Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Olive Tree: A Symbol of Resistance and a Target of War

In the scenic landscapes of Palestine and Lebanon, the olive tree stands as an enduring symbol of peace, hope, and sustenance.

The Olive Tree
A Lebanese man harvests his olive trees at the village of Kfarkila in southern Lebanon. RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP

Dana Hourany

Rola, 55, was not anticipating a bountiful olive harvest this year. Her family owns a small plot of land in the southern Lebanese village of Seddeqine, where they’ve upheld the tradition of harvesting olives across generations to sustain themselves. Each autumn, following the initial rain, they gather to collect the ripe olives from their ancestral trees, preparing them in jars and extracting olive oil for sale in nearby markets.

This year’s expected harvest in southern Lebanon did not unfold as planned.

In the wake of the Israeli war on Gaza following Hamas’ surprise attacks on October 7th, clashes have erupted between Hezbollah and Israel along the southern Lebanese border. As part of its heavy bombardment of the southern border villages, Israel has been firing artillery shells filled with white phosphorus, an incendiary weapon that violates international humanitarian law when used indiscriminately. White phosphorus also has disastrous results on agricultural land as it poisons the soil, water sources and burns crops.

In Gaza, the same weapon is and has been used. The attacks on olive trees have been especially severe, with approximately 40,000 olive trees destroyed in southern Lebanon as a result of white phosphorus bombs.

While Rola’s family land was not a direct target, the lingering fear persists that an escalation of the war could jeopardize both their livelihood and ancestral heritage.

“Given the looming threat of the war rising, we scrambled to gather as many olives as possible while we still had the chance,” Rola told Fanack. “We consider ourselves fortunate that our land remained unharmed, but sadly, numerous families in the south cannot say the same.”

Olive trees have historical, cultural, and agricultural significance that date back centuries in the Levant, particularly in Palestine, where they have become symbols of resistance and have been deliberately targeted by Israeli occupation forces and Israeli settlers.

Olive Trees as a Historical Landmark

In the scenic landscapes of Palestine and Lebanon, the olive tree stands as an enduring symbol of peace, hope, and sustenance. Throughout generations, farmers in these regions have relied on cultivating olives and producing olive oil as their main source of livelihood.

Since ancient times, spanning back to the Early Bronze Age (~3600 BCE), the olive tree has held immense regional economic importance across Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Its cultivation played a pivotal role in shaping the culture and heritage of ancient civilizations in this area.

The olive tree was cited multiple times in the Jewish, Christian, and Quranic scripture, demonstrating its vital place in mashriqi cultural heritage. Notably, the olive tree is revered as a symbol of peace and prosperity in biblical passages such as Genesis 8:11 and Deuteronomy 8:8.

More than 800,000 Palestinian olive trees have been illegally felled by Israeli Occupation Forces since the 1948 Nakba, when Israel violently evicted and dispossessed Palestinians. In August 2021 alone, 9,000 trees were removed and damaged in the occupied West Bank district of Salfit.

Israeli Forces often burn these trees right before the eyes of families, abruptly ending their means of livelihood. Apart from the physical devastation inflicted on thousands of trees, farmers encounter multiple hurdles during harvest, including the challenge of obtaining permits.

Israel approved only 24% of land access permits in 2020, making it practically hard for Palestinian farmers to gain entry to their property on a continual basis. Once issued, these licenses must be renewed at regular intervals, with no guarantee of approval.

In Gaza, typically 5,000 tons of olive oil are produced each year, playing a vital role in bolstering the region’s economy and supporting numerous families. Despite enduring a 16-year blockade and navigating the intricate political landscape, Gazan farmers have consistently crafted quality-level olive oil.

However, the ongoing war has rendered Gaza’s picturesque olive groves hazardous zones.

Likewise, olive harvesting is a major source of income for several villagers throughout Lebanon, including the south. However, the escalating tensions on the southern border have made olive picking a hazardous task. Nonetheless, many farmers have continued tending to their land despite the continuous shelling, as reported by Al Jazeera.

According to the Lebanese environmental group Green Southerners (GS), white phosphorus bombs in particular have resulted in both short- and long-term damage. Direct damages result from the scorching of trees and other vegetation, which has disrupted the harvest season for many families. Meanwhile, indirect damages include disrupting the entire economic cycle, production, and olive processing industries.

“White phosphorus as a contaminant has long-term effects on soil and water, ultimately impacting both the agricultural sector and the sustainability of local communities,” Green Southerners told Fanack.

