My colleague and I received a call one morning. Trees planted by Palestinian farmers the previous day on their land had been pulled out. We were asked to accompany the farmers near Beit Umar as they returned to their land today to finish planting their olive trees.
The peacefulness of the landscape belied events daily obstructing Palestinian farmers. Terraces of land, dotted with a few shepherds and their flocks, a lone boy on a bicycle, stopping to show us the way, a pastoral scene that could have been filled with all the hopes of spring.
We eventually found the farmers. Several men of different ages, and one very old woman of 85. The woman was carrying stakes for the new trees. The men were digging holes, planting and staking the olives. There was a B’Tselem* representative with a video camera ready to record events. Several other internationals were present as helpers and observers.
We greeted the group and began taking photos of the work. They were working quickly, and as a gardener I wanted to help, but sometimes you are the photographer or the one writing notes in order to tell the story. And as Ecumenical Accompaniers**, we are there to walk with, accompany, the people at their request.
We spoke of rain, good years and bad, the talk of people of the land everywhere. Within the hour we heard the approach of a jeep-the Israeli army. We were warned by the farmers who are always on the lookout for them.
Everyone was ready.
The two armed soldiers approached. One young soldier of maybe 21 years was serious: he had his orders. The second soldier, an Ethiopian, probably, was more in the background. They asked for everyones identification. Some farmers gave it. Others walked away. We approached to ask why they needed our ids. The officer informed us this was a closed military zone and that no one was allowed on it. He stated that his job was to keep the Israeli settlers who live nearby and the Palestinian farmers, who have titles to their land, apart and the closed military zone, where no one could go, was the answer.
The 85 year old woman approached him to speak. She may have been saying that this land has been in her family for over 75 years, belonging first to her grandfather. She was kind, seemingly trying to figure him out and why he wanted to keep them from what farmers do. The conversation in Arabic lasted maybe 10 minutes with the old woman following him to continue talking.
At one point he spoke harshly, rudely to her. She continued to press him, kindly. He yelled at her. My anger rose. I thought I might lose my temper with him; I stepped back and allowed my colleague to intervene. Today I needed to remain quiet, hold the anger until later, and allow my colleague to handle things. This is not about ego, or getting even or showing them. And this is hard to do. It’s about advocacy: telling the real story to those who might never hear it.
It is hard to imagine a well-regimented and trained modern army out in the hills of a village near Beit Ummar walking through the terraced fields chasing away farmers, an old woman and a donkey, with internationals taking photos and watching. But that is what was happening.
Our passports were taken and returned within 15 minutes. The farmers got theirs back too. The soldier in charge told us where the closed military zone was and we needed to leave. We left with the farmers who had planted most of the trees they had brought.
Walking back to the family home, I was able to find out more. My colleague and I sat under the flowering almond trees, guests of this Palestinian family, sipping tea with mint. The family spoke about having a lawyer and that their case was heading to the Israeli Supreme Court. This is an expensive but necessary step for many Palestinian farmers in order to keep their land. When tea was finished Arabic coffee was offered. As we awaited our ride back to town, we enjoyed the hospitality that Palestinians offer to all. Our ride arrived; we thanked them for the hospitality; they thanked us for being there, for coming to Palestine from our countries for them.
This was one day as an accompanier in the West Bank walking with ordinary people who are trying to live a normal life. It is hard to believe that planting trees on your land can cause so much trouble. Part of our mission is to ensure that peoples’ rights are maintained and their stories are told.
*B’Tselem: the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories www.btselem.org
**Ecumenical Accompanier (EA)
EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel) www.eappi.org