By Jean Athey
I read last week that they are burning the olive groves around Nablus, the hills on fire, smoke curling to the sky, the smell of desolation in the air—terrible grief and loss for some, jubilation and triumph for others. I wonder if any of the burning olive trees are ones that I helped harvest just one year ago.
I went to the West Bank to learn, and volunteering to assist with the olive harvest seemed to offer an excellent educational opportunity. Palestinian farmers like to have internationals accompany them to their groves, believing that the presence of foreigners makes Israeli settlers and soldiers less likely to attack them. I liked the idea of being, in effect, a human shield to prevent violence.
We international volunteers stayed together in a small apartment in Nablus. Every night, we would call Rabbis for Human Rights, B’Tselem, and Christian Peacemaker Teams. Farmers who had special cause to fear an attack would contact one of these human rights groups, and based on the information we received from our phone calls, we would decide among ourselves where each of us would go the next day. Sometimes we went in pairs, sometimes alone. As the sun rose, each of us would head out to meet a farmer from our chosen village, and he would accompany us to his field. Often, several members of the family would already be in the field when we arrived, working quickly and desperately to get the olives in before anything could happen.
“The olive harvest around Nablus used to be a time of festival,” a Palestinian had explained to me. “It was a celebration. We had special foods and picnics in the groves, with whole families working together. Now, that is over. There is no more joy during harvest time.”
As a volunteer, my role was to be present, a witness with a camera, but it would have felt strange and lazy to watch people work hard and do nothing. Thus, we all helped with the harvest. I found that families used different methods to gather the olives: some climbed the trees and picked by hand, others struck the trees with sticks to make the olives fall on a tarp, and a few used a tool that they slid over each branch so that the olives fell below.
I’m not in shape. I don’t normally do any physical labor and don’t exercise. My first day as a volunteer, I started off picking olives by hand, standing on the ground under the tree. After a couple of hours of this, sweating profusely in the sun and with my muscles already screaming, I thought to myself, “I absolutely cannot do this for 7 more hours!” Then, I noticed an older woman sitting on a tarp in the shade under a tree, separating the leaves and branches from the olives and putting the olives in a burlap bag. This, I decided, was a much better job for me, so I joined her. Later, I found that this work is set aside for small children and elderly women—exactly right for me at age 63. When I tired of even this job, I picked up the baby—about a year old—and played with her, enabling the baby’s mother to work and me to goof off. When the baby fell asleep on my shoulder, of course I couldn’t wake her up! I had to hold her for her entire nap!
Most of the olive trees around Nablus are ancient and have been in families for generations, and the groves are typically located some distance from villages. Each day, after meeting the farmer, we volunteers would walk a mile or two to get to the family field. All the hills surrounding the city have been confiscated by Israeli settlers–the former Palestinian owners having been dispossessed–and these settler colonies overlook the olive groves. During harvest time, settlers often invade the farms, destroy property and terrorize people. Soldiers from the numerous checkpoints and military outposts also harass the farmers, although the soldiers tend to be more predictable with their forms of intimidation.
One night, as usual, we got the names of all the villages where people felt endangered. But for the first time since I had arrived, there were more of us than there were farmers requesting help. So, I offered to stay at the apartment in case something should come up unexpectedly. In all honesty, I was exhausted from my previous day’s work and quite happy to play hooky, assuming I’d have a relaxing day in the apartment. But about 9 a.m. the phone rang: settlers had invaded Azmut, and I was told that I should get over there right away–foreigners and cameras were needed.
Okay. First problem: find a way to this village I’d never heard of, in a city that I was still unfamiliar with. The caller had suggested I take a service, or shared taxi, informing me that there was a service stand a couple of blocks from the apartment. I grabbed my camera, rushed out the door, and headed for the taxi stand. After four blocks, I hadn’t found it, and my anxiety level was rising. I asked someone on the street—he pointed and said the service was two more blocks. Practically running the two blocks, I still couldn’t find a taxi stand. I asked someone else, “Where can I get a service to Azmut?” He pointed in the direction from which I had come: “That way.”
Shit. I suddenly realized this was silly. I should just get a regular taxi—it would cost a little more, but I could flag one down on the street, and I could get to Azmut much more quickly. Why didn’t I think of that before? It was easy to flag down a taxi and I mentally kicked myself for wasting so much time. How was I going to be any help if I couldn’t even think of the quickest way to get to where I was needed?
“Qaddesh al Azmut?” (How much to Azmut) I asked the taxi driver in my very basic Arabic.
“Ten shekels,” he replied in English.
“Okay, but go quickly,” I said, climbing in.
He was clearly a little puzzled—why did a foreign woman, alone, want to go to a nondescript village and why the big rush?
“Why are you going to Azmut?” he asked pleasantly in excellent English, as he pulled into the traffic.
“I’m a volunteer with ISM,” I replied, “and we got a call that settlers are attacking farmers there.”
“Thank you. We are so happy you are here. I welcome you to Nablus,” he replied, with genuine warmth.
