LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Olive Harvesting in Jayyous
31 October 2004
PICTURES of Jayyous, etc.
On Friday, October 1, I arrived in Jayyous in the
early afternoon excited to help harvest some olives
(zaytoun in Arabic). I was too late to cross the
Wall, so I wandered down into the groves on the
Jayyous side until a family waved me over. I
introduced myself as Bamila.
One of the daughters giggled and said, “Bomaleh?”
Bomaleh means something like ‘grapefruit.’ The girls
eventually learned a better approximation of my real
name, but the mother called me Grapefruit all day as
we picked olives together.
They invited me back to their house after we finished
the trees. We watched an American cowboy movie
(The Professionals, starring Burt Lancaster and Jack
Palance) on MBC2 (English with Arabic subtitles) and
ate a big meal of maglubi, baked chicken served over
rice with fried cauliflower and sour yogurt.
After the lovely dinner, I said good-bye to the family
and visited the brothers Ammar and Ahmed at their
home. We sat on the porch under the stars and
grapevines and caught up.
Ammar said he misses his times in Russia too much. He
doesn’t want to leave home again, “but here you cannot
plan your life.” The economy is destroyed,
unemployment is at roughly 50% even though education
levels vie with some countries in Europe, and movement
is next to impossible. Sometimes he and others are
arbitrarily detained for hours on their way to or from
university. He was detained, blindfolded, handcuffed,
transported to a settlement, and questioned for 32
hours with no charges last time he tried to visit
Ramallah; he hasn’t tried again since. When and if he
finishes college, it’s highly uncertain what his
options will be.
He told me the Israelis built the Wall while he was in
Russia. “You know the hill behind me? It’s the
highest point near Jayyous, and you can see all of
Jayyous from there. My cousins and I used to spend
all our free time there, every day after school. It’s
a very nice place, with the views and the breezes.
“When I arrived from Russia, I called my cousin from
Jericho  and said, ‘Get everything ready to go to our
place!’ He told me that was impossible. I asked why.
He said, ‘You will find out soon enough.’
“I slept on the roof that night. It was dark, so I
couldn’t see anything.”
But in the morning he saw everything: the wanton
destruction of his friends’ and family’s property, the
roads, the fences, the insulting piles of razor wire,
the blasted hillsides — the Barrier between him and
his birthright, or what was left of it.
“I saw it, and the tears fell down. It was a very sad
moment for me. Very sad moment.”
He paused. “That’s where the Jeeps stay now.”
He tried not to sound bitter. But having your
childhood bulldozed into a military base that serves
to steal your hometown's land, wealth, and freedom in
a racist, violent, and illegal manner in full view of
a silently compliant world is a bitter pill.
I looked down at my hands. I couldn’t think of
anything to say.
Ahmed recounted some of the jokes and pranks he and
Hibba (his sister-in-law) played on each other while
they were picking olives.
He said, as if in explanation, “I have no power in the
situation of occupation to do anything. We just have
to live. We have to keep laughing and joking.
It is difficult to imagine the pressures of a
repressive military occupation if one hasn’t lived
under it. Ahmed’s thoughtful cheerfulness and
relentless, humble dignity in the face of his people
being treated like animals is something I will never
As we parted, he shook my hand and said with his usual
smile, “Ma as-salaama, tasbah al-khair, Allah ma’ak,
ma as-salaami.” (Go in peace, have a beautiful night,
God with you...)
Arabic graciousness is legendary, and it’s at its
warmest in the villages. His words and smile lingered
like a warm blanket in the starry air as I walked
The next morning I got up at 6:00 a.m. and found a
family on a tractor to take me out past the Wall.
Some question my use of the word “Wall” for a
structure hundreds of kilometers in length which is
only sometimes a 30-foot-high solid concrete Wall,
like the one that imprisons 40,000 Palestinian
civilians in Qalqiliya.
(A friend of mine from Qalqiliya said he used to smell
the sea breezes coming to his town over Israel, and
see Israelis shopping in his town’s souqs, and it gave
him great hope. Now, on a visceral level, all he sees
is concrete, hostility, hatred, and a lack of
interest, understanding, or compassion on the part of
the dangerous, faceless enemy on the other side.
Qalqiliya, a once prosperous farming and shopping
town, is now facing unprecedented poverty and
emigration. People can't even watch the sunset
When it's not a concrete wall, the structure is a
150-foot-wide ‘security zone’ built almost entirely
far within Palestinian land (the land trapped between
the Wall and Israel is called the ‘seam zone’ and is a
closed military zone controlled by Israeli occupation
forces), hemmed in by six-foot piles of razor wire and
composed of army access roads, trenches, and a
20-foot-high electrified fence which, if you approach
it without Israeli permission, entails a serious risk
of summary execution. 
