The information for this treesandculture.org post comes from the 2009 article Uprooting Identities: The Regulation of Olive Trees in the Occupied West Bank, published in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Vol. 32, Number 2, pps. 237-264, by Irus Braverman, University of Buffalo Law School.
Human connections to trees are often about identity expressed in spirituality. When people’s lives change, symbolic/spiritual associations with trees can transform and even intensify. This is the case with olive trees in the occupied West Bank of Israel and Palestine, where acts against Palestinians are sometimes conducted through tree wars. Tree struggles have heightened the significance of olive tree status among Palestinians, according to Braverman (237-238).
The olive tree has long been of emotional, cultural, ritualistic and economic importance for Palestinians. Trees can last for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, and the olive’s characteristics as steadfast, durable, and long-lived are especially significant as symbolic of Palestinian perseverance in the struggle over Israeli occupation (243). “The olive is the Palestinian tree….That’s the olive’s nationality,” said a refugee from a depopulated Palestinian village (237).
Palestinians identify the olive tree as both a holy tree and a pauper’s tree in representational terms. The Quran tells that the olive tree and the fig tree were blessed by Allah, and olive trees are sources of survival because the olive tree “gives you everything” when people do not need to give it anything (242). Rabbi Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights explains that for Palestinians the olive tree is about ties to the land and the cycle of seasons. It is also about family gatherings, rituals, holidays, and celebrations, especially at harvest time. (242).
Since the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 2000, Israel has imposed severe restrictions on movement so that many Palestinians who used to work in Israel no longer have jobs. Palestine’s workforce unemployment rate is 50 percent. Growing food becomes increasingly important, but Israel’s military restrictions make cultivating anything but olive trees difficult in much of the Palestinian region. In other words, when Palestinians live under restricted and limited access to some of their lands, the olive tree becomes their only agricultural option because it requires less care than other crops. Even so, people still need to get to their trees to prune in one season and harvest in another (242). More and more people depend for their livelihoods upon the harvest of olive fruit and on extracting oil to sell (241).
Trees are important, but Palestinian identity is also fixed in the land on which the olive tree grows. Trees are anchors to the land even as they provide a model for Palestinian survival. Strong ties to land through trees is likely a big reason that uprooting and damaging trees has become a punitive act by some Israelis against Palestinians, especially in the last few decades (246).
Uprooting olive trees goes back more than 50 years when Palestinians were first displaced to make room for Israel. The roots of Palestinian violence began when people were dispossessed of their land and when the ‘long-suffering’ military occupation took hold. Since that time Israel has planted more than 250 million trees, mostly pines, transforming the Israeli landscape so that it looks European rather than Arab (237). As such, the pine tree has come to be a symbol of the Zionist movement as the olive tree is symbolic of Palestine.
More recently the state of Israel uprooted tens of thousands of olive trees to build a separation barrier to disconnect Israel from Palestine. Olive trees were pulled out of the land to make room for concrete walls, watchtowers, checkpoints, roads, and security fences around Jewish settlements (247). The Separation Barrier isolated some Palestinians from fellow Palestinians because they are now situated on the Israeli side of the barrier. Some trees belonging to Palestinians on lands owned by Palestinians are trapped on the Israeli side. The tree owners are prohibited from tending or visiting their trees most of the year.
While the Israeli government promised to transplant trees that were uprooted for construction, Palestinian tree owners often have no other place for the trees to go (249). In the meantime, Jewish settlers, called New Settlers, moved to outposts near the separation barrier to create illegal settlements. Some of these settlers are conducting tree warfare by uprooting, burning, chopping and sawing thousands of Palestinian-owned trees. As a result, the Israeli military implemented rules and requirements for Palestinian access to the areas that – although set up to protect Palestinians – often keep people from being able to visit, prune or harvest their trees during the correct seasons.
Both Israelis and Palestinians have compared the burning of Palestinian trees to the burning of crosses by the Ku Klux Klan, and Jewish people around the world are distressed that Jewish settlers would destroy trees. Trees are sacred in Jewish tradition, and cutting trees is prohibited by Jewish law unless there is a very good reason (252).
For human rights groups, the destroying of trees constitutes a type of eco-violence, especially when they witness the emotional and symbolic damage inflicted on Palestinians after their trees are uprooted.
“As we approached the woman sitting by the 102 olive trees that the settlers cut the night before, I saw tears rolling down [her] face as she stared ahead. We were coming to pay our respects; it was a funeral, a graveyard where the 30-year-old trees were slaughtered” said human rights activist Christy Bischoff (253).
Even as the international Jewish community largely disapproves of New Settler destruction of Palestinian trees, and even though several human rights groups work to help Palestinian farmers, trees are still sabotaged almost daily, according to Braverman. A lack of Israeli law enforcement against New Settlers creates a feeling of lawlessness that continues to deteriorate. Palestinians increasingly lose access to their trees and their lands.
While the New Settlers and human rights activists often perceive the situation as a war about land and not about trees, Palestinian farmers are more cognizant of the trees themselves, though they understand very well the connection between trees and the power struggle over land. For many Palestinians, Braverman writes, “… conducting war over land through tree warfare – rather than simply taking over the land with the force of guns and bulldozers, for example – has helped to fix and naturalize the importance of trees …” (259).