Early last spring, Maher Abu Seba’a planted 240 olive trees on his plot of land outside al-Khader, a small Arab village nestled in the Gush Etzion valley, a region surrounded by Israeli settlements and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) outposts. Five months later, Abu Seba’a and his brother went to the land to irrigate the trees, only to discover that 228 of the olive trees had been destroyed. All of them had suffered the same fate: the agriculture tube used to protect the tree had been lifted, the tree beneath had been cut or uprooted, and then the tube had been returned to make it appear that there was no harm done.
Abu Seba’a went to the IDF, which has surveillance cameras on the land 24 hours a day, to ask for help in finding out who had done this to his trees. The IDF told him that they were not able to help. He then went to the Palestinian Authority in al-Khader to ask for their assistance. They, too, said there was nothing they could do. The farmer was distraught. But then he got a call from Alice Gray, a professor of environmental studies at Al Quds University and the leader of a group calling itself “The Green Intifada.” Gray had heard about Abu Seba’a’s trees and offered to help him replant his olive grove. A few weeks later, Gray, along with a group of local college volunteers and activists, did just that.
Abu Seba’a’s story is not unique. On one of the world’s most bitterly contested pieces of land, natural resources have long played a central role. Together with water and mining rights, the right to one’s trees and the fruit that they bear has come to be inseparably linked to the political struggle at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Palestinians, the olive tree has been a source beauty and connection to the land. Furthermore, with olive trees bringing in roughly 20 per cent of the total agricultural output in the Palestinian Territories and about 4.6 per cent of the GDP, many Palestinian families depend on the olive harvest for their livelihood. During periods of conflict, however, the Israeli military has viewed the groves as areas that might conceal illicit activity and, because of their value, removing trees has also been used in the past as a form of collective punishment. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, the Israeli authorities have uprooted more than half a million trees in the West Bank since the eruption of the first intifada in late 1987.
In recent years, attacks on trees have become a common part of the increasingly tense relationship between Israeli settlers and local Palestinian communities. Settlers have been accused of pouring chemicals onto trees, deliberately channeling treated sewage into olive groves, arson attacks and late night raids to chop down trees. Most recently, settler attacks on trees outside of Hebron have taken place as part of the “Price Tag Operation” in retaliation for Israeli government crackdowns on settlers.
The existing legal vacuum in the occupied West Bank has intensified the struggle over land ownership there. According to an 1858 Ottoman law still applied, all lands are considered "state land" unless proven otherwise. If a plot of land is “abandoned” or left uncultivated for three successive years, it becomes state land that can then be appropriated by the Israeli government and allocated to settlers or other uses.
But in a new twist, a growing number of grassroots groups have cropped up to help Palestinian farmers protect their olive groves. The “Green Intifada” is just one of the growing number of Palestinian rights groups that have turned to agriculture as a new form of resistance. In 2002, the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA launched the Olive Tree Campaign (OTC) with the objective of replanting olive trees in areas where they have been uprooted and destroyed or in areas where the fields are threatened to be confiscated by the Israeli military or settlers. In the past ten years, the campaign has planted more than 70,000 olive trees in hundreds of fields in the West Bank and Gaza. Some groups also reach out to international NGOs to sponsor trees or to recruit volunteers. People now come from all over the world to help pick the olive crop in Palestine as an act of solidarity.
Israelis have responded by launching new grassroots groups of their own. One of these groups, Women in Green, says its objective is “cultivating and safeguarding the Land of Israel.” Their website states that, “This tree is our literal soldier in the field, striking a stake in the earth and holding our ground for us.” Women in Green accuse Palestinians of waging “agricultural jihad to steal the land from the Jews.”
For activists on both sides, the war over olive trees is fundamentally about political rights. By planting trees, the “Green Intifada” is seeking to help farmers make a bold act of resistance against creeping land confiscation in a conflict where land ownership is at the center of the struggle between the two sides. As Gray explains, “I want farmers to have their trees so they can say, ‘Look, we’re cultivating the land. This is our land.’”