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The Story of Palestine’s Colonization, and Resistance, Is Embodied in the Trees

Israeli settlers create non-native pine forests on occupied land at the expense of Palestinian lives and olive groves.

Palestinians plant olive trees as they mark the 47th anniversary of Land Day, east of Gaza City bordering Israel on March 28, 2023.

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A 20-year-old born in Gaza, Khaled (who asked to use a pseudonym for his own safety) has been climbing trees since he was a toddler. He recalls the “beauty and freedom you feel when you climb to the top of an olive tree and see all the greenery.” But Khaled explains that now there are no trees to climb. In May 2021, on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr celebration, Israeli missiles were fired into Gaza. While Khaled’s family was lucky to be safe, the next morning his father spoke, heartbroken, as he told his family that the Israeli missiles turned their olive trees to ashes, devastating their land and their memories.

When thinking about war, many of us rarely think about trees. Trees are placed into a category coupled with the birds and the sky; they are passive and neutral to war, not considered a weapon to enhance it. However, as Irus Braverman explores, when we paint a picture of trees using the brushes of settler colonialism and identity, we see how politics and nature are intertwined. When we tell the stories of the tree, we turn its physical form into something much more. Understanding collective memory as both a response to a shared event, and part of creating the event itself, Palestinians and Israelis have found very different meanings within the tree: the collective memory of the Israeli pine enrooted, at the expense of the Palestinian olive uprooted.

For hundreds of years, Palestinian families have lived with olive trees — at their doorstops, in their poems, and with every new generation born. Equally, when these trees are targeted, the pain is shared. While narratives like this have a place to be told, it becomes equally as important not to fixate “the Palestinian experience” into a single category in relation to the olive tree.

Practicing the meaning of a tree very differently, Zionism has used the pine tree to serve its nationalist agenda at the expense of many, many Palestinian lives and histories. Zionism here is understood as an ideology which was used to create a Jewish state and has been achieved through decades of Palestinian dispossession and erasure. Poignantly coined by Braverman, the olive and the pine tree have thus become “planted flags” in contested soil.

As an Israeli-born British Jew, I refuse to leave the violence of power and dispossession undisturbed. Through something we can all relate to, a tree, I wish to ground people in the stories that lie behind them. Maybe then, we can finally begin to speak to one another.

The Olive Tree

To begin to understand the effects of being uprooted, we must ask what it means to be rooted. “We have our heritage through the tree, we don’t give it much, but it gives us everything back.” As Khaled tells me this, I am reminded that these trees mature slowly, some taking five years and some taking 60 years to grow. So, only with a long enough time of peace can olive trees produce their fruit. Fittingly, the olive tree has become known as al-mubarakah, shajarat al-nour, and shajarat al-faqir: the blessed tree, the tree of light, and the tree of the poor. Living for thousands of years, the olive tree has been raised alongside its people. Named after a Palestinian villager who would sit beneath its shade over 200 years ago, Al-Badawi (the nomad) is said to be the oldest olive tree in the world, rooted in the Palestinian region of Bethlehem for 4,000 years. Khaled laughs as he tells me this tree is “older than any occupation!”

Zionism has used the pine tree to serve its nationalist agenda at the expense of many, many Palestinian lives and histories.

In Palestine, the olive harvest season is momentous. Starting at the beginning of winter, days are taken off work to harvest. To get a better picture, think of this not as employed work, but a cultural festival where relatives, friends and neighbors gather. With music, fresh air and good company, it is a time where the relationship between land and people is strongly felt.

Khaled describes the days to me like therapy; feeling nostalgic, we both laugh as he remembers one harvest when he climbed up a tree, heard the branch snap beneath him, and landed onto his sister. Guilty as he might have been, at least he saw the silver lining in giving his family a good laugh. However, moving to understand the olive tree more deeply, I borrow an important question from Palestinian land-lawyer Suliman Shahin: “What does it mean to cultivate an olive tree?” Its care minimal, the olive tree mainly needs to be pruned in September and its fruits harvested in late October. With Palestinians facing a daily military operation, it would be difficult to grow anything else but olive trees. Caught in a “catch-22,” in the words of Braverman, “the olive is the only tree that can survive on its own, and it is also the Palestinian’s agricultural symbol par excellence. It has become this way.”