I retain my use of words, however. Fences are built
between neighbors. Walls are built around prisons.
Whether I’m denied access to education, health care,
my land, my friends and family, my hope, my dignity,
and my job by concrete or by chain link and armored
patrol Hummers, I’m still denied. That’s the point.
As we passed the gate, a young Israeli occupation
soldier took my documents asked me, “Where are you
from? What are you doing here?” I wanted to say
right back, “Where are you from? What are you doing
here?” I figured I had exactly as much right to
question him on Palestinian land as he had to question
But alas, he had the bigger gun. I answered,
“America. Pickin’ olives.”
“This is your job?”
“No. Just for fun.”
“It’s very dangerous for you to be here, you know.”
He seemed surprised and embarrassed by the question.
“Uh... well... many people have been killed,” he answered lamely.
“Really? Why?” I wanted to ask again. But I just
nodded, as if I appreciated the news flash, and walked
on, chuckling at his clumsy attempt to frighten me.
(Later a soldier at the gate asked a French volunteer,
“Why did you come from France, such a beautiful
country, to this place? It’s very dangerous here.”
The French guy smiled and said, “It’s not dangerous
here. You’re dangerous.”)
The bumpy tractor ride was pleasant, through some of
the prettiest of Jayyous’s land. Olive groves and
greenhouses and citrus trees and hills and sky passed
by. I was supposed to meet with the Mayor and his
family, friends of mine whom I’d lived with last year.
I didn’t remember exactly where their land was, but I
figured wherever we ended up, I could ask around and
walk to their place easy enough.
I’d forgotten that the land on the wrong side of the
Wall encompasses more than 13 square kilometers.
After we’d gone about four kilometers and passed an
Israeli settlement, we still weren’t in sight of the
Green Line, the internationally-recognized border of
the West Bank.
When the tractor finally stopped, they asked if I
wanted to help them harvest. I said, “Oh, no, sorry,
I’m supposed to meet up with Fayez, the Mayor.”
“Abu Na’el? His land is next to the Gate — four kilos
back. Why didn’t you tell us?”
I walked back east alone facing the rising sun, trying
not to look Palestinian as I passed the settlement.
Settler violence is widespread, and recent incidents
include a Palestinian driver pulled out of his car
near Nablus and shot to death in cold blood by a
settler, and a 17-year-old boy shot and killed in the
same region while he was picking olives. Neither
murderer was even given a prison sentence.
It was a nice walk, on gravel and dirt roads covered
with the tracks of donkey carts, tractors, Jeeps, and
armored Hummers. A Hummer roared by me once on the
small dusty agricultural road, and I stepped aside and
tried to ignore it. As many times as I’ve seen
military Hummers on those old roads, and giant Walls
through those old fields, I never can bear to wrap my
head around it. I try to block it out so I can go
about my business without being in a constant state of
wounded rage and impossible cognitive dissonance. But
that only serves to make it a fresh shock every time
it hits me in the face again.
"Opinions founded on prejudice are always
sustained with the greatest of violence."
~Francis Jeffrey, Scottish critic and
In an hour or so I found myself on a small ridge and
asked a young couple if they knew where my friend’s
The man yelled, “Abu Na’el!”
A voice answered, “Na’am?”
“There,” said the man.
I walked toward the voice and found Abu Na’el, his
wife Umm Na’el (Abu means ‘father of’ and Umm means
‘mother of’), and three of their sons, Na’el, Hael,
and Thaher. They were mostly standing on ladders
whacking olives branches with sticks. They welcomed
me, and I got right to work.
This is what I wrote about the olive harvests last
year in Jayyous, my first time in Palestine, on 24
I picked olives all day and had a blast in between
devastating scenes of crushing arbitrary harassment
just this side of what would make the news, but far on
the other side of what I would call civil. We got up
early and caravanned down to the gates of the
“security fence,” called the Apartheid Wall by some,
in donkey carts and tractors and on foot. We arrived
about 8:30 a.m., ready for a long, fun day in the
We arrived at the gate and sat around to wait for an
armored car to come by and unlock the gate to Jayyous’
land. The ‘security fence’ was one of the most
unbelievable sights I’ve ever seen. It’s about 20
feet high, ten feet of chain-link topped by ten feet
of barbed wire. We were not allowed near it. On one
side of the fence ran a high-quality army-access
highway, and maybe 60 feet from the fence-highway
structure on both sides were six-foot-high piles of
razor wire in bales stacked in a pyramid shape.
