PHOTOS: A West Bank battle fought with olive trees


12 February 2013, 13.20 by Alternative Information Center (AIC)

Photos by Ryan Rodrick Beiler


Accompanied by an international volunteer, a Palestinian farmer plants an olive tree in Ein Al-Qassis, which is surrounded by Israeli settlements and targeted by settler activists.

It’s a West Bank land battle in which olive trees have become the weapon of choice. With Israeli settlements surrounding them on every hillside, international volunteers join Palestinian farmers in planting seedlings in an area called Ein Al-Qassis, belonging to the Palestinian village of Al Khader. The YMCA Joint Advocacy Initiative, which organized the planting, chose this area because of its particular vulnerability—surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc: Efrat, Elazar, and Allon Shevut, including an outpost connected to the latter. Like all Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, Gush Etzion’s are illegal under international law.

The YMCA is not the only organization targeting this area. Israeli settler activists known as “Women in Green” have also focused on Ein Al-Qassis, which they call by a Hebrew name “Netzer”. As their web site states, “One of the places where Women in Green plant trees to safeguard Israel’s Statelands, is Netzer; in the heart of Gush Etzion, between Elazar and Alon Shvut.” They lay claim to this as part of their “G-d given Biblical Homeland” and plant trees there to show their “opposition to the abandonment of parts of our homeland and to the return of Israel to the “Green Line”, the  pre-1967 borders.”

recent article in Israeli media quotes Women in Green leaders saying that their goal is, “To prevent the Arabs from taking over the land.” They target areas designated by the Israeli government as so-called “state land”—meaning that the Israeli government has not recognized private ownership by Palestinians or anyone else.  Women in Green leaders complain that, “We’ve witnessed in the past how Arabs try to take over state lands that had not yet been planted on by us. … We know beyond all doubt that if we do not plant on state lands, the Arabs will.”

What these settler activists fail to mention is that, though Palestinians have been inhabiting this land for centuries, under Israeli law, any land left uncultivated for more than three years can be designated as “state land”. The various walls, roadblocks, checkpoints, and other movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation have made maintaining a presence in fields separated from their villages all the more difficult in recent years. Moreover, many Palestinians lack documentation of their land ownership, owing to traditional understandings of family possession and inheritance that may never have been fully or officially registered with previous occupying powers, such as the Ottoman Empire or the British Mandate.

Even for the few Palestinians who can document family ownership though deeds registered with prior regimes, expensive and protracted legal processes often ensue. The case of the Nassar family, whose land lies a few kilometers north and is similarly surrounded by Gush Etzion settlements, is but one example. A 21-year legal battle has cost the Nassars more than $145,000. And despite extensive documentation with deeds from the Ottoman and British periods, they have yet to have their ownership recognized by Israeli authorities. Such cases discourage other Palestinians from even attempting to claim ownership through Israeli courts who rarely decide in their favor.

So many Palestinian farmers, like the ones joined by the YMCA’s international volunteers, prefer to fight this battle with pick, shovel, and seedling—on the land rather than in the courts, planting trees in their fields to avoid losing them to ever-encroaching settlements.



A Palestinian farmer carries an olive seedling along stone terraces used for ages by Palestinian farmers. Mobile homes of an Israeli settlement outpost occupy the hilltop.



International volunteers plant an olive tree on Palestinian land surrounded by settlements.



A Palestinian herder leads his flocks past a hilltop where Israeli settler activists have planted tree seedlings and Israeli flags to assert their control over the area.



An international volunteer carries seedlings to be planted.



A Palestinian and an international volunteer finish planting a tree.



A Palestinian farmer ties a seedling to a stake that will help the young tree grow straight.



Volunteers add a plastic sheath to protect the newly planted tree.



Israeli flags and tree seedlings in brown plastic tubes planted by settler activists Women in Green line the fence of Elazar settlement.



A Palestinian farmer says midday prayers next to a field of olive tree seedlings planted with the help of international volunteers in view of the Israeli settlemant Elazar.

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