered to smile and wave good-bye to me, an American, with boundless innocent, friendly good will. It struck me as something so fragile and unlikely in such a dire and unfair situation, I instinctively grabbed for my camera to try to capture it and remember the feeling it gave me, the feeling Palestine so often gives me that meanness and ugliness aren’t the natural state of man after all. But it was something too pure to capture in any way.

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