As we stare out over the terraced hills now cut off from the village of al-Khader by Highway 60, the main Israeli bypass road cutting through the southern West Bank, I turn to Baha Hilo, coordinator of the Olive Tree Campaign at the Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine, and say "It's a beautiful country".
He pauses, then replies: "Why do you think they want to steal it from us?"
It's my fifth day in Palestine, and my first on this year's olive harvest volunteer program run by the JAI. This October, over 110 international volunteers are taking part. We visit and harvest groves around Bethlehem threatened by Israel's system of segregation; both symbolically and economically, the issue is at the heart of the struggle for control of the West Bank. I'm one of two Australians taking part; our group are mostly from Europe and North America and are of many different backgrounds: solidarity groups, Christian peace groups, the Palestinian diaspora, and international YMCA-YWCA programs. None of us can fail to see the injustices here.
The owner of the first farm we visit, in the valley to the west of al-Khader, is one of the lucky ones. He has a small house on his land, built before the Israeli occupation began in 1967, which means he and his family can always access their trees. Most Palestinian farmers own olive groves in the terraced hills on the outskirts of their villages, which are cut off by bypass roads, walls and the settlements of the occupation. Any new construction which would allow farmers to live on their land and have guaranteed access to it requires a permit from the state of Israel –– they are rarely granted.
We get to work before 9am. Hilo rolls out a tarpaulin beneath the overhanging branches of the first tree and shows us how to "milk" a branch: take it between thumb and forefinger and firmly slide it to the end so the olives pop off and rain down onto the sheet. It takes first timers like myself awhile to get the hang of it, and scratches up the forearms are unavoidable. By the time we finish for lunch - stuffed vine leaves, called "Warak Dawali" in Palestine - we've got two sacks full of firm green olives – not a bad first day!
The Keep Hope Alive program is not just about volunteering our labour. On the first afternoon we visit Dheisheh Refugee Camp, the largest in Bethlehem city. A checkpoint gate remains at the entrance from the First Intifada, when the Israeli military surrounded the camp with a fence and this was the only way in or out. The refugees of Dheisheh left it standing to remember the curfews and brutality they suffered for five years. Within a few minutes of wandering the camp's narrow alleys many of us lose our guide; thankfully we take our directions from the unforgettable Banksy mural located in the camp and find the bus again.
Day two takes us to Husan, one of six Palestinian communities in west Bethlehem. The town has a population of nearly 6000. Since 1978 the land owned by the village has shrunk from 7361 dunams (73.61 hectares) to just under 928, taken over by settlements and the military.
Betar Illit is one of these settlements, created in 1984 by land confiscated from Husan and other villages. Its population has grown to more than 38,000. The field we harvest adjoins the Houses of Betar Illit, within the settlement's security fence, so the Palestinian owner had to apply through Israeli courts for permission to harvest his olives. This precarious position is worsened by frequent attacks on the groves, which are treated with indifference by the settlement security and IDF. Last harvest, fire-fighting crews trying to put out blazes lit by settlers were delayed by the authorities, and 35 dunams of fruitful trees were lost.
"When there are settler attacks on farmland," Hilo says, "the surveillance system sees nothing – but when a Palestinian throws a single rock, it identifies them."
The field has soaring views of the valley between the settlement and the Palestinian community of Nahhalin. The people of this land made Bethlehem the land of milk and honey by laboriously building terraces into the steep hills, dragging up chalk to line them to ensure the soil would capture and store water in the winter. So in this semi-arid climate, the farms remain fertile in the long dry summer months, and the olives and other fruit trees provide a bountiful crop. Now, the "biblical" view from this spot is reserved for the settlers.
As Hilo says: "Thousands of years of Palestinian cultivation has become marketing for the real estate of the occupiers.”
We work our way through the morning, pausing for shai (tea) and kahua (coffee) provided by the farmer's family. We thank the farmer's family, and they thank us in return. Picking the olives is hot work, and we are glad to be interrupted by a gecko climbing the branches besides us, going about its way despite the conflict which centres around the olives.
In the afternoon we visit the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, based in Bethlehem since the Israeli occupation, for information on settler activity and the control of resources by settlements in the West Bank.
It's an issue we get to see in greater detail the next day, when we skip the harvest to visit Jerusalem, and see the sharp contrasts between the Palestinian & settler communities to the city's east. Most of this area is slated to become part of the Ma'ale Adumim block, linking the settlement suburbs with nature reserves, bypass roads – even a water park. Vast olive trees, uprooted from farms of the area, stand in the middle of roundabouts or next to observation decks, fed water constantly by sophisticated drip irrigation systems. Settlements never have problems accessing water, even in the depths of summer. Pipes feed in from subterranean aquifers throughout the region. Palestinian communities, on the other hand, frequently have water supplies cut off in the summer; the easiest way to recognise the difference between a Palestinian community and a settler one is the big black rainwater tanks which sprout on the former's rooftops.
The Bedouin of Khan Al-Ahmar, a small hamlet in the shadows of Ma'ale Adumim, sits at the other end of the spectrum. Since 1952, when they arrived after being driven from their original homes near Beersheba, they've managed to carve a bit of home out of the Judean Desert, with fruit trees and corrugated sheet buildings. The Bedouin people have to pay the government for every drop of water, which has to be brought to the community by donkey. When the pipelines carrying water to the settlement were first built, they made punctures in it to gather water, before an agreement was reached and the Israeli authorities installed a meter. They are cut off by military zones, settlements and bypass roads; in recent years, the bypass roads have been lined with metal safety barriers, preventing the shepherds on the west side from accessing Jericho, which had been the only market available to them. The permit system does not allow them into Jerusalem to sell their products. They have no electricity. They have not been allowed to work in the Israeli settlements since 2009; when they were allowed to work, they got no more than 70 shekels a day (around US$20).
