My Turn: Harvesting olives, and learning, in Palestine

For the Monitor
Published: 12/8/2019 6:30:18 AM

This past October, I, along with 20 others from New Hampshire and Maine, traveled to Palestine for nine days to harvest olives in the West Bank as part of a trip organized by the Alternative Tourism Group and the Joint Advocacy Initiative.

I became interested in the trip because a friend had gone two years before, and she told us about the beauty and sensual nature of harvesting olives and about the wonderful pottery and fabric factories we could visit. That is all she said. I went with no expectations other than we would pick olives. To my surprise and delight, we got much more than that.

I have been retired for 9½ years and gratefully “off the clock.” In the West Bank, I found myself waking to an alarm at 6 a.m., heading to breakfast by 7, and on the bus to the olive fields by 8. Sometimes there were 20 of us and other times 75 as there were two groups for this adventure, with each group a mix of Americans and Europeans.

The choice of fields where we worked was deliberate. They needed to be large enough to accommodate all us pickers and, importantly, they needed to be close to or surrounded by Israeli “settlements.” The idea was that our international presence would prevent the settlers from harassing and robbing the farmers once they had harvested and bagged their olives, which was a common occurrence. One day we harvested 1,000 pounds and another 1,700 pounds. It was fun work, the weather held as it was the start of the rainy season and we had no trouble with settlers.

After being fed by the farmer’s family – an incredible lunch in the fields – we were back on the bus and off to visit holy sites, then to supper and evening presentations. This became our routine. In the process, we learned many things.

We learned about and visited the Apartheid Wall that cut off Palestinian villages and access to travel. We learned that Palestinians needed permits and have to pass through checkpoints to do just about anything – go to the hospital, build a home, get to work, enter Jerusalem or use the “bypass” roads created because they couldn’t travel the same road as Israelis to get to Bethlehem or other major towns.

We learned that Israel has no constitution but is ruled by legislation, the courts and the military. We learned that there are four different legal systems: British, Ottoman, Israeli and Jordanian. We learned that if an Israeli youth was arrested for a violation, they were permitted to have family members with them, a lawyer and their case was heard in civil court. If a Palestinian youth (legally only at the age of 12 can one be arrested but 8-year-olds are commonly charged) was arrested, they are prohibited from being accompanied by a family member or having a lawyer, and they are tried in military court.

We learned that there are currently 65 laws that overtly or covertly discriminate against Palestinians, be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sunni, Arminian, etc. We learned that the military can and often does overrule the decision of the courts when it feels it’s appropriate to their “national security.”

We learned that electricity and water are controlled in the West Bank by Israelis and often are shut off or rationed to four hours a day. (One way to tell the difference between settlement houses and Palestinian ones is by the latter having huge catchment containers on their roofs to gather water during the winter rains.) We visited one of the 15 refugee camps in the West Bank, which now are cement structures with three generations of refugees living in them.

We learned that when Palestinians greet each other, they ask: “Are you ’48 or ’67?” If you are ’48, you have a type of citizenship which can be revoked at any time. If you are ’67, you are not a citizen and have a registration card. (The dates refer to when the U.N. declared Israel a state in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967.)

Our guides during the nine days were smart and well informed. They never said anything negative about Jewish people but rather explained the system of oppression they have lived under all their lives. One talked about the growing Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) and the fact that in the United States, 27 states have implemented legislation forbidding their state government from having any contracts, even retroactively, with companies that support the BDS movement, saying it is illegal and immoral. Many actually state that they will “boycott and divest” from any such company. (I’m not sure the irony of that is apparent to those who passed such legislation.)

There are also attempts in Congress to outlaw any support for the BDS movement. Some are calling such attempts the new McCarthyism, requiring companies to sign oaths that they will not offer such support. BDS is a nonviolent movement that helped to end apartheid in South Africa, which is the model Palestinians are using. It is a legitimate strategy, one used here in the states to boycott grapes in the 1960s and early ’70s to support the farm workers who suffered in California fields. These legislative attempts are orchestrated by AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and speaks to their influence in our democracy.

We learned that every year, 3.8 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars goes to Israel solely for military purposes. Not to schools, roads, hospitals, housing, agriculture, the arts or any of the other of life’s necessities, but rather tanks, bulldozers, jets, rubber bullets, tear gas, the AK 47s that are seen everywhere, etc. (Congress and the president just banned the sale of crowd control munitions like tear gas and rubber bullets to the Hong Kong police, which were being used against the Hong Kong pro-democracy public, yet it seems it’s okay to have them in Israel to use against Palestinians.) And, we learned there was hope.

There are people, both Israelis and Palestinians, who see a way to end the occupation and create One Democratic State, where discrimination is banned, all have equal rights, there is a constitution and laws that apply equally to everyone, the military is curtailed and the “right to return” is acknowledged. It is this latter campaign, formed by rabbis, lay Jewish people, Palestinians and other like-minded interested parties, that I hold onto.

There is a common theme that runs through every spiritual teaching, that if you can imagine it, it can become. In addition to sharing my experience with many, I am taking the time to do such imagining. I see no other option. I hope after reading this, you agree.

(Sue McKevitt lives in Bradford.)

(Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the West Bank is part of Israel.)

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