White Poisonous Bombs

White phosphorus bombs, classified as incendiary weapons, are permitted for use against military targets but strictly prohibited when directed at civilians, as dictated by the 1980 Geneva Convention.

In its October report, Human Rights Watch stated that “Israel’s use of white phosphorus in military operations in Gaza and Lebanon puts civilians at risk of serious and long-term injuries.”

The impact of chemical bombs and wildfires persists within ecosystems for many years, potentially contaminating water streams and soils and consequently endangering the entire food chain. Despite these dangers, there’s a lack of in-depth research regarding the precise damages inflicted by white phosphorus on agricultural lands.

“We believe that the Israeli occupation is deliberately targeting the sustainability of local communities, intending to make the area in southern Lebanon uninhabitable,” Green Southerners said. “Given that a majority of southern families rely on agriculture as their primary source of income, the use of white phosphorus supports this assumption, making it even more difficult to treat the affected areas and replant the scorched areas.”

Since the exact extent of the damage is still difficult to predict, the group contends that the damage will vary according to the level of exposure and the residue left on trees, especially those bearing olives.

“The presence of phosphoric acid in the soil, and water, will also impact the olive harvest in the coming years,” the group argued. “In the meantime, two essential steps must be taken: providing guidelines to the farmers on how to manage this season, and collecting samples from all the affected areas to assess the contamination, thus enabling the classification of the areas and the necessary measures to be implemented.”

Lebanon’s olive harvest is far from flawless, having already been hampered by a number of concerns such as the employment of antiquated procedures such as pounding the branches with wooden sticks, as well as a lack of industrial infrastructure.

Lebanese olive farmers continue to uphold these traditional procedures as adopting contemporary techniques necessitates finances that some farmers do not have, especially given the country’s ongoing economic crisis, which has prevented many from accessing their savings since 2019.

Nevertheless, the olive harvest season remains part and parcel of mashriqi culture. It is essential to social ties, and the preservation of family heritage. This gives the olive tree a new connotation of resistance and land ownership in Palestine and southern Lebanon in the face of recurrent Israeli aggressions.

A Symbol of Resistance and Power

For Palestinians, harvesting olives in October and November is a national event that celebrates their relationship with the land and their relationship with their culture.

In many regions, families and friends pick olives together while chanting folk songs to create a feeling of festivity. Between work and rest, olive trees also provide a place for picnics and respite.

Palestinian folk expert Hamza Osama al-Akrawabi recalls an old Palestinian proverb, “Gardens are madness, farming is a skill, and nothing lasts except for the olive.” This saying emphasizes the value of olive trees, which can withstand harsh weather conditions and continue to bear fruit with minimal maintenance required.

Al-Akrawabi explains that while olive trees provide olives and olive oil for daily use, other byproducts, such as the popular Nablus Olive Oil Soap and logs for winter, are also valued.

As part of the Israeli plans to enlarge their illegal settlements, the expert says that uprooting olive trees is necessary.

“The presence of these trees is a sign of ownership, meaning there are farmers and people who care for this land and will fight for it,” the expert said. “So it becomes of vital importance to destroy olive groves to not allow for any relationship between Palestinians and their land.”

In a folk tale recounted by al-Akrawabi, a Palestinian farmer informs a tree that he intends to cease tending to it. Undeterred, the olive tree pledges to continue bearing fruit, regardless of the farmer’s decision.

As the farmer prepares to depart, announcing that he will no longer be visiting the tree, the olive tree, in a sudden outburst, implores the farmer to stay, expressing, “We are nothing without you; we give from your smell and your breath.”

“This is one simple example of the unbreakable bond Palestinians have to their land and olive trees are seen as symbols of resistance as their roots go deep into the earth and their branches can withstand the harshest of storms,” the expert said.

He adds that this bond extends to southern Lebanon, where villagers suffered 20 years of Israeli occupation before the region was liberated in 2000.

“Southern Lebanese share the same sentiment as the Palestinians, who do not accept occupation and hold on to their land through thick and thin,” he said.

In order to preserve culture and heritage, al-Akrawabi asserts that symbols are essential. Symbols like the olive tree empower populations under threat of extermination to hold on to their past and heritage by refusing to give up their ancestral lands, folktales, and traditions.

“Olive trees native to Palestine and Lebanon have been tended to by many generations, and have borne and continue to bear witness to the plight of the hands that tend to them. In that sense, their survival stands testament to the resilience of the populations of the two countries who continue to fight for their existence and resist occupation and dispossession,” al-Akrawabi noted.

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