Crossing Borders, Planting Olive Trees
Joshua Davis has played music in South American rainforests, on the promenade in Havana, in old mining towns in Michigan, and beyond. But Tuwani, a village in the Palestinian West Bank, tested his comfort level perhaps more than any previous gig.
Here in the Hebron Hills on a chilly night in early February, the Jewish American folk musician sat in a school courtyard at the edge of a cave and played his “working man’s hymn” to a couple hundred Palestinian olive farmers and their families. Youssef, an old man with leathery skin, strummed a pear-shaped oud alongside Davis. The audience understood hardly a word but nonetheless emitted raucous cheers when the song concluded. The village boys waved their red, green, black, and white Palestinian flags too as they danced near the caves where some in Tuwani still live.
For Davis, who is secular but was raised in a proud Jewish household in a Detroit suburb, the warm and inviting cheers overcame the nerves that had lurked in his stomach since arriving in the Holy Land two days earlier. Before this journey, Davis, and his family back in the Midwest, hadn’t known the West Bank that lay beyond Jerusalem. Before this journey—and on his first trip to Israel, as a nineteen-year-old Jewish camp counselor—he may have felt more comfortable jamming with fellow members of his tribe in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Or even in Ma’on, an Israeli settlement just over one kilometer from Tuwani—two villages on opposite ends of the wealth scale that perpetually compete with each other for agricultural land.
The singer-songwriter made a daring leap when he joined the “Run Across Palestine,” a solidarity project of the Traverse City, Michigan-based nonprofit, “On the Ground.” The endeavor featured six Midwesterners running 129 miles over five days across the arduously hilly West Bank—from Tuwani in the south to Jenin in the north—to raise money to plant olive trees and create awareness about Palestinian fair-trade farmers and the everyday political and agricultural hurdles they face. Three U.S. journalists documented the Run, and Davis took part as a musical ambassador. In 2011, On the Ground also facilitated the “Run Across Ethiopia,” a 250-mile, twelve-day run from Addis Ababa to the poverty-stricken Yirgachefe region in and effort to build schools and fund scholarships for fair-trade coffee-growing communities.
Just as it did in Ethiopia, On the Ground chose to support Palestinian olive farmers because of the political and economic hurdles they face every day. The organization believes that when people in the developed world buy fair-trade products such as coffee or olive oil, we link ourselves to those farmers and commit to improving their economic livelihood—whether or not we personally interact with them.
Runners Chris Treter and Timothy Young, who are also members of On the Ground’s board of directors, each own fair-trade food companies in northern Michigan—in Treter’s case, Higher Grounds Trading Company (a coffee roaster), and in Young’s case, Food for Thought, a producer of high-quality local jams and preserves. The concept of holding ultra-marathons to benefit fair-trade farmers in faraway countries was their idea.
But not everyone in Joshua Davis’s family understood why he chose to participate in the Run Across Palestine, the musician said. To some, his decision was a betrayal of their support for Israel—or worse, what if the money raised went not to plant olive trees but to fund terrorists? Davis too had misgivings, that is, until he played next to the caves in Tuwani.
“It was such an intense scene to be received in such a generous way,” said Davis,
who played music late into the night with Youssef and the boys of the village. “Everything about that first night was so foreign, but warm and inviting.”
Largely forgotten amidst a political debate that too often focuses on rocks and bulldozers, fear and hatred, intifadas and historical trauma, the Israeli occupation has prevented many West Bank farmers from harvesting the olive trees their grandfathers planted, and caring for the land they know and love like their own children. Nearly 60 percent of the arable land in the West Bank is used for growing olive trees, employing over 100,000 Palestinians, making it by far the most lucrative agricultural industry for an aspiring nation that suffers from a crushing unemployment rate of 30 percent.
“They planted so we ate,” said Palestine Fair Trade Association (PFTA) founder Nasser Abufarha, a key supporter of the Run Across Palestine, quoting a local proverb. “Now we plant so they eat … Past generations planted these trees that we’re eating from and are supporting our lives, and we plant trees for our future generations to support their lives.”
But Palestinian farmers have lost access to 2.1 million olive trees, which grow behind settlement walls, separation barriers, and security zones. Another half million have been uprooted or bulldozed since 2001. According to Baha Hilo, coordinator of the Joint Advocacy Initiative, each of those trees would have yielded nine kilograms of olives over a 30-year period, meaning an enormous loss of sustenance and income for olive farmers.
The inaccessible and destroyed olive trees represent more than just a resource loss. The destruction of their sacred tree by Israeli settlers and the Israeli military is a spiritual affront too for Palestinians.
