A reader returned from Palestine after taking part in the Olive Picking Programme organised by the YMCA and YWCA of East Jerusalem. This Joint Advocacy Initiative was from 13th to 22nd October.
It was such a wonderful experience that I feel like sharing some of it with my friends and fellow activists in the UK and further afield.
The Olive Picking Programme offers an opportunity to show solidarity with the people of Palestine living in the West Bank who are under Israeli military occupation. All aspects of their daily life are controlled, which include access to their own fields. Palestinian farmers often depend upon their olive harvest for their livelihood and it is essential for them to have access to their fields to tend their trees, plant new saplings, and harvest their crops in time.
The presence of internationals deter Israeli settlers from intimidating Palestinian farmers and preventing them from reaching their fields, harming them whilst they are at work, or destroying their property. This also applies to Israeli soldiers who are known to act in this manner. The programme offers help particularly to families who are vulnerable in this respect. Joining it is a tangible way of showing solidarity with the people of Palestine and is a great encouragement to them in their struggle for justice.
This year’s programme consisted of four mornings and one whole day of working in the fields. We had all been issued with sun hats and T shirts bearing the programme’s logo, and most of us had also brought our own light, gardening gloves. Thus equipped, two batches, each of a goodly company of 55 or more internationals from about 20 counties, set off from our hotel or host families at 8am. Before leaving we had to load our bus with ladders, plastic sheets, buckets and plenty of drinking water. By 9 am we reached our field which was in the vicinity of Bethlehem area. We had to unload our equipment and on some occasions walk some distance as the road was not suitable for the bus to drive all the way.
The owners welcomed us and showed us trees which needed harvesting. Our first task was to spread huge plastic sheets around the base of each tree. Then we set to work, attacking the trees at the front of the field and working our way towards the end. As many as eight or ten of us would work on one tree, starting from the lower branches and then working towards the higher ones. Each branch was thickly covered with plump green or dark purple olives, the purple ones being the ripe ones. We were asked to pick them all. It was wonderful to slide our fingers down a branch and see the olives falling effortlessly on to the plastic sheet, with a rhythmic clop-clopping sound. Some trees were very dusty and a dusty cloud assailed us as we worked. Where the crop was thick, it took almost half an hour for one person to work on a single section, with six or seven others working around different branches. There were others who diligently collected the fallen fruit into buckets and emptied them into huge sacks which would eventually be taken to the local press. As the lower branches were stripped, the higher ones were reached by ladders and some climbed up where the ladders fell short. I confined myself to working on the lower branches, moving on to another tree when one was done.
There was a great sense of camaraderie and cooperation as we worked together, and at intervals stopped for coffee which came around provided by the owners. We worked until 1 pm when lunch was announced, which was more than welcome. Lunch was provided by the host farmer’s family and was usually a simple dish of rice cooked with lentils – absolutely delicious, salad and yoghourt and plenty of beverages. Only on one day did we work after lunch. Our best pickings in a single field amounted to 100 kg of olives. An average tree produces about 9 kg of olives yielding 2 litres of oil. Most of the oil produced is for family or local consumption and not for export. Trade restrictions imposed by the Israeli government make it difficult to do so.
On our half days, we visited places which gave us a better understanding of what life under military occupation is like. One of our most moving visits was to the Bedouin community of Khan Al-Ahmar which has been in the news. This Bedouin community is semi-nomadic and has been living on its land for generations and centuries. Yet, the Israeli government has issued an order to demolish the school which serves its children. There were Palestinian as well as Israeli human rights activists keeping a 24 hour vigil to prevent its demolition. It was a privilege to meet and talk to these dedicated men and women. The demolition has not gone ahead, although it could go ahead at any time. There were visits to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Hebron, not in the usual touristy fashion, but with a view to highlighting our awareness of life under occupation for its residents.
We had one free day with a choice of visit to either Ramallah, Jericho, or Nablus and people were free to arrange their own programme. I opted to visit my friend of nine years standing in Ramallah and it was a joy to see her twin sons now 5 years old, and the latest addition, a son nearly two years old who I had not seen before.
Evening meals were at our own hotel or with host families, and were followed by a talk or a documentary film. They covered topics such as the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, and information about various organisations working for justice and the rights of Palestinian people. Truth to tell, we were often exhausted by the end of the day, but it cannot be denied that they gave us valuable opportunities to learn more about the struggle of the Palestinian people to live in freedom and with dignity and ways of supporting their struggle from our own countries.
On the last evening, we had a splendid meal in a local restaurant, accompanied by folk dancing in which our active participants joined. There was a great sense of comradeship, and of having shared a meaningful experience which would stay with us for a long time. There was sadness too, knowing that the local Palestinian people still had to face the harsh realities of life under military occupation. But we knew that we were leaving with a heightened awareness of these realities.
Email addresses were exchanged, and goodbyes were said as people had to leave later that night or early next day. I am sure that in one way or the other, each one of us had been touched and many were returning with a renewed resolve for working for justice and freedom for the brave people of Palestine, back in their own countries.
For more information about the Olive Harvesting and Olive Planting Programme, visit their website: http://www.jai-pal.org/en/campaigns/olive-tree-campaign/olive-picking-program. For alternative tours visit their website on www.atg.ps