By: Hansa Shah - JAI Olive Planting Program 2012 participant
There is something so life-affirming and hope-inspiring about planting trees. And hope is what the people of Palestine need at this time. Throttled on all sides by concrete walls and fences, freedom of movement restricted from north to south and east to west by checkpoints, gates and barriers, denied free access to water, living under the threat of house demolitions and evictions, it is not easy to keep hope alive. Yet, keeping hope alive is what the people of Palestine have been doing.
Helping to keep hope alive is the Olive Planting Programme organized by the Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI) and the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG). Olives are an integral part of Palestinian life and economy. The Olive Planting Programme was started in February 2008 by the JAI and ATG to assist Palestinian farmers who are hindered from planting their olive trees because of restrictions imposed by the Israeli Government, military forces or harassment from Israeli settlers. It is an annual programme in which many people from around the world come together to experience what life is like in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and to show their solidarity for the Palestinian struggle for freedom and human dignity. Besides planting olive trees, the programme includes eye-opening visits to Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem, whereby participants get to witness and learn about the ongoing injustices committed against the Palestinian people by the Israeli Government, military and violent settlers. Many international participants have described the experience as "life-changing".
This year's programme was from the 4th – 13th of February, February being the olive-planting season. I had some qualms about being up to performing hard physical work like digging, but I found that I was able to meet the challenge with few aches and pains. Besides, because we worked in pairs or in teams of three, the work was made much easier. There were about fifty of us from ten countries across the globe and we planted nearly 2000 olive trees over four half days. We worked in four villages, one being Al-Khader where St. George is believed to have been imprisoned (he was from Syria Palaestina, not England!). The fields selected were in Israeli-controlled area C, which made them either hard to access, at risk of confiscation or vulnerable to Israeli settler violence. Also, any "uncultivated" land in area C, no matter how long it has belonged to a Palestinian family, as in the case of Ibtisam, (name changed), could be at risk of confiscation by Israeli authorities. Our olive planting, we hope, made a palpable difference. After we had worked until lunchtime, local farmers served us with delicious homemade food, usually rice and chicken or stuffed vine leaves, yoghourt and salad.
For me, the olive planting experience was enhanced by that of living with a wonderful Palestinian family in Beit Sahour- traditionally thought of as the site of the Shepherds' Fields near Bethlehem. I was greatly impressed by the generosity and steadfast faith of the family especially, in view of the difficult circumstances under which they live, and would certainly recommend this experience.
There are so many highlights and I could write a great deal more, but to find out more about the programme you can go to www.jai-pal.org.