“One farmer told us, ‘When they were destroying my trees, it was like somebody uprooting my heart from my lungs,’” said Hilo.
Hearing these stories in Tuwani was difficult for Davis, who was bar mitzvahed as a teenager, attended a Shule, and whose family always had a tzedakah box on the kitchen counter to raise money they’d send to Israel. “In my family, there’s a strong sense of need for the Israeli state,” he explained.
Barriers Along the Way
“We chose to start here for one simple reason,” Chris Treter told a crowd of approximately 300 in Tuwani the night before the Run Across Palestine began. “Because it is here that you are persevering and struggling, and it is here that you show the endurance in order to stay on your land and work hard for the betterment of your community. Shukran.”
The following morning, February 4, as the sun rose over the 500 olive saplings recently planted by Palestinian and American hands, villagers crawled out from under thick blankets that protected them from the winter cold, and runners began stretching to prepare for the marathon to come, Israeli military vehicles made a surveillance pass through Tuwani, aware that something was up.
Israeli military and police routinely visit the village, ostensibly to protect the nearby settlers, although Tuwani activists claim- it is they who face constant harassment from Ma’on, and not the other way around.
“Every morning the army comes, because the settlers come and throw rocks at the kids going to school,” said a Tuwani young man. “The army comes, and only protects the settlers.”
Farmers in Tuwani have traditionally relied on olive trees and on grazing sheep for their subsistence. But they claim that Israeli settlers have poisoned their livestock and their water wells and seized much of their pastures, making it nearly impossible to remain on the land.
“This is the livelihood of the people, and Israel has basically said to the people of Tuwani, you cannot live here, not physically, and you can’t have a livelihood here,” said Jeff Halper of the Jerusalem-based Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. “Seventy percent of Palestinians today live on less than $2 a day. They have nothing, it’s not because they don’t have land, not because they don’t know how to farm, not because they don’t have water. It’s because Israel doesn’t allow them to do these things.”
“Tuwani is a perfect example of how these policies of control and oppression and impoverishment work.”
At the starting line next to the school where Davis had performed the night before, the PFTA’s Nasser Abufarha warned that the runners “might encounter some barriers” along the way but encouraged them to continue breaking down barriers and “build bridges from here all the way to Jenin.”
His words proved prophetic, as no more than two miles up the road, a convoy of Israeli green military and blue police vehicles stopped the runners, forbade them from traveling the road on foot and—once it became clear that they had no policy to address foreign ultra-marathoners running on West Bank roads—arrested Abufarha and took him away in a police vehicle. Timothy Young and others believed that he was arrested simply for being Palestinian.
“Why is it that we’re allowed to run on roads in any other country in the world, but not here?” Treter asked the Israeli authorities. “What’s different about this country?
The nearly two-hour standoff on the side of the road between the runners and authorities alternated between comic and tense in nature. Each side held up digital cameras and smart phones to record the ordeal, the runners tried to coax a smile out of a British-born Israeli soldier, and three French activists who joined the Run Across Palestine for the day broke into song and dance. But when the authorities checked the passports of the foreign nationals and learned that two of the French activists weren’t carrying theirs, they too were arrested and physically forced into a patrol vehicle.
Joshua Davis stood back and watched, mortified as he witnessed his newfound friends being assaulted and arrested. He felt conflicted, too, that young, conscripted soldiers of the Jewish state were called upon to carry out the punishment. “They’re just kids,” he thought to himself.
Ultimately, the six U.S. athletes resumed their journey, drove north away from the military, and ran down the hill into the village of Beit Ummar, home of the Palestine Solidarity Project, which is an international center for nonviolent struggle. The project was founded by Palestinian peace activist Mousa Abu Maria, who has spent years in Israeli prisons, off and on, for organizing demonstrations. While locked up during the latest intifada, Maria read the works of Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and encouraged other incarcerated Palestinian activists to turn their prison into a library and empower themselves through nonviolent struggle against the occupation.
Though spirits were demoralized following the arrests, Run Across Palestine interpreter Vivien Sansour encouraged the runners to keep planting trees and not lose joy, “because our joy is our strength.”
That afternoon, the runners took part in a weekly demonstration outside Beit Ummar, which is surrounded by six Israeli settlements. The “protest” involved planting olive trees on land owned by Palestinian farmers. But awaiting the delegation, as usual, were Israeli soldiers armed with automatic weapons, tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and stun grenades—intent on stopping the saplings from being placed in the ground.
“For me personally, planting the trees was one of the most symbolic acts of the whole project, and something that I physically wanted and needed to do,” said runner Meryl Marsh. “The idea that the Israeli military would meet us with tear gas for putting some foot-and-a-half tall olive trees in an olive grove of a Palestinian farmer’s land was a bit over the top.”