Five children from the community have died crossing the highway to get to a school in the West Bank - so the villagers here built their own. The pale brown school, the most stable-looking buildings in the unrecognised village, are made from tyres that the people filled with rubbish and lined with mud. International supporters and an Italian aid agency helped build the school. The community takes great pride in their determination. But the building's future is not guaranteed. After the villagers visited the nearby settlement to tell their story and suggest a cultural exchange program between their new school and the one in the settlement, the settlers petitioned Israel's courts to issue a demolition order for the building, as it "threatened their security". So far three military demolition orders have been served on the building.
The harvest on day four takes us to fields around the village of Jab'a. The Beit Ein settlement in the distance is notorious for attacking nearby villages and farms, including the one we begin to harvest. This land is also threatened by Israel, which has drilled into the aquifers under the Palestinian villages and laid a pipeline through the groves to the settlements - cutting down more olive trees in the process. We pass one of the pumping stations on the way to the farm, clean white machinery painted with the Israeli Flag.
At the farm we are visited by the Israeli police and the IDF during the morning. For “security reasons”, the IDF uprooted over 100 olive trees from this farmer's land earlier in the year. To put that number in context: during the day's work, our group of over forty volunteers is able to pick around eight trees clean. The fruit varies between the thick green kind and the small black ones; the farmer tells us that they both produce oil, but only the larger kind are pickled for eating.
The next day is another inter-city trip, to the southern city of Hebron. Entering the old city through a checkpoint, we pass an impromptu protest of teachers. Restriction of movement goes hand in hand with attacks by about 420 fundamentalist settlers who live in small settlements inside the old city. Their aim is to drive the 30,000 Palestinians out.
The school is one of the focal points of tension. Schoolchildren are often hassled on their way to class. Ordinary school supplies are restricted and must be smuggled in. After visiting the teachers, we pass graffiti reading "Gas the Arabs" on the school wall.
Cages were built over the souks of the old city to protect Palestinians from rocks, rubbish & furniture settlers throw from the top floors of buildings above.
A reason the tension is the Tomb of the Patriarchs, or Ibrahim Mosque – the site of shrines to three biblical couples. The large building is divided between a synagogue and a mosque. Entry to both is controlled by the IDF. In the mosque, the enclosure showing the direction towards Mecca has pink scars on the white marble - bullet marks. In February 1994, Baruch Goldstein - Brooklyn-born settler - walked into the mosque during Ramadan dawn prayers and opened fire with automatic weapons, killing 29 and wounding 125. A bullet-proof barrier has since been placed between the two sides.
Day seven is a full harvest day in the valley of Wadi Ahmed. The fields are in the northern and western part of Beit Jala, historically within Bethlehem district . But the settlements on the hilltops are built on land confiscated from Beit Jala, considered by Israel to be part of Jerusalem, while the groves in the valleys belong to farmers living in Beit Jala. This means the farmers find themselves prohibited from having free access to their land as Israel restricts access of Palestinians from the rest of the West Bank and Gaza to the holy city.
We must pass the 300 Checkpoint into Jerusalem and drive around to access the valley from the other side, as access from the Palestinian side is restricted to a single gate, requiring special permits. Our farmer can only bring his mother & brother through the gate with him. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers can cruise past on the bypass bridge overhead, the longest in the West Bank.
An IDF Humvee pulls us over on the dirt road leading to the farmer's land and demands "special" permission to enter the valley (even though under Israel's redrawn maps we are still within Israel). The farmer has already contacted the soldiers’ superiors and ensured we are not breaking any Israeli military orders; but they still detain us for a few nervous minutes, before we go on. The family has a stone house built on the land, which must always be inhabited to ensure it isn't destroyed. The planned path of Israel's separation wall goes through this valley to surround Cremisan Monastery, which produces Palestine's only wine.
Most of the trees we harvest are hundreds of years old – I can climb high enough to get vertigo. But no branches snap beneath us; the trees here are stronger than I realise. At the end of the day, we walk past one planted in Roman times; it's possibly the second oldest thing I've seen after the Pyramids.
Our last day of harvest takes back to the fields south of al Khader, on the other side of Efrat settlement (the biblical name for Bethlehem). It takes us over an hour to get to the field; even the bypass roads Palestinians can drive on aren't equally accessible, and even our bus was pulled over, held up for half an hour, and the driver was given several fines for being un-roadworthy. This generally only happens to the white-and-green plated Palestinian vehicles.
The demountable blocks on the edge of this farmer's terraces are settlement "outposts" - where some settlers relocate a few kilometres away in a strategic location. Israel is required to build roads, power lines, water mains, and all the necessary infrastructure for a modern state once they have done this. Over time, settlements expand to include the outposts.
The farmer knows his fields down in the valley, in which all manner of fruit and vegetables are growing, might be safe for the near future; but the outpost metres away represents a clear threat.
Our farewell night party comes, and it's hard to believe that we must leave behind all our new friends. Perhaps it's being thrown together and exposed to the daily struggle of Palestinian life that has built our bond; or perhaps it's our common drive to go beyond the package tourists with whom we share our hotel, and see the real story of this land.
Despite our different countries and reasons for getting involved, we have formed our own network of solidarity activists – committed to joining campaigns calling attention to the crime of Israel's occupation within our home countries, but also to working for peace in a practical way, with our own hands – and showing ordinary Palestinian farmers, families and communities that, no matter how little our governments care for the injustices done here, the people of the world do.