If a person finds himself between the piles of razor
wire, anywhere near the fence or the access road, out
in the open, he risks summary execution. Signs on the
fence say in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “MORTAL
DANGER – MILITARY ZONE. Anyone who passes or damages
the fence ENDANGERS HIS LIFE.”
The devastating structure snakes around the hills like
a contour line, and the hillsides are blasted bare for
50 to 100 yards on either side. 5% of Jayyous's
farmland was destroyed for it, including 2,500 olive
trees. Some of the trees were dynamited or bulldozed,
and others were taken and replanted in Israel or the
One friend of mine managed to sneak to the
construction site and capture some of his uprooted
olive stumps back and replant them on a friend’s land.
He said, “I could not see my trees dead.”
Insha’Allah they will bear fruit again in a few years.
Most people whose trees of their great-grandparents,
trees for their great-grandchildren, were uprooted
never saw them again.
That’s just the construction. The lay of the fence,
up to five kilometers behind the Green Line, cuts
Jayyous off from 13 square kilometers of its prime
farmland including 15,000 olive trees, 50,000 citrus
trees of 16 varieties, 120 greenhouses, herbs,
flowers, stone retainer walls, wells, reservoirs,
cisterns, and picnic spots--70% of Jayyous's farmland.
The land has been cultivated carefully for
generations by the inhabitants of Jayyous. It’s an
absolutely integral part of village life.
[Because of the six (out of seven) water wells
destroyed or expropriated by the building of the
fence, Jayyous is now critically short of water.
Jayyousis have access to around 20 liters of clean
water per person per day, only 20% of the World Health
Organization's recommended minimum of 100 liters per
person per day. The families with the means must buy
their water from an Israeli company—a company that
steals West Bank water and then sells it back to West
Bankers, many of whom are already impoverished by
occupation policies, at inflated prices. Other
families must get by how they can.]
After the Barrier was finished, Jayyous residents were
forced to apply for special permits to farm the land
that fell behind the Wall. Even people with houses
beyond the Wall had to apply for permits to live in
them. For a long time Jayyousis refused to take
permits from the Israelis, considering it a
legitimization of a blatant expropriation of land they
had farmed for centuries.
But as the deadlines loomed, and they realized their
crops would only rot or be stolen that much faster if
they didn’t agree to the humiliating system, they
relented. Still, Jayyousis lost about 90% of their
guava crops during the total closure while the Wall
was being built.
Farming is many people’s main or only means of
survival now that their economy is otherwise destroyed
and working in Israel is forbidden. But an
insufficient number of permits were given, and of
those, a significant percentage were made out to
newborns, toddlers, people living in other countries,
and dead people, including my friend Mohammad’s dead
grandmother. Some were given only to the wives or
children of farmers or to disabled farmers.
In the end, about 40% of farmers were granted permits,
and 300 families (roughly half of the village) lost
their source of income. Farmers who have permits
remain at the mercy and the whim of the teen-aged
soldiers at the gate.
For the lucky able-bodied men and women with permits,
and for us foreigners with real passports from real
countries, we just had a long wait. We sat around
next to the gate in the hot, dusty morning. I chatted
with an ISM (International Solidarity Movement) woman
from San Francisco. She was taking a two-week
vacation from America to help pick olives and go with
Palestinians through gates and checkpoints to reduce
the chance of arbitrary violence, or at least be a
witness to it. We noticed that one of the donkey
carts had “AGAINST TERRORISM” scrawled in English
across the back.
I passed some time drawing on an envelope with the
kids. They wrote a little English for me and I tried
to write some Arabic. They were good-natured but
bored and bewildered, and they probably understood
that they were waiting for Israelis to let them onto
their own land, but I can’t imagine they understood
After two hours or so, around 10:30 a.m., when the day
was getting good and hot, an armored Jeep turned on
its engines just under the road and kicked up dust as
it powered up to the army access road and parked.
They’d apparently been sitting there watching us for
the past two hours. A couple of soldiers got out,
with their flak jackets and helmets and M-16s, and
wearily opened the gates.
We passed single file while our documents were
examined. Most of us seemed to get through.
The party that had been postponed while we waited at
the gates resumed as we forgot all about the fence and
set about the day’s business of harvesting olives.
The curious effect of the starkly, gently beautiful
olive groves over all those old rolling hills is of
intimacy and yet awe. The whole West Bank has that
kind of feel -- overwhelming and immense in its years,
wisdom, and beauty, yet inviting and friendly and
Olives can be used for oil, pickling, lotion, soap,
even fuel. The berries hide among the silver-green
leaves, dusty and bitter, one of earth’s shining
secrets. The wood of the trees is gnarled and hard
with years, hemmed in beautifully by white stone
walls. Herbs and flowers flourish at their feet, and
the leaves shimmering softly over acres and acres seem
too diffusely beautiful for this world.
