This week, three seemingly separate and yet so integrally interconnected events converged: the beginning of the annual olive harvest, yet another sweeping Israeli dismissal of the possibility of a durable peace with its Palestinian neighbors, and the recounting of the story of Noah in the weekly Torah portion throughout the Jewish world. This confluence represents both the immense possibilities and the purportedly intractable obstacles inherent in the quest for reconciliation and well-being in this troubled land.
Noah, that righteous man of his generation, was charged with saving a pair of every known living species during the monstrous flood that inundated the world. When the storm subsided, so the tale goes, he first sent out a raven to test the terrain and then a dove, who returned with an olive branch — which has since been universally associated with peace and serenity, as well as with the munificence of the earth and the centrality of the connection to the land. The message of the olive branch has thus for generations — in many cultures and in a variety of different renditions — linked economic potential and human prosperity with the cultivation of interpersonal cooperation and the preservation of tranquility among peoples.
The official emblem of the State of Israel — a menorah (symbolizing enlightenment) surrounded by two olive branches (representing peace) was consciously designed to link the Jewish roots and the universal meaning of its two main components. The same pattern based on the olive branch may be found in the coat of arms not only of the city of Jerusalem, but also in a multiplicity of visual depictions of institutions devoted to the promotion of peace and human understanding.
Today, the olives that grow on the branches of the hundreds of thousands of trees planted over the centuries remain the main source of livelihood of many farmers — Israeli and Palestinian. They also provide critical nutrients for millions who rely on sustenance from their fruit and on the oil they produce. But in recent years the olive harvest season has become synonymous with ugly confrontations, violence, vindictiveness and cruelty.
The most obvious contestation during this period is between Palestinians and Israelis. Since the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank — and especially after the construction of the separation barrier some 15 years ago — every harvest has been accompanied by efforts (mostly by settler extremists) to hinder the gathering of the annual crop. A full 50 percent of agricultural land in Palestinian areas is given over to olive trees. Between 80,000 and 100,000 families depend on its produce for their daily existence. Hindering their work in this critical season is akin to robbing them of their very livelihood.
Yet this, sadly, is precisely what certain groups have set out to do. The permit regimen imposed by Israeli military authorities creates ongoing bureaucratic obstacles that impede or curtail the smooth access of many farmers to their lands. The actions of Jewish militants have transformed the harvest season, in too many cases, into a nightmare. For years, numerous instances of crop destruction, arson, and outright theft have been recorded (of the 280 cases documented by one Israeli human rights organization, Yesh Din, during the past few years, 94.6% were dismissed because of insufficient evidence). Palestinian farmers have been beaten repeatedly as they struggle to collect their crops; violent clashes have become commonplace; and all too often the already charged atmosphere between Palestinians and Israelis has escalated even more during the sensitive days of the annual harvest.
Inevitably, many of these skirmishes have spilled over into confrontations between different groups within Israel. Many Israeli human rights organizations and individual activists mobilize during the olive harvest to safeguard Palestinian farmers — notably Rabbis for Human Rights, Yesh Din and Machsom Watch. They not only join them in gathering the crop, they also try to protect them against material and physical abuse by Jewish hooligans associated with the far-right. In some instances, violence has erupted, people have been injured and pandemonium has reigned. Both the very best and the very worst in Israeli society face each other during the olive season — highlighting the ongoing promise as well as the real barriers to living together in the area.
In this situation, the record of Israeli authorities has been uneven at best. All too often in the past, Israeli forces charged with maintaining order arrived on the scene too late to prevent untold damage. Frequently, in an effort to separate the parties, the Palestinians have been refused entry to their own lands. Complaints have not been investigated either efficiently or expeditiously. High Court rulings berating these practices have yet to be corrected and fully implemented.
This year, however, may be different. Security forces have responded rapidly to distress calls. In one case, they identified and subsequently arrested Israeli settlers photographed stealing crops. In another instance, they promptly stopped physical attacks on Palestinian harvesters. And there have been reports of Israeli forces preventing Jews in real time from picking olives from Palestinian trees and apprehending several well-known troublemakers involved in the destruction of crops. Although this harvest season is in full-swing and yet again rife with violations, the efforts made to deter aggressors may allow it — for the first time in years — to conclude with as little disruption as possible in what are still tremendously extenuating circumstances.
It is the connection between the olives and the symbolism of the branches on which they grow which requires special attention. Most Israelis and Palestinians have become vocal peace skeptics. They simply don’t believe that a lasting agreement will be struck in their lifetime. Israeli leaders from the coalition and the opposition — all self-defined interpreters of public opinion polls — have echoed these sentiments, putting a damper on the concept of peace itself. Some have gone out of their way to initiate policies that would make it well-nigh impossible to bridge the already huge gaps that exist between the parties. And despite the recent reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas in an effort to address the Israeli reluctance to negotiate with only one portion of the Palestinian population, the Netanyahu government has rebuffed this move and reiterated a series of conditions for the resumption of serious talks.
While the United States under Trump and Egypt and under al-Sisi are intent on finding ways to bring the parties together (and most other countries would welcome a just and lasting solution to the conflict), at the moment the prospects are hardly encouraging. The peace that can prevent the next deluge remains elusive.
The olive harvest this year may be somewhat smoother and hence more plentiful than in the past. But a good crop lacks significance if the trees are not sustained. For that to happen, the challenge of nurturing peace becomes an existential imperative without which survival of all the inhabitants destined to share the land will become impossible.