Palestinians in the West Bank are faced with around “1,000 Israeli military orders, judicial case laws, and administrative regulations,” according to Braverman. What this translates to on the ground is countless checkpoints, 77 barrier gates and compulsory permits for Palestinians to be granted access to their fields. If, by luck, a farmer successfully proves their “connection to the land” and is given a permit, they will find only 55 gates open during harvest season, and with just a few hours of access each day, the gates are shut off for the rest of the year.

Human rights organization Hamoked quotes Palestinian farmer Ahmad Abadi’s humiliation in only being allowed access to his land 40 times a year: “My connection to my land cannot be quantified by a dry calculation of what crops I grow My land is my link to my parents and to our traditions.” Restricted access, or no access at all, to olive groves has created a vicious cycle which shatters people’s livelihoods and kinship with the olive tree. Not only are such families economic victims — with olive groves of restricted access now yielding up to 65 percent less olives than those with full access — but, Braverman argues, they are also emotional victims, placed under “house arrest” and blocked from their cultural world and identity.

What is happening to the olive trees of Palestine speaks to something much deeper than environmental destruction — it speaks to the unearthing of a people’s history. Fittingly described by Ghada Sasa, this “cultural bomb” attempts to destroy Palestinians’ belief “in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacity, and ultimately in themselves.” Reflecting on the destruction of his family groves, Khaled tells me, “This is the norm; we all pretend to be strong without any traumas or sad feelings. When something happens to my family, we make a joke so we don’t feel the real pain. It hurts. There is a lot of sad occasions around us; you have that feeling that you miss the trees, you miss everything.”

Restricted access, or no access at all, to olive groves has created a vicious cycle which shatters people’s livelihoods and kinship with the olive tree.

Israel justifies these uprootings as essential security measures — building a separation barrier between the West Bank and Israel, making space for new watchtowers and building fences to guard illegal Israeli settlements. But in fact, the elimination of olives from the land is essential to make way for an expanded Zionist presence.

The Pine Tree

My knowledge of trees and my Judaism have grown up together. I remember my father teaching me the prayer to say when eating a piece of fruit, Baruch Atah Adonay Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Borei p’ri ha-eitz, which translates to, Blessed are You, Eternal (YHWH), Our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree. In Judaism, we have four new year’s, one of which is the new year of the trees, Tu Bishvat. Of all the Jewish festivals, this one is my favorite. Celebrating in the way of the mystical Jewish tradition, Kabbala, this festival is a time to reflect on the Jewish principle of tikkun olam, to repair a broken world. However, such beauty of the tree within Judaism has been appropriated by a Zionist ideology.

Taking a symbol of peace, and changing it into one of violence, Mahran Mazinani unveils how the Israeli settler state has turned forests into a tool to erase Palestinian homes and memories. This dates as far back as 1901, when the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was created. With the purpose of buying, and taking, Palestinian land, the JNF has planted over 240 million trees, most of which are pine. The celebrated forests planted by JNF are, in fact, tools for the disappearance of Palestinian villages. The Lord Sacks Forest, the South Africa Forest, the Carmel Forest Spa resort — all built on the ruins of Palestinian lives. The largest JNF forest in the Galilee, the Birya Forest, took the place of six villages, one of which was ‘Ayn Zaytun, Spring of Olives, a farming village which homed 1,000 people.

There are two important ways in which the JNF was able to take with such force. Firstly, as Sasa reports, being disguised as an environmental NGO, global outrage was kept at bay as the JNF stormed through Palestinian land and silently made the pine tree the quintessential symbol of Zionism. Secondly, as Braverman points out, the festival of Tu Bishvat was turned into a propaganda machine where the once religious ritual of valuing trees became about planting them. A Jewish settler receiving pine tree saplings from the JNF on Tu Bishvat noted to Braverman: “These pines cost nothing, and after 10 years there is an entire forest.” Here, we see just how political a tree can be — transformed from a natural being into a soldier defending a settler state.