I watched some men and women whack at the trees with
wooden sticks until I thought I had an idea what to
do. The idea was to knock them off their branches
onto tarps spread under the trees. Later the olives
would be gathered together, the big twigs removed, and
the olives loaded into grain sacks. In the village,
they’d be sorted from the leaves with a fan and then
cleaned and turned into oil at Jayyous’s Italian
I noticed a boy around 20 years old with a T-shirt
over his head and his eyes peeking out of the collar.
I assumed it was to keep the sun off. Despite the
weird get-up, and maybe partly because of it, he
exuded an easy charisma and a generous charm from his
large brown eyes. He didn’t speak English, so we
rarely got past the “Marhaba,” or “Hi,” phase of
conversation, but even that simple word was infused
with such benevolent friendly interest that I called
him Mohammed the Charmer in my mind. (I have to have
some kind of qualifier for every Mohammad and Ahmed I
meet, otherwise I could never keep them straight.) He
was the mayor’s youngest son, and one of the most
energetic and charismatic of the cheerful harvesters.
Later when I was talking to the mayor, he said they
used to hand-pick the olives to be gentler to the
trees and get more and purer olives. But now, with
the Israeli occupation forces controlling the gates,
many men not allowed on their land, and some days no
one allowed on the land at all, there was no time for
that much care. They just had to get the olives any
way they could. His son the Charmer spent many nights
alone in the fields, in contravention of Israeli
rules, so that he could gather olives on the days when
no one else was allowed past the gate.
We used tall ladders to get to the higher olives on
the outside of the trees. But to get the high ones on
the inside, we just had to climb, which was my
favorite thing to do. Once I noticed an animal high
in a tree looking at me curiously. I racked my brain
for back-episodes of the Discovery Channel until I
realized it was a chameleon. I picked it up and held
it in my hand, and it changed to a paler hue.
I jumped out of the tree and showed it to Azhar
(AZ-har), a 12-year-old daughter of the mayor. I
picked a black olive and moved it toward the
frightened animal’s open mouth to see if it would
flick its long tongue out or turn black or something.
Before I could find out, Azhar stilled my arm. She
clicked her tongue and shook her head and said gently,
“Haraam.” Haraam means something not allowed by the
laws of Islam, or any basically sinful and indecent
thing. I nodded, tossed the olive away and let the
chameleon go on a wall.
Whenever I got tired of climbing and whacking, there
was always sitting and picking to do. Once a tree was
done, we’d gather up the tarps and consolidate all the
fallen olives and twigs into a pile. A few people
would gather around and remove the twigs until it was
just olives and leaves.
Often we would get so deep into an olive chatting
conversation that we’d have the pile clean as a
whistle and still be picking at specks and talking
away. Eventually someone would come interrupt us with
a bag, and we’d scoop them in and break it up and move
The soft, heavy patter of olives landing on tarps was
constant and all around, like a rich olive rain. It
was a pregnant sound that promised good things, not
the least of which was this day, chatting and whacking
and picking under a clear blue sky.
It was a welcome relief, though, when breakfast was
called. Hot and hungry, we gathered around
family-style and drank bottles of rainwater from town
cisterns and sweet, hot fire-brewed tea and ate bread
and jam and hummous and pickles and pickled olives
from past harvests, felafel and cheese and tomatoes
After more hours of picking, a delightful late lunch,
and a last batch of olives loaded into sacks and
hauled up into a waiting truck, we headed back to the
gate. After the day’s gaiety, I wasn’t prepared for
what awaited us there.
What awaited us was an impenetrable barrier to our
norms and plans coupled with indifference that fell
somewhere between obtuse and belligerent. We waited.
An old woman in a white veil glanced up and saw the
fence and its clear-cut and bulldozed perimeter; an
area that used to be home and now meant death to any
Palestinian who dared approach; the destruction of
entire ancient and productive hillsides; the piles of
razor wire, designed not to corral goats or sheep but
people, and to steal their dignity as well; the
enormous gate on Palestinian land, controlled by a
foreign army, blocking her from home and family; the
tanks and Jeeps that had full access to the road along
the fence, deadly weapons and unqualified access to
her village and her home and her children; and she saw
“Haraam!” She shook her fist at the abomination.
“Haraam!” Another woman patted her shoulder, and she
looked down and shook her head.
About an hour had passed when it was time for evening
prayer, and there was still no sign of anyone to let
us back home. The men laid a tarp down on a flat,
rocky ledge that used to be someone’s olive grove, and
one man led the prayer while the others prayed in
their jeans and work shoes. They knelt on the tarp
facing a lovely setting sun. One man went off by
himself to pray, and when I saw him praying solemnly
by a six-foot-tall pile of razor wire on his own land,
I felt dizzy and ill. The scene gave me a feeling I’d
never felt before. I couldn’t describe it even to
myself. It was worse than being kicked in the stomach
by my best friend.
