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Home > Life & Culture > Customs & Traditions
Olive trees in Palestine: The story of a drop
Hitham I. Kayali, This Week in Palestine, Nov 4, 2007

This article was originally published by This Week in Palestine and is republished with permission.

Rows of centuries-old Palestinian olive trees grow on the terraced hillsides of Jerusalem's famed Mount Of Olives. (Michael Phillips, IMEU)
Its fruits gloss under the warm sunshine of April, hiding beneath the evergreen leaves, its fragrant cream-coloured flowers and graceful appearance is a symbol of peace, prosperity, dignity and love. A symbol of life, tradition and legacy ...a symbol of Palestine. With each of its sturdy stems and fresh green leaves that burst their way towards the bright blue sky, comes a story of life ...a story of Palestine.

For thousands of years our ancestors have been passing on this sacred tree, the Palestinian olive tree, with all that it symbolizes, to their children and grandchildren. Many stories were told under its shade, and perhaps one can indulge in its old greyish branching pattern to look for truths about life. Palestinians therefore grant special attention and admiration to their beloved olive tree, for it lives within their psyche and represents that sacred figure that was mentioned in all religious books, extolled by poets, and represented by artists in various ways throughout history.

All of this attention within its symbolic context pushed Palestinians to widely plant it. Palestinians plant this tree in all areas. It is planted from heights that reach up to 900m all the way down to the Jordan Valley at 250m below sea level. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have planted ten million trees over 898,262 dunums (around 225,000 acres). This area represents 54% of the total planted agricultural land and the trees constitute about 80% of the total rain-fed productive trees in Palestine. As for the Gaza Strip, about 22,452 dunums have been planted with olive trees. Palestinians continue to plant around 10,000 new olive trees each year in the West Bank where most of the new plants are from the oil-producing variety and 25% of their output ends up as olive oil.

The olive tree is known to have important social and economic impacts during its harvest season, with its ability to gather a large number of working hands, especially among women, when Palestinian families including children, women, men, students and the elderly all gather in their olive groves to harvest their trees while bringing alive Palestinian traditions and folklore with cultural evenings and activities.

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Olive oil is a basic component of the daily meals of Palestinians. Every morning most families gather around the traditional breakfast of zait and zaatar, olive oil and ground thyme that are mopped up with fresh kmaj bread. Olive oil is also a strategic Palestinian product of the national economy. It is of high standards in terms of taste, smell and colour. Olive production is the number one product in terms of overall agricultural production, taking up 25% of total agricultural production in the West Bank.

Olive wood is known to be the best kind of wood for creating simple sculptures and shapes, such as gifts and souvenirs which are appreciated by tourists and foreigners visiting the Holy Land. Its wood is also widely used as a main heat source in homes throughout the Palestinian territories.

The glory of this sacred Palestinian plant shines in the darkness of the Israeli occupation. And for many, it represents that beacon of hope for a better future. For many decades now, the Palestinian territories have been witnessing an acute conflict that has stripped them of their most basic life requirements. Especially since the outbreak of the second Intifada and the domination of violence, poverty and despair, Palestinians strive to hold on to what is left of their traditional economic, social, and cultural resources.

The Israeli occupation has specifically targeted this plant due to its symbol of identity for Palestinians and its economic benefits. Since the second Intifada, more than half a million olive trees have been uprooted from Palestinian lands. Palestinian resistance or sumood means Palestinians producing olive oil although the occupation limits their movement and forbids them from reaching their lands. "Sumood" is Palestinians producing olive oil although the racist Apartheid Wall prevents farmers from harvesting their olives and uproots trees anywhere near it.

But in the end, Palestinians do produce olive oil and always will. The Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), together with other non-profit agricultural organizations, has always supported farmers by providing them with the appropriate markets that would receive their crops. For some years now, the UAWC has been exporting Palestinian olive oil to various European and Asian countries, making it possible for people to directly support the Palestinian farmersí struggle and persistence, just by enjoying that drop of fresh, pure Palestinian olive oil.

Hitham I. Kayali is the Public Relations Director of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees.

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