This year BoAFoP organised an olive-picking trip to the West Bank – committee members Judith Hammond and Penny Welch travelled over with a group of Wiltshire people to help local farmers and find out about the challenges they face. Here is Penny’s account of her experience.

Why go to Palestine to pick olives when unemployment is so high in the West Bank?

The answer reflects the complexities of the area. The Palestinian farmers have been cultivating their olive groves for generations, but Israeli illegal settlements are increasingly encroaching on their fields. Some settlers, through a belief in the area being part of the ‘Promised Land’, have a sense of entitlement which leads to them resenting the presence of the farmers and their labourers, and behaving belligerently. Very often it is the aggressed who are arrested if there is the slightest retaliation, even if it’s only verbal. The other issue is the difficulties Palestinians face in circulating around the West Bank with the roadblocks which are in place. However, as tourists we were able to circulate relatively freely in our coaches which was not the case for our Palestinian guides who could not accompany us to some places.

We were over 100 volunteers, split into two groups who would travel to different olive fields, where we were greeted by grateful farmers and their families. Despite our grey hairs, we were soon putting down groundsheets to catch the olives and shinning up trees or step-ladders to strip the branches of their ripe fruit.  It was hard work, but we also had a lot of fun chatting away in our many different languages. On one day, we were joined by a group of local students, some from a refugee camp. It was great to be able to spend time with them and discuss their lives, but also observe that, like teenagers around the world, they spent as much time teasing and flirting as working!

Altogether, we picked over six days. We would go to an area overlooked or surrounded by settlements, most of which looked like incongruous US or European gated housing estates, stuck in the heart of a middle-eastern landscape, their tree-lined avenues sucking up the water from the surrounding water table.

By having a few days and afternoons off, we were able to visit several towns, including Bethlehem and Jerusalem, as well as attend talks by many of the experts and activists in the region. Personally, I found the visit to Hebron the most disturbing. We visited the Mosque of the Tomb of Abraham, a portion of which was given over for a Synagogue – Abraham being important to the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths.  We were told how, in 1994, a settler entered the Mosque side from the Synagogue and massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer, including six boys aged between 12 and 14. Surprisingly, this led to a crackdown on the Palestinians rather than the Israeli settlers.  As a result, Hebron is split into two zones: H1 where most Palestinians live; and H2 where there are still thousands of Palestinians, but under the control of the Israelis, with police patrols, areas where Palestinians are not allowed to circulate and checkpoints which have to be negotiated on a daily basis. These include parts of the local market, resulting in many of the shops and all of one street being boarded up. In other parts, the market traders still try to ply their trade, but the market feels like a ghost town, especially in the areas which have to be protected by netting hanging over the market stalls so settlers can’t throw their rubbish onto the traders’ heads from the buildings above. The tension in Hebron is palpable, leading to resentment and violence on both sides. I cannot believe it is a comfortable place to live and bring up your children either for the 1,000 Israelis or the 200,000 Palestinians. I found it very depressing.

We also visited a Bedouin Camp, which was at risk of being demolished to make room for a new settlement. While we were in Palestine, the demolition was postponed but only temporarily. Khan al-Ahmar didn’t fit my romantic idea of a Bedouin Camp with the homes being more a cross between a shed and a tent, but it is where the Bedouins live and graze their goats on the surrounding desert slopes. It seems the settlers want to complete their cordon of settlements in the E1 area around Jerusalem. There is a vibrant, ecologically-built, primary school which is a central point for 170 Bedouin children from miles around providing a permanent amenity.  The Bedouins have been offered a replacement site at a traffic junction, near a rubbish tip on the edge of a town, with nowhere nearby to graze their animals and Portacabins for the school: cold in winter, hot in summer!

We stayed in Beit Sahour, the village where shepherds once watched their flocks by night before making their way to Bethlehem a few miles away. The centre is a pretty, medieval town, with several churches. More than 80% of the residents are Christian, including the family with whom I stayed. Beit Sahour is a centre for Palestinian political, non-violent activism and Jalal of my host family told me of their various protests.  In 1987, they decided to boycott Israeli products. They bought 18 cows from an Israeli kibbutznik to create their own source of milk. Within six months, the whole town had turned to the local dairy for its milk, dubbed “Intifada milk.” The self-made dairymen delivered it by night so they wouldn’t be seen. One day an Israeli soldier saw and took photos of the cows and told the Palestinians they weren’t allowed to have the cows and gave them 24 hours to shut the farm down. Although they resisted for a while, moving the cows every night, all that moving was too much for the ‘dairymen’ and the cows, so milk production eventually decreased. In another protest in 1989, they refused to pay tax to the Israeli Government, under the banner “no taxation without representation”. The Israeli response was a 42-day siege and the imprisonment of 10 residents.  The people from Beit Sahour once again refused to be bowed, making a show of barbecuing anything they could find (whether eatable or not) on their rooftops so the smell wafted over to the soldiers enforcing the siege, resulting in the army giving up rather than the residents of Beit Sahour.

It was humbling and uplifting to meet such resilient and surprisingly optimistic people and I hope to return on another trip.

By Penny Welch, Dec. 2018