As dusk was deepening, the soldiers finally arrived to
let us through. Watching the once-merry villagers
lining up somberly, making sure to behave, while the
bored, disdainful teenaged Israeli soldiers examined
them and questioned them and checked their documents
and waved them uncaringly through, my shoulders bowed
and my head ducked, and I felt a horrified weight of
sorrow on my heart. This was shameful and dreadful,
but I could do nothing. I felt sick and helpless and
I agonized that I couldn’t do anything to change this
awful scene. People engaging in civil disobedience or
non-violent protest are regularly shot at, arrested,
and/or deported. Any violence, besides going against
my ideals and injuring my soul, would be crushed with
even greater violence.
After some thought I realized there was only one thing
I could do at that moment. I leveled my head. I
straightened my shoulders. All I could do was face
the scene and the situation as bravely and honestly as
I could. I had to try to preserve my dignity even
while people were trying to take it away. It was the
only weapon at my disposal.
All that was remarkably easy for me to say as an
American who could go back to a relatively free and
privileged country any time I chose.
That night a British Muslim living in Jayyous at the
time took me up to the roof of Thaher’s house to see
what we were surrounded by. To the west, of course,
four or five kilometers beyond the fence, was the
fault line demarking the boundary between the endless
lights of an Israeli city and the dark farmland of the
West Bank. Far in the distant haze we could see the
art deco skyscrapers of Tel Aviv and then the dark
span of the Mediterranean.
Clusters of lights also surrounded us within the West
Bank. Towns with white lights were Palestinian
villages, my friend told me, and yellow ones were
There wasn’t a direction we could look very far in
without coming to an illegal Israeli outpost or big
sprawling settler city like Ari’el. My mouth went
dry. The West Bank wasn’t just surrounded and
invaded; the very fabric of it was perforated by
hostile—and watchful—townships with massive security
garrisons, divisive linkages, threatening ideologies,
and relative impunity.
Little by little I came to understand what the
settlements represented and embodied. I saw settlers
sitting by checkpoints, watching the humiliating
proceedings like distasteful entertainment, fingering
shotguns. I bought baby formula for a man whose land
was sodden with untreated sewage from a nearby
settlement, and of course there were no authorities to
complain to. I heard many discouraged stories of
farmers who had worked all day in their fields only to
have their days’ harvests stolen at gunpoint by
settlers. And shortly after I left Jayyous, a
pregnant woman was shot and killed by a settler near a
checkpoint in the area.
Some of the settlers were there simply because it was
subsidized and thus the best housing they could
afford. But others were ideological, believing that
they were the new pioneers to reclaim Judea and
Samaria for the God of Israel by any means necessary.
Some truly believed that the Arabs were settlers who
had been squatting on stolen land for the past two
All of that was basically my first impression of
Palestine/Israel. Coming back to the olives brought
it full-circle in a way.
It wasn’t just politics that brought me back, though.
There’s something absolutely otherworldly about olive
trees. Their beauty is careless and effusive like a
young bride, but wise and graceful like an ancient
matron. Many in this land are older than the
The leaves are green on one side, silvery on the
other, and the berries fade from bright green to dark
purple. A fine pale dust saturates the trees, muting
the colors to sea foam green and deep lavender. Olive
branches have been symbols for power, beauty,
prestige, peace, and plenty, and it’s not hard to see
why. Combing their willow-like branches for olives
felt like a sacrament.
I met Na’el, Fayez’s oldest son, for the first time
that day. He got his masters degree in business in
India, and now he is working for a bank in Ramallah.
He said, “India is so great, because you can pass from
one state to the other, and the weather is different,
the food is different, the language is different...”
“And no checkpoints,” I joked, but he didn’t smile.
“Yes,” he said pensively, seeming almost surprised.
“Things are very bad here.”
He told me that in the old days, before the Wall, all
the family used to come out at olive harvesting time,
the kids joining in after school, and they would have
barbecues and parties and hand-pick everything
together, little by little, in no particular hurry.
He said, “There’s no mood for that now. We just want
to get the olives and get out.”
Later I realized with a shock what was most obviously
missing. “Where’s Mohammad?”
“He didn’t get a permit this year, so he’s looking
after Thaher’s shop.” I nodded, disappointed.
Two hundred of the family’s trees were destroyed by
the building of the fence. That would have been the
inheritance Mohammed, Azhar, and the grandkids,
including little Yakut. Another six or seven hundred
trees are on the wrong side of the fence, now de facto
owned by Israel. Only about 70 of the family’s trees
are left on the Jayyous side.
