Second Saturday 2.4
Today we go to a different place to pick up olives. We are joined in the taxi by a few journalists. Two of them happen to be doctors, and one of these speaks Arabic. When we arrive to a little village, a Palestinian gets on the taxi and gives instructions to the driver. The taxi driver sets off, goes around the village and then stops and asks us to get off.
We all get off and we follow the Palestinian, thinking that he will take us directly to the grove where we have to pick up olives, but we rather seem to be wandering around the mountain without a route. To make things worse, we have to wait for the journalists, who are more interested in taking pictures than in walking. The Palestinian makes a few phone calls on his mobile and receives as many, all in Arabic. I comment to my colleagues how curious it is that there is so good coverage here in the mountains, while in the village is a lot worse, and their answer is that it is not surprising, since there is an illegal Israeli settlement near us. Everything possible is done to ensure that the settlers have a pleasant life – good mobile phone coverage is one of those things.
When the photographer-doctor who can speak Arabic reaches us, we ask him to translate what the Palestinian is saying. He explains that he is talking to an Israeli activist who, from Jerusalem, is trying to get the permission so that our man and his family can go and pick up olives. While he talks, the other journalist, that had stayed behind, arrives saying that there is a family that would like us to help them pick up olives, and that we should all go there quick, because all we are doing with this guy is wasting time. We decide to go and help other families while the Israeli activist gets the permit for the family that in principle we came to help out or they decide to go without a permit.
We divide our group in two and each goes to a nearby grove to help with whatever the families are doing. The group I go with ends up with a big family that seems quite organised. The men climb the trees and the women stand on the ground to pick up the olives that are lower down in the trees. When they finish off with each tree they move the blankets, taking the olives to the centre of the grove. There, there are two women sitting down, sorting out the olives from the branches. They tell us by signs where we can help and after a while they call us to eat with them. We all sit in a circle but the plates, instead of being put in the centre of the circle for every one, are all next to us foreigners, and as the meal goes on, the plates come closer and closer to us, with the whole family encouraging us to eat more. I note that, as a result, the women that are at the opposite end from us are hardly eating anything, but the others tell me that it’s best not to think these things because that is what they are like, this is how their hospitality goes and if we do not accept it they are going to feel offended.
Shortly after finishing the meal the Palestinian we met at the beginning of the day calls us and we meet him again. He tells us that the Israeli has got the permission and he guides us up the mountain, to his land. As we go up we encounter other men of his family that join us; they do not allow their women to come with them because they are risking their lives themselves and they do not want to risk those of their women, although in about an hour three women do join us – it looks like they have called them once they have seen that there are no soldiers or settlers shooting. We climb higher the mountain and we find a foetid river with brownish water, almost black.
Signalling the barracks we had assumed were military, they explain that it is a factory built a few years ago, that is discharging these waters that are damaging the land. Indeed, they prefer not to pick up olives from trees that are too close to the water. Fig 9.
This family’s situation is the most precarious we have seen so far. They do not have any blankets, or ladders, or a donkey. We have to put the olives directly into the sacks, as they are, with branches and all, and they are all obviously very nervous and in a hurry, eager to finish. It is also obvious that they have not come round here for a long time, because it is all covered with bushes and stings that make walking quite difficult, and the olive trees are full of useless branches that make climbing to them impossible. After a good while picking up olives in quite precarious conditions (I put them in my t-shirt as if it was an apron, another puts them into the shirt pockets, the most fortunate have a plastic bag with them…) we see the grandfather, 65, who comes to give us his moral support and even an interview if we ask. He allows us to photograph him and he tells us his story: his own grandfather bought this land in the time of the Ottoman Empire. When he was five he inherited the terrain and now it is his sons who have the responsibility over it, although their task is more and more difficult. No one of the family has been able to enter this land in the last five years. The result is wilderness and weeds every where, even in the trees. They have parasites and dry branches that prevent one from climbing them, some even look more like bushes than like trees. We also notice that some one must have come to steal olives – the only ones that can enter this land freely are the settlers, from the top of the hill – because many trees have hardly any olives in the parts easily accessible from the ground, and yet they are full towards the top. There are also many trees burnt off. Fig 10
The old man tells us that the putrid water has already killed many trees, and is now drying others off. He also tells us that in the year 2000 the settlers stole all they had harvested, their whole harvest, after all that it costs to gather it.
