"If the olive tree knew [what was happening to] its planter, its oil would become tears."
Thin olive tree branches covered in long tapering leaves reach for the sky. When they grow heavy with fat green olives, the branches droop a little lower, waiting for a harvest. When they are in season, a shake of a branch releases the olives. They fall into waiting baskets and nets with soft little thuds. From there, they are washed with water and then crushed to create a paste. Olives have been used to make olive oil for thousands of years, and the way they are processed has remained roughly the same. Long ago, stone crushers were used, but now they are often crushed with hammer mills and grinders. The paste then goes through an olive press to separate the oil from the other components. It is a simple, straightforward process and one that has sustained life in Palestine for millennia.
Olive trees thrive in a semi-arid climate and have deep roots that both prevent soil erosion and mean they can thrive with minimal water. Palestine, located in the basin surrounding the Meditteranean Sea, has the perfect conditions for the propagation of olive trees. For thousands of years, the olive tree has stood tall in the Palestinian landscape, not only as an agricultural staple but as a symbol of identity, heritage, and the unbreakable spirit of the Palestinian people. Able to withstand drought and harsh conditions, it embodies the resilience and resistance of a nation under siege. Each tree stands as a testament to ancestral presence and an assertion of Palestinian identity.
Through many other cultures, olive trees and their branches have stood as a symbol of peace – as in “extending an olive branch” when one wants to squash a beef with their neighbors or to indicate the end of a war. Though the precise origin of the idea has been lost over time, many anthropologists think that it is because it takes olive trees a long time to grow, meaning it is not a crop grown during wartime when the need for fast turnaround and quick supply is necessary. Growing olive trees is a peacetime act, requiring patience and time. It is a fascinating thought given that Palestine’s greatest agricultural export is olive oil, which is processed in a land beset with anything but peace. Planting olive trees, especially in areas riddled with violence and political strife, becomes a profound act of defiance and hope.
Palestinian olive oil, celebrated for its rich taste and quality, not only caters to local needs but has found markets abroad, contributing significantly to the Palestinian economy. Cities like Nablus are renowned for their traditional olive oil soap, a product with historical significance. This soap, made from olive oil, has been produced for centuries and is valued for its purity and health benefits. The soap industry provides jobs, supports local economies, and is an integral part of Palestinian cultural heritage.
Around 45 percent of agricultural land was used to grow olive trees, but that number is dwindling due to the occupation. Since the 1948 Nakba, the Palestinian people have experienced displacement and systemic abuse under Israeli rule. One distressing manifestation of this occupation has been the destruction of olive trees by Israeli forces and settlers. Hundreds of thousands of olive trees, some centuries old, have been uprooted in the West Bank and other occupied territories.
"It has reached a crescendo," stated a spokeswoman for Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization monitoring incidents in the West Bank after a particularly brutal uprooting project in 2015. “What might look like ad hoc violence is actually a tool the settlers are using to push back Palestinian farmers from their own land.”
Although these actions are sometimes justified by Israeli authorities as security measures or to clear lands for construction, they have profound socio-economic and emotional impacts on Palestinians. The olive industry makes up around 25 percent of all income and supports around 100,000 families. According to New Arab, “In a good year, the olive oil sector can contribute to over $100 million in income to some of the poorest communities.” The uprooting of olive trees in Palestine by the Israeli army is intended to cripple the Palestinian economy. Each tree, deeply embedded in Palestinian history and culture, represents not only sustenance and economic well-being but also a connection to ancestral lands. Their destruction is thus seen not merely as an economic loss but as an act symbolizing the ongoing erasure of Palestinian heritage and connection to the land.
The olive trees of Palestine are more than just trees; they are silent witnesses to history, stories, struggles, and aspirations. They embody the essence of Palestine – its resilience, resistance, and undying hope. While the challenges faced by the Palestinian olive industry are significant, the tree's deep roots, much like the spirit of the Palestinian people, remain unyielding.