Every few minutes, Thaher would yell from whatever
tree he was in, “Heyyyy, ya 'ammmmmmi!” It took a
while to figure out he was just saying hey to a
favorite uncle, Abu Dia, and when breakfast was
called, I met the great man. As we sat and ate, he
told story after story with a stone-straight face and
a subtle, sincere voice that had everybody in tears
from laughter, including myself even though I couldn’t
understand a word.
Later Na’el asked me, “Did you ever watch the Cosby
“I think Abu Dia would be bigger than Cosby. He says
all of that with no preparation.”
I asked him to translate some of the jokes. Na’el
pointed up to the side of the tall hill next to
Jayyous, where Ammar and his friends used to hang out,
which is blasted completely bare now and built up with
He said, “You see the hill up there? The ground is,
or was, very steep there. One time Abu Dia’s cousin
was picking olives there, and an olive started rolling
down the hill. His mother asked him to run after it,
and he did, but he slipped and started rolling down
the hill, too, until he landed in a wasp’s nest. He
screamed that he was being stung. His mother looked
down at him and asked over his screams, ‘Ya habibi,
weyn az-zaytoun?’” (My love, where’s the olive?)
(It’s much funnier when Abu Dia tells it.)
I asked Na’el semi-rhetorically if Israel offered any
kind of compensation for the land that was destroyed,
much less that which was annexed. He said, “Everybody
refused any kind of compensation, of course. We
didn’t want to legitimize what Israel did in any way,
or make it look like a land purchase. It was theft,
Olive picking was fun this year, but compared to last
year it was almost funereal. Umm Na'el cried last
year after the harvest, knowing things would only get
worse and worse. This year she walked around like
someone had just been killed in some kind of obscene
way. Her whole full life of raising a big family and
all their olive trees had come to this sorry state,
and for what?
We talked and joked and had a good time, of course.
Abu Dia even managed to make Umm Na'el laugh a few
times. But the laughter, unlike for all the years
that came before, was interspersed with long moments
of unnaturally empty silence.
My mind turned over and over to the fact that despite
the normalcy we tried to pretend to, an abyss was
yawning just ahead of us. This kind of life, already
crippled beyond recognition, might be finished soon.
This day, this beauty, might soon go the way of the
dinosaurs and countless Native American tribes.
Extinction. It happens. It happened already to the
400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed during
the 1948 war when Israel was founded. Witnessing it
is bitter beyond description. To be the ones
extinguished is beyond my imagination.
How can anyone imagine all the hopes and dreams for
all the Palestinian children and grandchildren coming
to a dead end here? How can people watch something so
pure and perfect be turned into a grim, scheduled
march past little boys with guns and Hummers
controlled by old psychotic generals and politicians?
Sometimes my heart filled with an unspeakably
appalled, yawning emptiness that, if its fears were
realized, would never, ever heal. And it wasn’t even
my life or my land that was at stake.
Who decides, who controls, whether all of this will
fall into oblivion or not?
Monday morning I packed a small bag for three days and
two nights on the land. In order to maximize olive
time and minimize harassment and humiliation, most of
Fayez’s family was sleeping in a giant tarp tent on
the land, and they invited me out. I walked on foot
to al-Bawabeh, the Gate, and got in line behind a
couple of guys on a tractor.
They looked back and saw me and motioned for me to go
on ahead. I said, “La, la, mish mushkili.” The
thought hadn’t even occurred to me. The prospect of
cutting in front of people who belonged here just
because I had a powerful passport was galling.
They nodded and said, “’Ahsn.” Better.
I passed the gate and found my friends easily and got
to work. We had halaweh (halva) at every meal, as
well as some combination of pickles, bread, yogurt,
hummous, tuna, potted meat, fried potatoes and
eggplant, tinned mackerel, eggs, rich fire-roasted
tomato sauce, and of course the ubiquitous sweet hot
black tea and bread. Occasionally a brother or cousin
would bring down a big dish of maglubi or molokhiya
from town, and we’d eat like kings.
On Tuesday we started to run out of water for
dishwashing and laundry, so I went down to a cistern
with Na’el. The top of the water was about twenty
feet below a three-foot-wide concrete hole in the
ground, and the reservoir looked about twenty feet in
diameter and three feet deep. Na’el drew the water
out with a bucket, and I held the funnel to fill the
jugs. Soon 22-year-old Fadi showed up and took over
Na’el’s job. The water had some spiders and chicken
bones in it, but was otherwise fairly clear and cold.
One of the older men watching us work glanced up at
the nearby Israeli settlement.