The Americans and Palestinians knelt on the ground to push soil up around the edges of each sapling, even as stun grenades and tear gas canisters exploded around them. (Weeks later, claimed the Palestine Solidarity Project, nearby settlers uprooted saplings planted outside of Beit Ummar.)
“The resistance that we experienced to the simple act of planting trees was so
over-the-top that it played into the ridiculousness, if it weren’t such a sad story that the Palestinians have to deal with on a daily basis just to survive and farm,” said runner and On the Ground board member Timothy Young.
Late that same afternoon, Abufarha was released on bail by the Israelis—he believed, owing to his business connections as head of the Palestine Fair Trade Association and ties to the American and British consulates. Abufarha was charged with inciting an illegal demonstration—false charges, he claimed, “because there was no demonstration” and because “we were not running in Israel. We were running in Palestine, and the Israeli legal court does not apply in Palestine.” (All charges against Abufarha were dropped by Israeli courts on June 26, but he has not yet regained his access to Jerusalem.)
That evening in Beit Ummar, Davis once again unveiled his guitar, reached into his repertoire of American Civil Rights Era songs and played “We shall not be moved,” as international activists and Palestinians clapped along. In certain places he inserted lyrics to fit this particular struggle, singing, “We’re against the occupation, we shall not be moved, against the occupation, we shall not be moved.”
The Wall that Divides Us
Day 2 of the Run Across Palestine led the harriers through Bethlehem and straight to the “Separation Barrier” that separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem. There the runners were forced to say goodbye to Sansour and their Palestinian support team, who were not allowed to cross into Israel Proper—even though Sansour was born in Jerusalem and despite the fact that Palestinian Muslims and Christians view it as their holy city too.
Caught between the sadness of having to leave their friends behind and the spectacle of the Wall itself, which on the Palestinian side is covered with liberationist graffiti and messages against oppression written in multiple languages -, the runners stood and reflected on what they saw.
“Art is so powerful in so many ways. It sends a message,” Davis said as he stared at paintings of hijab-wearing Palestinian women waving their flag and of a giant pink ribbon inscribed with the words, “With Love and Kisses: Nothing Lasts Forever” He added, “This can send a clearer message than a thousand speeches can.”
To Timothy Young, the wall reminded him of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s. “People who build the walls say it’s for security, but actually it never really is,” he said. “It’s all about keeping ideas and people and communities apart and isolating people who are inside those walls.”
Hugs were exchanged, and tears were shed. Sansour, a Palestinian Christian from a neighborhood of Bethlehem, swore that if the gates ever opened and she was permitted to visit the city of her birth, she would run straight to Jerusalem. “Next year, in Jerusalem,” she hoped—just as Jews themselves have recited in Hebrew for 2,000 years during Passover prayers.
A long, lonely walk through a labyrinth of metal and stone barriers at the checkpoint at Rachel’s Tomb followed for the American delegation as they headed west, into Israel Proper.
“The bitter taste left for us when we were entering Jerusalem was a difficult pill to swallow,” said Young. “We as North Americans can go right into Jerusalem, and yet our Palestinian friends who were born there can’t even return to their home community. There’s nothing else to call that but apartheid.”
So it was with heavy hearts and tired legs that they ran past monuments and rocks immortalized in the Bible, and into the holiest of holy cities.
As Sansour had told them that morning during a pre-run pep talk, “You’re also carrying the burden of the farmers with you. You’re sweating the way our farmers sweat. You’re carrying our struggle with you.”
The following morning Davis lingered at the Damascus Gate outside of the Old City as the runners departed for Day 3 of the run. Filmmaker Aaron Dennis recorded a time-lapse video of Davis holding his guitar in front of the Gate. Then, with strong Arabic coffee in hand, he sat on a park bench and chatted with Yonatan Shapira, an Israeli Air Force veteran-turned- “refusenick,” who now agitates on behalf of the Palestinian struggle and had joined the movement for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” against Israel.
“Coming here and seeing what I’ve seen firsthand has been, emotionally, a lot tougher than I expected it to be,” Davis told Shapira. “I have a very strong cultural connection to the Jewish people and all the oppression we’ve gone through. To see that oppression turned around and used to oppress another people is difficult.”
Shapira, who took part in last year’s “Freedom Flotilla” which tried, unsuccessfully, to sail from Athens to Gaza, played the part of the wise, older activist as he sat opposite Davis at the Damascus Gate.