We sped through Nablus, arriving in Azmut in about ten minutes. It turned out that the village is, in reality, a suburb of Nablus, not particularly distinguishable as a separate place. White cinder block houses, jumbled close together along narrow, winding, hilly streets, were interspersed with small stores selling tobacco, sweets, and other goods.
The taxi driver spotted a couple of local people sitting in one of the small shops, and he stopped to ask them how to get to the village olive groves. Following their directions, we continued straight on the paved village road for another mile and then turned off onto a dirt road. Dry, dusty and heavily rutted, this road was flanked on both sides by olive trees, with individual parcels demarcated by low stone walls. After a couple of miles we came upon three or four parked cars, all marked “press,” and a few villagers standing around. “Over there,” one of the villagers said, pointing, and the taxi driver and I got out and clambered over boulders, rock walls, and rough terrain, running when the ground was flat enough. Soon we came to a small group of people, including several reporters, but the attackers were gone: they had been scared off by the media cameras.
We were told that about a half dozen settlers had come down the hill and begun to curse and threaten several farmers working in their fields, including one old woman whom we saw sitting on the ground under a tree. Waving her arms around wildly, a rock in both hands, her eyes round with fear, she was yelling out the story of the attackers to anyone who would listen, spitting with rage. With the rocks, she seemed to be demonstrating how the settlers had threatened her. I wished I could understand her words to find out the details of the attack, but I didn’t need Arabic to sense her fury and panic.
It was surprising to me that news media had arrived so quickly. Then, I learned why. This was not the first time that people from this village had been attacked recently. Three days earlier, a family had driven to their field and parked their car on the same dirt road we had driven up. While they were working in the grove, settlers came down and destroyed the car: theysmashed all the windows, slashed the tires, ripped the upholstery, took bats to the engine.The next day, an old man in his seventies from the same village and his 7-year-old grandson, working together in another, nearby olive field, were attacked. First the settlers terrorized the old man and the little boy, shoving and hitting them, and then they held the old man down, placed his arm on a boulder, and smashed it with a large rock, breaking his bones.
Because of these two events, the community had obtained phone numbers of reporters and was on alert to call the media as a means of protection. No police force protects Palestinians from lawless settlers, and since the only thing settlers seem to fear is a camera, Palestinians sometimes try to “shoot back” with film.
The taxi driver, the reporters, some villagers, and I all milled around a while, but it appeared that the settlers had disappeared for the day, and we began to disperse. The taxi driver asked me, “Aren’t you afraid to do this, to go to the places that are most dangerous?” It seemed a sensible question, but I didn’t feel afraid of being injured. My American passport and Western appearance probably gave me a false sense of invulnerability. I did fear, though, that I might not do the right thing in a moment of peril, that I wouldn’t be brave, and that I would betray my promise to protect.
As the taxi driver started toward his car, I got out ten shekels to pay him, but he refused to accept my money.
With the excitement over, at least for a while, the farmers got back to the harvest, and I was assigned to a family group consisting of a man, his brother, his mother, and his two children–a dark-haired, beautiful girl about ten years old, and her younger brother, maybe eight. The girl, dressed in an orange tee shirt and jeans, her hair pulled into a pony tail, worked hard all day long, as did her brother, also in jeans and tee shirt. Sometimes they climbed a tree to get access to olives. Other times they struggled to carry heavy, burlap bags full of olives over to the donkey to load it up, or they helped lay out the tarp under a tree. No whining, no shirking—they knew what needed to be done and they did it without being told. The girl frequently sneaked glances at me, and if she saw me looking at her she would smile and then hide her face. Ever so often, she would shyly bring me a treat—a cookie or a cucumber, usually, sometimes a drink of water.
A couple of times I was working in the sun, and the father came over and suggested that I move into the shade where I would be more comfortable. He brought me tea all during the day that his mother brewed in a fire she made in the dirt. At noon, we all sat down together, and the family shared with me their lunch of homemade yoghurt, bread, jam and salad. Warmed by the kindness of this family, I did my easy, old woman’s job all day, separating olives from leaves, while periodically scouring the grove for possible attackers. Finally, at 3:00—rather early to stop–the family decided to go home for the day. As we walked down the dirt road back to the village, someone spotted three settlers about 200 yards up in the hills, on their way down.
“Quick—call the media!” a villager called out.
Reporters arrived within five minutes, before the settlers could get all the way down the hill, and when the invaders saw the reporters and photographers, they turned around and started back up.
One photographer, a little overweight and carrying a large, heavy camera, set off running to try to catch the invading settlers. Struggling over the rocky terrain through the olive groves, chasing the settlers up the hill, he paused frequently, whether to catch his breath or look for an angle to photograph, I didn’t know. He pursued the settlers long after those of us on the road could no longer see them, but finally he trudged back, sweaty and exhausted.
It seemed, finally, that the day was over, and so we all continued walking back to the village, with “my” family and their donkey, laden with the bags of olives we had picked that day, leading the way. I took one last picture in Azmut, of the man I had worked with that day laughing and gently hugging his smiling daughter. Then I cadged a ride with one of the press photographers and returned to the apartment.
I wonder if the little girl who shared her cookies and cucumbers with me last year watched her family’s ancient olive trees burn this week. And if she did so, I wonder what she was thinking.