“You see what we have to do for water?” he asked me.
“Those settlers never have to do this. They have
access to all the best, purest water here.”
Palestinians have been forbidden from drilling
badly-needed new deep water wells since 1967, and many
of their best water resources have been or are being
expropriated by settlements or the Wall. Settlers
use, per capita, more than ten times as much of the
West Bank’s water as West Bank Palestinians. Israel
controlled 80% of the West Bank's water before the
Wall; the percentage is surely greater now, and the
consolidation of that control stronger.
We picked olives every day until we couldn’t see
anymore. Then we’d take tea and watch the last lights
of sunset fade, chat or just think our thoughts while
the stars came out. In those moments, leaning back
against an ever-growing olive pile, breathing in the
rich, deep, subterranean scent of a hard day’s work, I
felt completely content and at peace.
I got up with Ammar and Ahmed's family Thursday
morning at 5:45, and we loaded up like possums on the
family tractor, three men in front and three women
squeezed in the trailer in back with all the supplies.
Ammar drove us down to the gate where Ahmed hopped
off and gave all our documents to the soldiers. I
laughed in my delirious tiredness that Israel should
think it would take three armed gunmen and an armored
Jeep to subdue Ahmed.
We were given permission to go through, and Ammar
waved at the soldiers as we passed. A little gesture
The land we visited first was just under the
worst-blasted hill, and I asked Ammar how many of his
family's trees used to be here. “Twenty.”
“And how many are here now?”
“Wahid, ‘thnin, thalatha, arba’a, hamsa, sitta,
Huge boulders, heaved up from deep in the earth by
Israeli dynamite, littered the place. We could use
some of them as ladders to get up to the higher
branches. Others just got in the way. All of them
were incongruous symbols of something dreadful.
As we were eating breakfast, a Hummer roared along the
narrow dirt road next to us, kicking up dust. The
soldiers waved at us through their wide-open
bullet-proof window, laughing as if it were a joke or
We paused our meal to look up at them with a disgusted
astonishment that never seems to fade. We looked at
each other and shook our heads and kept eating.
All day while we were picking, if things got too
quiet, we’d call out each other’s names: “Ya Ahmed!”
and then wait for acknowledgement: “Na’am,” and then
say any little thing:
“Kif as-sahha” (How's the health?), or “Kif halek?”
(How are you?) or “Shu akhbarak?” (What’s new?) or
Ahmed started saying, “Ya Pamela!”
“Kak dela?” That’s Russian for ‘kif halek?’
Ammar told me to say, “’Ahsn minak.” Better than you.
When that got boring I started saying, “’Ahsn min
Arafat,” or “’Ahsn min mishmish,” or “’Ahsn min China,”
or “’Ahsn min Jisr Sheikh Hussein.”
Once I said, “’Ahsn min a pile of khara.” Khara is the
Arabic word for solid human waste.
Ammar laughed and asked, “W’allah?” Really?
“Taqriban,” I answered cheerfully. Almost.
He’s studying French now at university along with his
degree in physiotherapy, and he kept asking me how to
say things in French. As if our three-language pidgin
communication isn’t bad enough. He’ll probably know
French better than I do in a matter of weeks. I told
him I’d have to learn Swahili or something to stay
ahead of him. (Of course, he knows both English and
Russian better than I know any foreign language.
Knowing a little more French than him was just padding
for a daunted ego.)
We moved to some land near the top of another hill and
joined a bunch of young cousins and their parents.
Army vehicles patrolled the roads at intervals, and
when an armored car came in sight, the kids would get
excited and yell, “Hummar! Hummar!”
The kids were adorable and funny and full of energy.
I played with them and took some pictures. They poked
me with sticks and giggled when I tried to take a nap,
and they played any game they could think of while we
Ammar said that before the Wall, they would come to
the land as a family for whole days just for fun.
“We’d come here, have a picnic, and do nothing. It
was too nice. Now, no.”
Tractoring back to town, passing through Main Street
and waving at everyone we knew, I felt like a kid in a
parade back home.
Later that night we were talking on the porch with
some other men from the village, and Ammar laughed at
one of them and translated to me that he’d fixed
himself a lunch that day of fried tomato, canned
tomato, and tomato salad. We laughed, but the man
smiled kind of sadly. He’s been working in the fields
alone and didn’t have the energy to fix a real meal.
Another friend of mine has two small daughters and a
pregnant wife, so he had to pick his olives alone,
too. Sounds about as depressing as Christmas alone.
Hibba took me to visit a sister of hers on Saturday.
