The rains have come to wash away the dust of summer from the olives, and so the annual harvest begins — and with it, another cycle of violence against man and tree.
Mohammad Hamoudah and his wife were picking olives in their grove last week when he saw five or six men darting among the trees, their faces hidden by scarves, carrying sticks and shepherd’s crooks.
“We ran for the car,” said Hamoudah, a Palestinian from this village south of Nablus. The assailants smashed a window with a club. They struck his wife on the leg. “They were savages,” he said.
Hamoudah said his attackers were Jewish settlers; four were later arrested, he said, and when Hamoudah went to the police station to identify them, one of the settlers accused the Israeli police officer of turning against his own people to help the Arabs. “The policeman slapped him to the floor,” Hamoudah said. “I have to say, I respected that.”
There is far worse violence in the Middle East today, in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and so the seasonal clashes in the olive groves of the West Bank can seem peripheral, almost trivial. But not to the Palestinians.
More than 80,000 Palestinian farmers derive a substantial portion of their annual income from olives. Harvesting the fruit, pressing the oil, selling and sharing the produce is a ritual of life. Now, so is losing trees.
Last year, the United Nations reported that Israeli settlers damaged or destroyed nearly 11,000 olive trees and saplings owned by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. The trees were burned, toppled by bulldozers, felled with chain saws.
For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the olive tree is a symbol of peace and a promise for the future. Many of the trees in the West Bank, their trunks twisted and pocked with age, are hundreds of years old.
When Pope Francis brought then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican earlier this year for a “prayer summit,” the three took time to plant an olive tree in the papal gardens.