‘You know something, Palestine is a pretty nice place to be right now.’
The sentence above is one I wrote two months ago after a day’s olive picking in Palestine. A sentence hard to reflect on now as I sit in the UK – not while I absorb the numerous news stories around me about Palestine and the nature of people in and from the Middle East. Particularly since the recent attacks in Paris, the Middle East is increasingly forgotten as a lived and everyday place. Rather, it has become a place where ISIS reign and conflict and violence dominant the narrative.
But as the Paris attacks demonstrated with brutal clarity, there is an ‘everydayness’ and ‘hereness’ to conflict and violence. Paris was so shocking because everyday people were affected and it attacked our places of leisure and safety – the café, the concert venue, the football stadium. Yet more shocking is how the USA, France, and the UK responded – with proposed large scale violence that will impact everyday spaces over ‘there’. We live with this response here by dislocating ourselves physically and emotionally from any evidence that everyday life even exists in the Middle East.
Hearing today that the UK Prime Minister David Cameron is attempting to gain support for air strikes on Syria mirrors exactly the actions of another democratically elected leader – Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu – on Palestine. Both leaders justify attacks which inevitably target everyday civilians in Syria and Palestine by using narratives of fear amongst their citizens – most importantly telling us our everyday space is at threat. But what about the everyday space over ‘there’?
Let me then take you to an everyday space in Palestine, a space of safety, refuge, and culture for Palestinians – the olive field.
Olive trees are one of Palestine’s most sacred objects – loved, looked after, and treated as a member of the family. In Palestine the olive tree looks after the family just as much as the family looks after it. They provide a space of shelter, an important source of food and nutrition and a valuable source of income. The picking of olives to this day remains an important cultural event in the yearly calendar. Olive picking takes place from October to November after the first rains of winter have cleansed the trees ready for picking. Traditionally olive picking is a family affair, the short period in which olives must be picked means it is a hands-on rush. Palestine at this time of year is engulfed by the olive harvest – olive trees bulging with olives cover the fields, full buckets line the market streets, and families spend their days putting olives in jars or crushing them for oil.
It is not hard to understand therefore, why the olive tree has also become a site of violence in Palestine. It is a safe and everyday space in Palestine and is therefore the perfect place to attack. Nothing stands more for the current restrictions on Palestinian life than the humble olive. One of the biggest impacts of the building of the separation wall between Israel and Palestine has been the destruction of olive groves. The building of the wall itself has resulted in thousands of acres of olive groves being demolished, some of which have olive trees estimated to be between 700 to 1000 years old. As recent as two months ago, the oldest, more sacred olive trees continue to be cut down to make way for the building of new wall.
Farmers who have been lucky enough to keep their land have in many cases been separated from it. Olive trees, like people, need love, attention and looking after. Yet most farmers have been dragged away from their land – only granted permits to reach it at very specific times of year. If they can get to their land, often it is not long enough to pick their olives, and far from being a cultural and family activity – family and friends are kept at the side lines. To attack a nation to its core, attack its livelihood, its heritage, its culture – in Palestine attack its olive trees.
Protecting this everyday space is a difficult task. Remarkably, however, through tourism these olive groves have become important sites of non-violent resistance. Olive picking tourism has been increasing in popularity with numerous tour operators and NGOs offering the opportunity to pick olives with Palestinian families. By doing this tourists perform three important functions: firstly they share in a traditional and important cultural tradition. I was lucky enough to go olive picking twice in Palestine. Firstly with the family I was living with and secondly with my friend whose tour company organises an olive picking tour every October. Both times I found it harder work than I imagined, both times I experienced overwhelming displays of Palestinian hospitality, both times I got fed my weight in mujadara, and both times I understood a little bit more about Palestinian life. The second function of tourism is to draw attention to the numerous struggles facing Palestinian farmers- by witnessing and sharing the stories of farmers, tourists become important tools of non-violent resistance. Thirdly, tourists protect the farmers. In recent years due to the proximity of many farms to Israeli settlements, farmers olive picking are particularly vulnerable to attack form unwelcome settlers. This can be anything from the burning of olive trees to the murder of farmers. Tourists by their mere presence make it harder for these attacks to take place.
Olive picking in Palestine, the recent attacks in Paris, and the air strikes in Syria all demonstrate how entangled the everyday space and violence are. To protect the everyday space, is not to attack it but to defend and keep it. Every space is an everyday space to someone. To save one everyday space by attacking another everyday space means that those at threat are always the innocent and armless.