The death of the olive branch?

April 22, 2001|By Helen Schary Motro

KFAR SHMARIYAHU, Israel -- Israeli peace activist Karen Asaf, 21, makes an unlikely bootlegger. But this winter she became a not-for-profit middleman smuggling contraband Palestinian olive oil into Israel.

As Israel sealed off villages in the occupied territories because of the Palestinian uprising, oil normally sold to Israel and between villages was blocked by army roadblocks.

Ms. Asaf's Arab contacts use dirt roads to collect the oil and smuggle it past checkpoints. Through notices posted on the Web sites of Israeli co-existence organizations, Ms. Asaf accepts pre-paid orders from Israelis who must make their own way to pick it up from the ramshackle Tel Aviv office of Peace Now.

With no sign downstairs and a door bolted with security locks, Peace Now is hard to find.

"We get threats," a worker shrugs. Down a dark stairwell beside torn and wrinkled peace banners stands a table loaded with cans, jars and jugs of the thick homemade olive oil, each marked with a customer's name.

A quarter of a gallon costs $6, and checks are accumulating drop by drop. Admittedly, it's a symbolic shoestring operation. Still the $9,500 that Ms. Asaf's campaign has generated is far from symbolic to villagers whose one-crop income has dropped to nearly nothing.

Yet many Israeli supporters of co-existence find it hard today to order oil from villages around Tulkarm, where two young Israelis were killed while in a local restaurant. It was in Tulkarm that 15,000 Palestinians marched through the streets recently calling for more suicide bomb attacks against Israelis.

As the ethnic rift here continues to widen, olives, central to Middle Eastern culture and economy, are a symbol of unhappy times.

This year ripe olives rotted unpicked on laden trees. Twenty percent of the harvest was lost, not due to nature -- neither drought nor early violent rains but through the vandalism and sabotage of men. The harvest, the olive groves and olive pickers have become victims of a season that has killed more than 450 people, and with it perhaps the peace which olive branches symbolize.

Though they are Israel's sixth largest crop, technology has not caught up with olives. They must be picked by hand or the trees beaten with sticks until the olives fall on a cloth spread on the ground.

It is labor-intensive, and Jewish grove owners depend on Palestinian hands for picking. But the new Intifada triggered a security ban on travel by the Arab laborers who live in the territories and once crossed daily into Israel to work. The pickers lost their livelihood and there was no one to replace them.

Arabs who tried to harvest their own olives this year were subject to violence by vengeful settlers. Farmers have been killed and wounded in numerous attacks on village families picking in the groves. Israeli sympathizers, including Rabbis for Human Rights, made solidarity journeys to Arab villages to lend a hand; some Jews acted as human shields to protect Arab pickers.

The most glaring victims are thousands of olive trees destroyed this year by the Israeli army. Trees beside roadsides provide cover for stone throwers and snipers, thus prompting a policy of chopping them down or digging them up to boost security against ambushes.

Palestinians view this destruction as revenge and collective punishment, claiming that trees hundreds of yards from roads have been sacrificed and citing settler vandalism. In some instances, desperate farmers have sawed off the limbs of felled trees and replanted them, hoping they will take root.

Israeli army officers, themselves raised on an ethos which considered trees as something close to holy, often feel shocked and ambivalent at the task they perform but maintain that trees which give cover for murderous attacks must go.

Olives symbolizing Mideast destruction -- and reconciliation -- are spreading far. On April 8, a full-page ad in the New York Times, headlined "Olive Trees for Peace," appealed for donations to allow Rabbis for Human Rights to replace and replant uprooted Palestinian trees.

The hills of the Galilee are dotted with thousands of olive trees. From afar, their beauty inspires a false tranquility, mimicking their more fortunate brothers growing in peaceable Delphi and Sardinia and Provence.

If oil from olives lit every lamp in the ancient world, in today's Middle East even olives have become a force of darkness. "Peace," wrote Shakespeare, "proclaims olives of endless age."

It is still possible that the new and the old magnates of Middle Eastern power can make his words come true. Gnarled trees and their owners wait to see if they will.

Helen Schary Motro is an American-born lawyer who divides her time between Israel and New York.

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