Good Morning to thee, Brother Prisoner: Volunteering with Olive Farmers in Palestine.

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Olive Grove Palestine

Credit: V.Paes

We live in a culture based on images, none more powerful than those of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. In this age of the armchair activist, a voice of dissent is a click, a tweet or often just vitriol in a comment box. We can happily surf away to another distraction from the safety of our sofas. What if you took your solidarity and you turned up, in real time, to the trouble spot on the screen? This is exactly what activist Victor Paes did when he recently joined The International Solidarity movement (ISM) in Palestine for the annual olive harvest. Unsatisfied to merely click and share, many politically engaged citizens of the world are showing solidarity for issues in revolutionary new ways. Compassion is being translated into action because the passivity of social media often numbs feeling.
Victor saw an action alert from ISM urging people to come and support Palestinian farmers in non-violent resistance during their olive harvest. But why Palestine? There is a smorgasbord of suitable conflicts for any concerned global citizen these days. He said the issue spoke to him deeply. ”I didn’t know what to expect, I just had to show solidarity. I did not want to be just another affluent foreigner perpetuating the ”white savior” complex meddling in charity, then going back to their nice life. The farmers are performing a non-threatening act, that of growing and harvesting food on their own land, they continue to face harassment and violence from the Israeli military and settlers. An International presence can help reduce the risk of extreme violence.” Israeli occupation has left the rural Palestinian society in crisis. The recent blockades and sieges caused serious damage to the economic development and welfare of these people. Rural farmers have particularly suffered, as gaining access to market is near impossible.
Olive Grove Palestine

Palestinian villagers work at the olive grove during harvest. Credit: V.Paes

Since 1967, the Israeli military and illegal settlers have destroyed at least 800,000 olive trees. Ironically, olive trees in the holy land are the symbol of peace and some of these trees are nearly 1000 years old. Olive oil is the lifeblood of the Palestinian agricultural economy, providing employment for almost 60 percent of the population, but Israeli occupation has left the industry annihilated. Large swathes of olive groves have been bulldozed or burned to the ground by settlers. A large amount of olive oil goes to waste because it is too dangerous for farmers to harvest the crops or because of restrictions on movement. Every year over half of the oil produced in Palestine is lost due to the lack of access to international markets. Each farmer must apply for a yearly license from Israel to harvest their own olives. Many of these families have lost their sons in the conflict or they are in jail so they simply do not have the man-power to harvest. Typically, the Israeli authority grants a very limited license to a farmer that may have 300 trees. Harvesting is a near impossible task for a lone farmer.
The international volunteers risk the wrath of the Israeli military and the illegal settlers. Victor says, ”I knew the risks and contemplated donating the money to the farmers, but what they need is support, more than money.” There are many stories of injured volunteers such as Kate Edwards, Caoimhe Butterly, and Tristan Anderson. On April 11, 2003 Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Sergeant Taysir Hayb shot (ISM) volunteer Tom Hurndall in the head. There is also the story of Rachel Corrie. She died after being run over by an Israeli armored bulldozer in 2003. Victor comments, ”we need to rid ourselves of the idea of justifying collateral damage and recognize all human life is equal, be it Jewish, Arab or otherwise. The violation of human rights in Palestine beggar’s belief yet the international community is literally silent. ”
Victor arrived in Palestine and went through an initial two days of training on non-violent resistance. Volunteers are posted in small groups to help the neediest farmers and come from all walks of life. Ordinary people are turning up to show solidarity during harvest and large percentages are women. The olive harvest is one of the only sources of income for these farmers. ”It has to be said that the three-day permission to harvest often means nothing. I witnessed soldiers asking farmers to leave even though they had their three-day permit. One family managed to harvest their olive crop for the first time in nearly a decade although their three sons were in jail for no apparent reason,” he adds.
This cycle of resistance repeats each week, and the clashes between illegal settlers and locals are common every day. The United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict report said “Little if any action is taken by the Israeli authorities to investigate, prosecute and punish violence against Palestinians, including killings, by settlers and members of the security forces, resulting in a situation of impunity. The Mission concludes that Israel has failed to fulfill its obligations to protect the Palestinians from violence by private individuals under both international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
Victor recalls his crash course in weapons used by the Israeli military on the Palestinian civilians. ”Currently the Israeli Occupation Forces use stun grenades, tear gas grenades and metal canisters, steel bullets coated with a thin layer of black rubber (which they insist on calling rubber bullets), live ammunition and skunk water.” Skunk water is a sort of mist fired out of water cannons which has the smell of raw sewage. It is almost impossible to get rid of and can linger for years. According to the Israeli authority “The recipe is based entirely on natural organic ingredients, including yeast and baking powder. It does not include any harmful materials, and may even be ingested without causing harm.”
Volunteers witness people setting tires on fire in a futile attempt to stop Israeli soldiers from coming to their villages. The weekly cycle of demonstrations commence with the villagers holding Palestinian flags, marching and chanting against occupation. The volunteers join them. Victor recalls ”Soldiers can be seen moving among the olive trees on the hills. People have their faces covered in order to protect themselves from tear gas inhalation and future persecution by the soldiers. They start throwing stones which is then promptly answered with tear gas, metal bullets coated with rubber and even live ammunition. Skunk water is sprayed at the demonstrators but also on the roads and houses in the village. ”
Victor returned home last week after the harvest. He says, ”The experience of volunteering was transformative. I witnessed the daily struggle of the Palestinian people who endure the Zionist agenda of genocide. I feel total empathy with my Palestinian brothers and sisters, it was life affirming, an international presence really does make a difference.” The struggle continues and so too will the work of international activists who risk their lives to show solidarity. ”I am just one person but there is power in one voice, I want to do everything to raise awareness of the truth of the Palestinian struggle. The farmers should be allowed to peacefully harvest their own crops. I hope that through nonviolent resistance, positive peace will manifest.”