We continue picking up olives and I start to begin to feel like I am the cheap labour for these people, because so far the only thing we are doing is pick up olives for them, and we have not yet seen any settler or soldier. On this occasion, we have even waited for the permit so as to avoid a tense situation – I thought we were here to help deal with tense situations, not accompanying once the situation has been sorted. I get the answer that, had it not been for our presence here today, this permit would have never arrived.
At about two in the afternoon the two photographers begin to say goodbye to every one and the peasants mis-understand that we are all leaving. They all look at each other and they beg us, they supplicate us that we do not leave yet, “please stay just one more hour, ok, just half an hour”.
Desperation shows on their faces. We explain that it is only two people leaving and the rest stay and they calm down, and we go on frantically picking up olives, between bushes, bending branches in order to reach the higher ones, getting stings from the dried branches that no one can get to prune, passing over bushes, stings and uprooted and burnt trees.
Indeed after one hour the task is considered finished and we climb down towards the path quickly. Some one has brought a donkey and they charge it with the olives; they will scarcely be fifty kilograms. The grandfather gets on the donkey too and a boy of 20 walks with us. He speaks English properly because he is studying English literature at University. He tells us that he is the fourth of six children, two of them girls, and one of those also in University, reading Business Studies. When we go past his house he insists that we enter and eat something and chat. We refuse but they all insist again, so there is little choice. We get into this humble but comfortable house. The women bring soap for us to wash our hands, we sit down in the living room with three of the boys and from my sofa I can see the two sisters, who have uncovered their heads now and we can see their beautiful hair. One of them sits with us for a moment, then she leaves and an elder woman, who is the mother, comes in; she brings some bread that she has just now made for us, with brown and white wheat. Then more people bring us tea, then a soft drink, then fruit juice, then food… in the meantime we call the taxi driver who took us here this morning and it turns out that he and one of these brothers are very close friends. When the taxi arrives right in front of the door of this house we say goodbye and leave.
We arrive in our street and we hear some shots in the distance. We don’t hear screams though, so it can be some kind of celebration. We start going home but as we walk away from the main street we hear some music and then the band that plays it. We turn back quickly and we see the whole parade. First goes the music band, then more men and then some kind of soldiers, all with weapons, some with a handkerchief around their foreheads, in a Rambo fashion. But their muscles are not as big; they are all almost children really, almost the same as the Israeli soldiers; who are rarely older than 18 or 19.
A small procession follows the soldiers. Following the sound of the music, we arrive at a square surrounded by a fence. We stay outside the fence as spectators and we try to understand what is going on. The procession has already sat down on white plastic chairs; there must be between six and seven hundred people. Most are men, except for about fifty or sixty women, all together standing on some lateral terraces. The music ends and various men talk, or rather shout, into some microphones, from a podium. The guys with the machine guns shoot to the air from time to time.
We ask a Palestinian what they are saying. He answers that they are saying things like they should go to the settlements and throw them all out, things like that.
I do not quite know what conclusion to draw from what I have just seen and heard. In the one hand it is a very macho man show, with their handkerchiefs around their heads, their machine guns… in the other hand, all these people have grown up in a refugee camp, probably when it was still a camp made of marquees, without water, without food… and they know they are not in this situation by chance, they know there is a very specific reason. For them, there was a “before” and an “afterwards”. Before they had dignified lives in their own land and afterwards they were thrown out of them and into a refugee camp made of marquees which was later made permanent. These guys and their families live in very precarious conditions in houses that are still very provisional, without hot water, without heating, in chilling houses, with water-rainages that leave much to be desired and streets without side walks nor asphalt, only soil that gets muddy with water that comes out of everywhere. At least we will eventually leave, we can even go to Jerusalem to take a rest and a good shower and return again, but these people have nowhere to go. They stay here day after day, some going to school or university, knowing that there will be no job for them when they finish… The guys with the machine guns, and those who follow them, want to finish off this situation and go back to some kind of dignified life but they can not see any other way of achieving that than becoming “fighters”.