To take a territory, argues Ahmed Abofoul, you must become obsessed with space. This means seeing space — someone else’s land — as something that needs changing, and something that is yours. Khaled tells me, “You can’t live in a house with the original people living inside — you need to kick them out. If you have a special corner in your house, they will build a wall between you and your memories and history. After that, they will say you have nothing here.” The father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, shows us this mindset from the very beginning. In 1896, he was recorded saying, “[If] I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.” Hiding Palestinian heritage from their land, Zionists believed they were transforming a “wild” and “unlivable” space into an abundant haven for Jewish settlers. Typical of settler colonists, efforts were made not only to portray pre-Nakba Palestine as empty land, but as terra nullius, nobody’s land. I believe it was this ideology that made Zionists so powerful. The idea of “bringing a people with no land to a land with no people” can only happen when someone is dehumanized enough that the taking of their land is seen as ethically and legally just.

The Birya Forest, took the place of six villages, one of which was ‘Ayn Zaytun, Spring of Olives, a farming village which homed 1,000 people.

This erasure leads us onto the who. Palestinians have long been on the receiving end of Zionist supremacy. With the non-native pine tree being tactically planted for its fast-growing nature and European aesthetics, detrimental biological effects have taken form. These foreign trees often cannot adapt to local soils as they demand a lot of water, causing draughts; they acidify the land, making the ground inedible for Palestinian shepherds to graze their flocks on; and the trees are vulnerable to wildfires, as demonstrated by the worst fire in Israel’s history, the 2010 Mount Carmel fire.

When we think of nature, we commonly think of it as apolitical ground, even innocent. It is exactly this neutrality in which Braverman argues that the Zionist agenda has conveniently been able to hide its activities and silence the consequences. Naturalizing the “Jew through the reconnection with the land” has allowed Zionists to depoliticize their politically fueled project. To think beyond planting a tree is a plea to emotionally connect nature with its people inside it. To take inspiration from Malcolm Ferdinand, once we do so, we see what is needed is not only environmentalism, but justice.

The Defiance of the Olive

From the power of the Palestinians to the endurance of the olive tree, “liberation is on the horizon,” argues Sasa. Applied by Palestinians, the Islamic principles of sumud (steadfastness) and a’wda (return) marks the defiance of the olive tree.

The idea of “bringing a people with no land to a land with no people” can only happen when someone is dehumanized enough that the taking of their land is seen as ethically and legally just.

Sumud is represented by the olive tree as its firmness and loyalty to land is embodied by its physical features of sturdiness and longevity — both essential lessons in resistance. The ethic of a’wda speaks to the olive tree’s ability to never give up on the freedom of Palestine. Living for thousands of years, and through the harshest of conditions, the olive bears witness to centuries of life in the past and will too, bear witness to centuries of life in the future. Passed from generation to generation, Palestinians’ names are “proof of lineage.” These names tell the history of a people who refuse to have their roots erased, only nurturing them to grow deeper with each new generation.

The olive tree stands to represent the continuity of life far beyond the present. Having replanted over 2 million trees, the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature is a testament to this. Such reclamation projects can take years to see effects; hence, this within itself is a powerful act of defiance, a refusal to ever stop seeing a future for Palestine. These memories, kept alive in language and in the honoring of the tree, are the pillars of Palestinian heritage and opposition.

When I asked Khaled what he has learned from the olive tree, he took a moment to reflect and said, “To keep holding on to your land. You have a season that the tree’s leaves fall, but here the olive trees keep their leaves. So, whatever happens you must stay strong, hold onto your land, hold onto your home.”

UPDATE: It is with nothing but tears and heartbreak that I write of the death of Khaled, and several of his family members, killed by Israeli rockets fired into his home in the north of Gaza, on October 14, 2023. For the days Khaled was alive during the war against Gaza and Hamas, I made sure to get updates of his safety, until his messages stopped one day. A few days before his death, Khaled wrote to me:

I’m not afraid of death
I’m afraid of nothing
We have nothing to lose

To see Khaled go from someone requesting a pseudonym, afraid his real name would affect his future dreams of studying abroad, to very quickly leaving the idea of a future for him behind, captured the true tragedy of what life has become in Gaza. Khaled had an infectious smile, a wicked sense of humor, and a beautifully smart and gentle nature — an essence which lives beyond his physical form. May the story Khaled and I weaved together transform feeling into action. May we sing the song of “Free Palestine” until we can finally say it backwards.

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