By Julie Holm
Earlier this month, a group of 11 Norwegian students visited Palestine to understand what is going on and show solidarity with the Palestinians. They came to learn about life under occupation, and they surely got to experience it up close when they participated in an olive tree-planting project. They took part in the project ‘Keep Hope Alive’ in cooperation with YMCA-YWCA. Many Palestinian farmers who own fields close to Jewish settlements in the West Bank do not feel safe planting trees and farming in these areas. Experience has taught them that at any moment the settlers can come and destroy their hard work or the Israeli army can declare the area for a closed military zone. This project was created to help the Palestinian farmers by bringing in international observers to take part in the farming.
The first time the Norwegian students and their teacher went to a field east of Bethlehem the only obstacle they encountered was the weather. The field, surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements, is owned by a Palestinian farmer who told them that he is often chased away from his own land by settlers or soldiers. Luckily this time the students got to plant 200 trees without any interference.
The second time the students went to plant olive trees, in a field in Beit Iskaria in the southern part of the West Bank, it didn’t go as smooth. One of the students described the incident on his blog. They had just started planting the trees when a car with two women stopped close to the field; the students saw the women call someone on their phone and then they drove away. The farmers told the students that they were members of the radical settler organization ‘Women in Green’. This organization is known for entering the area to plant their own trees with the purpose of claiming the land for themselves.
Soon after, the car came back followed by several Israeli military vehicles. The women stepped out and started taking pictures as they walked towards the group of tree-planting students. The Israeli soldiers told the students to stop what they were doing, an order they followed at first. But since there seemed to be a peaceful discussion going on between the Palestinian farmer and the soldiers they soon continued working. Then the Israeli settlers joined the discussion and the mood got very tense. They purposely got the farmer and his family angry and created a very anxious situation. One of the women, who turned out to be the leader of ‘Women in Green’, Nadia Matar, started yelling directly at the students. This was a very disturbing experience for the young Norwegians who reacted with anger and tears. They were told to take a step back and not show their emotions so as not to worsen the situation. The woman continued talking to the students, and asked if the reason they were crying was because their grandparents killed her grandparents in the Holocaust. She said that they were sad because deep inside they knew they were on the wrong side, that they supported the people who want to eradicate the Jews.
As she continued to call them Nazis, more Israeli soldiers and police arrived, and the situation escalated further. They tried to provoke the Palestinian youth who were present into reacting violently, ready to arrest them if they did. One of the Palestinian youth, the nephew of the farmer who owned the land continued planting trees in protest and not long after he was handcuffed and led to a police car. The Norwegian students were told to leave the area as internationals were not allowed to be there, in spite of their Israeli visas.
The Palestinian farmer had papers, signed by the Israeli court that state that he owns the land, and yet a couple of settlers managed to escalate the situation and get the military and police to throw him and the Norwegian students off the field. The bus with the Norwegian students was escorted back to Bethlehem by a police car and on the way the famer called to tell them that the remaining unplanted olive trees and the tools had been confiscated by the army.
The next day the 100 trees they managed to plant before the police and military interfered were uprooted by ‘Women in Green’. The settlers took some of the trees with them and left the others broken in the field. The young Palestinian man who was arrested was fined NIS 2000.
This story speaks for itself. If nothing else, the Norwegian students once and for all got to experience what it is like to live under occupation. The project they participated in was called ‘Keep Hope Alive’ something that can be difficult when the olive trees that are such a strong symbol of Palestinian identity are uprooted, stolen and destroyed almost before they are put in the ground. Yet, hope is still strong and alive and unlike the olive trees, it is not nearly as easy to uproot.
Julie Holm is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at [email protected]