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At a glance: State of Palestine

Ancient autumn ritual brings joy and pride to Palestinian children

© UNICEF occupied Palistinian Territory/2011/Halawani
UNICEF staff members help villagers and children pick olives in the northern West Bank village of Bala’a.

By Catherine Weibel

BALA’A, Occupied Palestinian Territory, 22 November 2011 -  On the outskirts of Bala’a village in the northern West Bank, the smell of olives floats in the air as a soft Mediterranean breeze gently stirs the leaves of trees. Palestinian villagers have gathered here to harvest this ancient fruit, with the support of dozens of children brought from the UNICEF-supported Adolescent Friendly Spaces, funded by Sida, Danida and the German National Committee.

The view is stunning. Thousands of olive trees dot the Biblical landscape, interrupted only by a handful of Palestinian villages and one lone settlement.
After the villagers spread black tarpaulins under the gnarled trees, the children begin to comb the branches with handheld rakes. The steady beat of the olives as they fall onto the tarp, serves as a grand accompaniment to the participant’s lively songs.

“The olive oil from my country is the best in the world, I will use it to fry eggs perfumed with the finest spices of my land,” sing a group of little girls as a couple of toddlers giggle with delight under the soft rain of purple fruit pouring down onto their heads.

A family affair

Almost half the agricultural land in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) is planted with 12 million olive trees, most of which blanket the stony hillsides of the West Bank. Farmers grow trees on small plots that have been passed from one generation to the other. They use the harvest to make olive oil that will last until the next season, selling the surplus. The olive tree, an ancient symbol of peace, is also considered by Palestinians an emblem of commitment to the land and a reminder of the wealth it can bring.

© UNICEF occupied Palistinian Territory/2011/Halawani
Olive trees have been cultivated in the the West Bank for thousands of years. The olive tree, an ancient symbol of peace, is also considered by Palestinians an emblem of commitment to the land.

“For us, the olive harvest is even better than a wedding, it’s a blessing which brings all the good things,” explained 13-year-old Shahed. “It’s when the land comes alive again, and when the trees bear jewels.”

A land at risk

Zaytun – olive in Arabic – is deeply rooted in the Palestinian culture. Olive oil is a food staple, and even the leftovers from the oil presses are used as fuel. However the joyous event also has a bitter side. In the first eight months of 2011, more than 7,500 olive trees belonging to Palestinians were uprooted, set on fire or otherwise vandalized by settlers in the West Bank*. 15-year-old Osayd described how his parents refused to take him to pick olives due to the proximity of their land to a settlement. “Each autumn they refuse to let me go harvest with them,” he said. “They say settlers set our olive grove on fire, destroying many ancient trees, and prefer that I stay safe at home.”

Pulling his hands down the branches, Abdallah, 17, tells a similar story. “Even though they own the land, my parents need a permit from Israeli authorities to access it,” he said solemnly. “I was never granted a permit so I have never seen these trees we inherited from my grandfather. However I hope that one day, I will be able to take my children to the land. It’s our duty to tend for the trees and pass them on to future generations.”

*Source: OCHA



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