“There is a really interesting tradition of struggling against oppression,” the Israeli Jew told the American Jew. “Every holiday is somehow linked to a foreign occupier. Hanukah is fighting against the Greek occupation. Passover is fighting against oppression and slavery in Egypt. All this tradition is about oppression and struggling for freedom and liberation. So, it’s the most traditional way for me to connect to my roots by joining any initiative for liberation. And in this case, the Jews are the Palestinians.”
Sharing Songs of Resistance
Once the Run Across Palestine left Jerusalem and headed north toward Ramallah and a more politically autonomous part of the West Bank, the military harassment, checkpoints and fear of violent settlers gave way to the challenge of the punishing terrain—running up and down hills for 25 miles every day.
By Day 4, the American runners faced sore legs, blisters, throbbing knees, and more hills. Ohio native Claire Everhart turned around and ran the downhill descents backward to avoid pressure on her knees; Michigander Randi Lyn Stoltz’s kneecap swelled to the size of a grapefruit, and David Gardner just kept his mouth shut and ran.
That evening they arrived in Nefs Ijbeal and were greeted with a Palestinian marching band, traditional dancing, and perhaps the best meal they had enjoyed in Palestine. At the home of Khader Khader, a local farmer who hosted the runners, they ate warm pita bread with hummus, fresh olive oil, a spice mix called za’atar, goat cheese, hard-boiled eggs and a colorful of array of fruits and vegetables—all of which made excellent fuel for running.
Khader, who had worked long days as a teenager in an Israeli plastics factory, jumped at the opportunity to move home to his village and become an organic farmer when the Palestine Fair Trade Association was founded in 2004. Though he hated agriculture at first, Khader now admitted that returning to his land and growing for fair-trade consumers abroad had changed his life for the better. He has since become a leader among the farmers in Nefs Ijbeal and encouraged them to grow almost completely organic crops.
“Now the land means everything to me,” Khader said. “Now I depend on the land and my work in the land. It’s my source of sustenance, and it’s patriotic. When I grow trees, I keep my family’s roots in the ground here.”
International collaboration has improved his life in other ways too. Khader suffered from an eye disease that left him nearly blind by the time he was a teenager. But doctors in Jerusalem found a family in Stockholm who had just lost their daughter in a car accident and were willing to donate her cornea. When the Swedish couple visited Khader after the surgery, he was able to see, and cry happy tears, out of those eyes. Khader jokes today that, on account of his Scandinavian cornea, he’s Christian from the waist up and Muslim from the waist down.
The final morning of the run, Joshua Davis sat in Khader’s courtyard and played a beautiful lullaby that he had written for his young daughter Tahlia back in Michigan, as farmers and villagers sat in plastic chairs, mesmerized, tapping their feet to the rhythm and roosters crowed nearby. When the song concluded, Sansour translated the words of a local farmer who told Davis, in Arabic, that he would happily give up an acre of his land to come to the United States and see the musician play here.
Awaiting the U.S. runners, media team, and Davis at the Run’s ultimate destination—Nasser Abufarha’s Canaan Fair Trade headquarters outside Jenin—was finish-line tape, hugs, tears, music, speeches, a bazaar of food fit for a wedding, and an honor so special that it brought the Americans to tears: in the orchard behind Canaan headquarters, with plaques and ribbons, the Palestine Fair Trade Association team had dedicated 200-year-old olive trees to each of the ten Run Across Palestine participants.
“These olive trees on their landscape are the witness of time as it goes by,” reflected Meryl Marsh after she knelt by “her tree” and sobbed. “I sat there and I thought about what that tree had seen in 200 years and what I hope it will see in the future.”
These olive trees represented sustenance and income for Palestinian farmers, legacy and history for the Palestinian people, and perhaps a chance at peace, someday, for Palestinians and Israelis.
A campfire was crackling outside Canaan Fair Trade as evening fell on the Holy Land. One last time before returning to America, Joshua Davis pulled out his guitar and played songs of resistance for the guests at hand—many of whom comprehended not a word he sang, and yet understood their meaning entirely.
Davis alternated with Majid, a PFTA employee and member of the Run Across Palestine’s support team, who crooned a beautiful poem in Arabic: Welcome you the best of guests. In you we drew joy on the lips of our country. We opened our hearts to those who came to our house. Hopefully you will always be with us and our house will always be abundant.
Americans and Palestinians exchanged highlights, lowlights, and reflections of the journey as they sat around the campfire that evening, and Abufarha offered the final words. He thanked Davis for having the courage to make this journey—as a Jew and patriotic believer in Israel—and hoped that such bravery and tolerance could open the door to an even greater peace tomorrow.
“Part of this project all along has been to break down assumptions of us and them, and connecting people at the human level,” Abufarha said.