Our first full day of the Being Peace retreat in Deir Istiya was set aside for rest and familiarisation. It involved several meditation sessions and almost a full day of silence. The day after was our first day of olive picking.
The majority of Palestinian farmers in the Occupied Territories are at least partially dependent on olive cultivation. It is estimated that around 45% of land in the Territories is planted with olive trees most of which are cultivated by small family-run operations.
Olive groves surround much of the land around Deir Istiya and the nearby villages. There are no physical boundaries or fences separating one farmer’s grove from another yet each farmer knows exactly which trees are his. They talk about their trees as if they were their own children, knowing each tree by heart and spending much of their time caring for them and ensuring they produce a good harvest.
Many farmers we met in Deir Istiya talked about how their grandfathers had planted the olive trees that were then passed down to them through successive generations. The trees were part of the family and because they grow slowly and have great longevity they tend to be in the family a long time.
For many Palestinians the olive tree is not only a source of livelihood, it is a symbol of national identity and of their connection to the land. Throughout the Occupation and coinciding with the growth of settlements, many olive trees have been destroyed in acts of violence and intimidation by settlers. Whole groves on hillsides and valleys have been subjected to damaging pollutants from sewerage emanating from settlements on the hilltops. There are also many cases where land containing olive trees has been appropriated by Israel for use as military bases, for the construction of the separation barrier, settlements, roads, archaeological sites and even so-called ‘nature reserves’.
Often the Israelis will resort to old legal land laws dating back even to Ottoman times to secure land for themselves. They rely too on the fact that much of the land owned by Palestinians has been passed down through generations without necessarily recording ownership on paper. For many farmers, the accumulating impediments resulting from the Occupation means that access to their land and their olives has been severely effected. As well, their ability to sell their olive oil to local and particularly international markets is heavily restricted. Many of these things would become apparent to us throughout the retreat.
On each picking day we would be woken early in the morning and by 7:30am we’d be standing on the road in front of the old medical centre waiting for a farmer to drive by and pick us up. The organisers had promised two pickers for two days to each farmer. Despite the heat we were guests in a predominantly Muslim village and so it was important we dressed appropriately with adequate covering, particularly for the legs and shoulders. Hats were essential, at least for those of us not from Middle Eastern countries. We’d also take a daypack with plenty of water and maybe some snacks.
Usually two or three of us would be driven out several kilometres from the village and dropped off on the side of the road closest to the location of the family’s grove. It was not possible to drive all the way to the picking site as road safety barriers have blocked access to dirt tracks that divert off the main road into each grove. The alternative was for farmers to drive to somewhere near the location of their grove, cross the barrier and walk in from there, carrying any equipment they might need. When they were done picking for the day they would then have to carry their sacks of olives back to the road, haul them over the safety barrier and wait for a vehicle to pick them up.
Usually one tree is picked at a time. Large hessian tarpaulins are placed on the ground around the trunk of each tree so that its entire foliage footprint is covered. Olives are then hand-picked and allowed to fall to the tarps below. All the lower branches can be picked from a standing position while upper branches are accessed by a combination of tree climbing and ladders. Quite often the farmers would prune branches from the tree at the same time as picking. This was essential maintenance for keeping the tree healthy and allowing it to continue producing a good crop.
It was peaceful picking in the fields – the kind of peace that comes from being in nature and getting into a rhythm with a particular task. The days were always hot and it was sweaty and dusty work, but also satisfying. I particularly liked the colours of the environment – the dark red-brown soil infused with light grey stone and the silvery-green olive leaves against the pale blue sky – which seemed to embody a homely earthiness and a simpler more rustic way of life.
Lunch and tea breaks were supplied under the trees. A small fire would be lit, the kettle boiled and delicious sage tea would be served. Lunch was taken sitting down on the ground in a circular fashion with all the food placed on plates in the middle. There was always hummus, tomatoes, cucumber, flat bread and lavish amounts of fresh olive oil. Sometimes an omelette was cooked or other ingredients like lebnah (a creamy cheese) or ful (made from fava beans) was served.
The picking was very much a family affair and often involved people of all ages. Olives are typically harvested during October and for many Palestinian families it means all hands on deck. Many family members would leave their daily routines and dedicate between one to four weeks of their time to helping with the harvest.