AMMAN: Few things sum up Palestinian identity like the humble olive tree. It roots an entire nation in a land and livelihood lost to occupation, while serving as a powerful symbol of resistance against the territorial encroachment of illegal settlements.
In the mild Mediterranean climate of the Levant, olive trees have for centuries provided a steady source of income through the sale of their fruits and the silky, golden oil derived from them.
To date, between 80,000 and 100,000 families in the Palestinian territories depend on olives and their oil as a primary or secondary source of income. The industry accounts for about 70 percent of local fruit production and contributes about 14 percent to the local economy.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that these sturdy trees occupy such an important place in Palestinian art and literature, even in the distant diaspora, as symbols of rootedness in an era of displacement, of self-reliance. in times of hardship and peace in times of war.
“It represents the steadfastness of the Palestinian people, who are able to live in difficult circumstances,” Sliman Mansour, a Palestinian painter from Jerusalem, whose art has long focused on the theme of the land, told Arab News.
“Just as trees can survive and have deep roots in their land, so can the Palestinian people. “
Mahmoud Darwish, the famous Palestinian poet who died in 2008, has sprinkled his works with references to the olive. In his 1964 collection of poems “Leaves of the Olive Tree” he wrote: “The olive tree is an evergreen tree; The olive will remain evergreen; Like a shield for the universe.
The economic and symbolic power of the olive tree in Palestinian national life is such that rural communities who have tended these crops for generations are regularly targeted by illegal settlers who attempt to deprive families of their land and their lives. .
Since the olive harvest began on October 12 this year, observers in the West Bank have reported Israeli settlers attacking Palestinian villages almost daily, beating farmers, spraying crops with chemicals and uprooting hundreds of olive trees.
Such violence and vandalism is nothing new. The International Committee of the Red Cross said more than 9,300 trees were destroyed in the West Bank between August 2020 and August 2021 alone, compounding the already damaging effects of climate change.
“For years, the ICRC has observed a seasonal spike in violence by Israeli settlers residing in some West Bank settlements and outposts against Palestinian farmers and their property in the run-up to the olive harvest, as well as during harvest. the season itself in October and November, ”said Els Debuf, head of the ICRC mission in Jerusalem, recently.
“Farmers are also subjected to acts of harassment and violence aimed at preventing a successful harvest, not to mention the destruction of farm equipment or the uprooting and burning of olive trees.”
According to independent observers appointed by the UN, violence attributed to Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank has worsened in recent months in a “climate of impunity”.
In response to these attacks, Palestinian farmers have been forced to plant around 10,000 new olive trees in the West Bank each year to prevent the demise of the region’s 5,000-year-old industry.
Nabil Anani, a famous Palestinian painter, ceramicist and sculptor, believes that the olive tree is a powerful national symbol that must be protected at all costs.
“For me, it’s both a national and an artistic symbol; it reflects the nature and beauty of Palestine, ”Anani, who is considered one of the founders of contemporary Palestinian art, told Arab News. “Our traditions, our culture, our poems and our songs are often centered around the tree.”
West of Ramallah, the administrative heart of the Palestinian government, Anani said the hills are bristling with olive trees as far as the eye can see.
“They cover entire mountains and it’s one of the nicest sights you can see,” he added.
The late Fadwa Touqan, one of the most respected poets in Palestinian literature, viewed olive trees as symbols of unity with nature and hope for the renewal and rebirth of Palestine.
In a poem from 1993, she wrote: “The roots of the olive tree come from my soil and they are always fresh; His lights are emitted from my heart and he is inspired; Until my creator fills my nerves, my roots and my body; So he got up shaking his leaves because of the maturity created in him.
However, more than just a source of income and artistic inspiration, olives are also an integral part of Palestinian food and culinary culture. Pickled olives feature in breakfasts, lunches and dinners, providing important nutritional benefits for health.
Olive oil, on the other hand, is used in many recipes, the most popular of which is zaatar w zeit: a fluffy flatbread dipped in oil and then generously dabbed in a thyme-based powder containing sesame seeds and spices.
Beyond the dinner table, olive oil has historically had many other uses: as a fuel source in oil lamps, a natural treatment for dry hair, nails, and skin, and even as a insecticide.
It is not only the fruit and its oil that the olive tree contributes to the cultural and economic life of Palestine. Olive pits, the hard stones in the center of the fruit, have long been reused to make rosary beads used by Muslims and Christians.
As for the leaves and branches of the trees, they are pruned during the harvest season to be used as food for sheep and goats, while the wide canopy of the olive grove provides the animals and their shepherds a welcome shade against the relentless afternoon sun.
Wood from felled trees was also widely used in the carving of religious icons as early as the 16th century and as a source of firewood before the modern profusion of gas. In fact, glassmakers in Hebron, famous for their stained glass windows, continue to use charcoal derived from olive trees to fuel their ovens.
While the quantifiable beneficial uses of the olive tree are many, what is perhaps even more valuable to Palestinians is the inspiration it has provided to poets, painters and prophets through the ages, not to mention the place. particular that it continues to occupy in their culture and quest for a State.