Friday, 20 April 2012

Talk : Olive Tree Campaign

Café Scientifique has another in their excellent series of events recently, with a talk by Cyril and Roxanne Bennis that was entitled “Palestine: Hope and Olive Trees”

The talk was about the work of the "Olive Tree Campaign”, in which Cyril and Roxanne have participated. The campaign seeks to replant olive trees in areas trees have been uprooted and destroyed or in areas where the fields are threatened to be confiscated by the Israeli military Occupation and settlers, or where parts of the Israeli apartheid wall or Jewish settlements are constructed on part of the land.

The OTC is supported by the sponsorship of individuals, YMCAs, YWCAs, churches, church related organizations, human rights organizations, as well as solidarity and advocacy groups around the world and its website gives some of the background to their work:

“Since the year 2001 Israel through its military and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza has uprooted, burnt and destroyed more than 548,000 olive trees that belong to Palestinian farmers and land owners, most of these trees have survived hundreds and thousands of years”

“So far the campaign has planted more than 80,000 olive trees in hundreds of fields in the West Bank and Gaza, many of which are already bearing fruit for the farmers and their families. The trees planted have helped the farmers to steadfast on their land and confront the unjust Israeli military practices, and more importantly, to get individuals from all over the world involved and become more aware of what is happening in Palestine.. . ”

“An average olive tree produces 9 kg of olives, yielding 2 liters of oil which has many uses. The olive tree is plain and frugal; it grows in poor soil and yields precious fruit, and can live for more than a thousand years”

Sadly, there have been a number of occasions where the trees have been destroyed by settlers, most recently in March 2011, when all but one of 190 trees planted with farmer Aziz Tenih on his land were uprooted. Aziz commented that :

"Some of Israeli settlers in this area think they are shepherds. They try to follow the life of prophet Amos, somebody needs to remind them that; as a shepherd, prophet Amos had a stick rather than a machine gun and he was a person who respected his neighbors rather than using every opportunity to destroy their property, terrorize them and drive them off their land"

Another example is the case of Abu Firas, on whose land the ITC planted Olive trees in 2009. Soon afterwards, eyewitnesses reported that several Israeli military and police vehicles were on the land between 10:00 am and 12:00 noon, took their time, and uprooted each and every tree and loaded the trees, the agriculture pipes, and the wooden stakes used to keep the tree vertical, on to trucks. That is, they took everything. Abu Firas was terribly upset and angry about what happened and could not stop asking, "Why?"
Land of Abu Firas after Tree Planting

Land of Abu Firas after planted trees uprooted

Cyril and Roxanne explained that the planting campaign achieved something that the Palestinian farmers could not do by themselves.

If a Palestinian tried to plant trees, the military was likely to turn up and tell him to stop - and the farmer would comply because the alternative was likely to be arrest and detention for up to six months.

But if a few dozen international observers did the planting, they were unlikely to be arrested by the authorities because of the bad publicity this could cause. In addition, it is harder to arrest a bunch of people spread out across a field than a single person.

Typically, a campaign by the OTC will plant tree every other day (it’s a big ask, physically, to plant every day), with the campaigners being able to plant some 400trees in a 4hr period.

Planting in Beit Ummar, 2012
In answer to a question about how Zionism had changed over the decades, Roxanne commented that the early Zionists had been liberal Jews who wanted to have a place where they could practice Judaism in safety. However, this secular Zionism did not get a great deal of support from the Jewish community, most of whom were perfectly happy in the US, UK, France etc so it took on a more religious tone, with British, French and US Zionists being the most vocal.

Roxanne also commented that evangelical Christians were also an issue, as they believed that Israel would speed the second coming of Christ and were not interested, at all, in the rights of the existing Palestinian people.

Farmers receiving trees for planting 2009

One example of the discrimination that the Palestinians faced were the by-pass roads. These are roads in the Palestinian territories that only Israeli settlers are allowed to use and which only have signs for Israeli settlements, there is no mention of the Palestinian towns that the roads pass through. Indeed, Roxanne commented that when travelling on these roads it was as though Palestine didn’t exist. . .

Another example of the problems that the Palestinians faced related to the “by-pass” roads that have been built in the West Bank. These well built highways connect illegal Israeli settlements with each other and with Israel - but do not have junctions or signage for Palestinian towns and villages.

According to PeaceNow:
“In addition to their role in connecting settlements, bypass roads often block the development of the Palestinian communities in the West Bank, creating borders and barriers between communities and routes that in the past were connected. “

The speakers also discussed the housing situation in Palestine, particularly in Jerusalem, pointing out that Arabs were rarely given building permits, and any house built before 1948, by definition, had no building permit. As a result, virtually every house in East Jerusalem (which has historically been an Arab area) has had a demolition order placed on it.

In contrast, settler buildings in East Jerusalem are routinely given building permits, can build to a higher height (5 stories instead of the 3 allowed for Arabs) and are given preferential water, sewage and electricity connections. Indeed, one way of instantly identifying settler buildings (aside from their newness and size) was that they did not have roof top water tanks (because their water supply was reliable, unlike that of the Arabs) or satellite dishes (as the settler buildings got cable). Even the road in front of the settler buildings was of a much higher standard. Roxanne described the resulting effect as being one of “shabby. .chic. . . shabby. . .chic” as one a passed the Arab and Settler buildings.

Roxanne also described the situation in Hebron, which was home to some of the most extreme settlers (a sign daubed on an Arab house saying “Gas the Arabs” gives a clue to the attitudes of some of the settlers). In one area, there was netting stretched between the buildings above peoples heads, and this netting appeared to be covered with household rubbish. The people they were with explained that the settlers living on the top floors of the buildings would throw down their rubbish onto the Arabs below, so the Arabs had erected these nets to protect themselves. Roxanne wondered what kind of message this was giving to the children of the settlers.

In answer to another question about what the future held for Palestine, Roxanne felt that a two state solution was unlikely because so much Palestinian land had been taken that there was not enough left to make any kind of meaningful state.

But she also felt that Israel did not want a one-state solution because the injustices that were currently being placed on the Palestinians in the name of “security” would then become civil-rights issues- and much harder for the Israeli government to defend.

The speakers closed by mentioning a book by political comedian Mark Thomas called “Extreme Rambling” in which Mark walks the length of the wall, talking to many fascinating characters (both Jewish and Arab) as he does so.

BFTF asked what the feeling was amongst Israeli society, either within Israel or in the UK about the way the Palestinians were being treated. Roxanne and Cyril responded that this was difficult for them to gauge, but what they could say was that there was a trend for Israeli society itself to become more polarised, with the more secular living in places like Tel Aviv, while the more extreme tend to move towards selttlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

And that was pretty much the end of the, very interesting and somewhat disheartening, event.

There is a tendency on the Internet for people to find places that echo and re-inforce their own views. Thus the pro-Israeli camp will talk amongst itself about how right it is and how wrong the Palestinians are. While the Palestinian camp will, similarly, talk amongst itself about how right it is and how wrong the Israelis are.

Much of this discourse is not in the slightest bit helpful or in any way actually brings the possibility of a solution forward.

So, to try and buck this trend, BFTF is going to try and get the perspective of the Jewish and Christian(or Muslim) communities on the above post to see where the common ground (if any) might lie.

Given that BFTF has all the tact of a Challenger Tank, it seems prudent to try and do this via an Inter-Faith organisation.

Hopefully, more news on the outcome of this effort in due course!

Image Credits
Hebron Net