Passing through the outskirts of town, the new poverty
of the place was easy to see. Almost all of the old
houses are covered in stonework or light-colored,
cheerful plaster or stucco. Many are accented with
decorative arches, columns, sculpted ledges, and iron
The new houses are lucky if they can afford some dark
grey cement to smear over the still-visible
cinderblocks of the squat, square structures. Several
families, who live in splendid houses built in better
times, are now having trouble feeding themselves and
educating their kids. Some are raising chickens in a
back room for meat. Some no longer have reliable
It is appalling to see a proud, prosperous old farming
village reduced to this, and humbling yet galling to
see people bearing it as cheerfully as they can.
Even when a house doesn’t have a stick of furniture
except for some plastic chairs, there isn’t a culture
of poverty or deprivation, much less of judgment.
Lack of access to gainful employment is a nuisance,
not an identity, and for many people these days, a
nuisance that can be blamed directly on occupation.
Education is traditionally a top priority for
Palestinians - people will give up almost anything to
educate their kids - and a lot of sparkling
conversations go on over plastic dinner tables.
Of course, it’s a bit harder for families who are
hungry and thirsty, or who have family members killed
or imprisoned, to put on a cheerful face.
Unbelievably to me, despite being brutalized and
vilified, most Palestinians continue to try their best
to maintain their perspective and their humanity. If
they didn't, their souls along with their lives and
property would be destroyed by the occupation.
"Operation Days of Penitence" was going on while I was
in Jayyous. The Israeli incursion into Gaza,
concentrated on a large refugee camp called Jabalya,
was supposedly in retaliation for the shelling of
Sderot, an Israeli development town, by Palestinian
militants (or freedom fighters) with crude home-made
Qassam rockets. Recently two Ethiopian toddlers were
killed by one of the un-guided projectiles, whose
firings rarely kill anyone and are symbolic acts of
resistance more than anything.
The Israeli government’s response was a seventeen-day
campaign that killed at least 135 Gazans, mostly from
the Jabalya refugee camp, more than half of whom were
civilians, at least 31 of whom were children 17 and
Around 500 people were wounded by heavy shelling and
gunfire, many critically and/or permanently. Two
little girls, one 9 and one 10, were shot and killed
by Israeli snipers as they sat at their desks in their
UNRWA schools. Another girl was shot on her way to
school by snipers and then shot twice in the head at
close range by an Israeli commander as she lay in the
street. He subsequently emptied his entire clip into
her lifeless body “to relieve pressure,” as a fellow
soldier explained. More than 85 homes were destroyed
and 280 damaged. A kindergarten serving 500 kids was
leveled, and several acres of olive and citrus groves
The army finally pulled out without really
accomplishing much of anything. The Qassam threat has
not been neutralized, as insanely out of proportion as
the retaliation was. Sharon wanted to prove that
despite his Gaza pull-out plan, he was still tough on
hunting down and stamping out terrorists, but the
Right, much less the settlers, much less the sisters
and brothers of the dead children, didn’t really buy
it. I am certain that more freedom fighters (or
terrorists, as you prefer) were created during that
incursion than were killed. Certainly more innocents
were killed than combatants.
Watching Al-Jazeera that week, I felt a little like a
Saudi watching 9/11 must have felt. (In proportion to
the small size of Palestine, 135 deaths is equivalent
to many more than were killed in America on 9/11--one
difference between the two is that the violence and
killing here never stop.) Not that all Saudis are
responsible for 9/11, or all Americans responsible for
Palestine (although we are much more culpable that
Saudis because we supposedly elect our leaders who
support state-sponsored terrorism). But it certainly
gave me a funny feeling.
Every time I turned on the news, I learned how many
Arabs were slaughtered by my country and her client
states and militias that day. A bombed Hilton is
unspeakably tragic, but no matter how much coverage it
gets, it’s peanuts compared to what Western powers
commit daily against Arab people.
A friend of mine mentioned some videos he had seen of
Muslims being slaughtered in Kosovo, Afghanistan,
Iraq, Indonesia, and the imagery haunted me to the
point of giving me nightmares. A recent report from
The Lancet medical journal conservatively concluded
that 100,000 or more excess deaths have occurred in
Iraq since the US invasion started in 2003, mostly due
to violence from Coalition Forces, and "most
individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were
women and children." 
I wrote in my journal, “If you treat someone’s life
like garbage, don’t be surprised when it’s dumped on
your door someday.”
(Before you turn me in to John Ashcroft, please try to
remember the distinction between attempting to explain
something and justifying it.)
On Sunday I headed back to Ramallah. I went first to
Qalqiliya with a friend of mine, Abir, who is studying
psychology at Al-Quds Open University at a cost of
about $500 per semester. When the NGO she worked with
pulled out of Jayyous, she lost her English teaching
income, and there are no other jobs to be had.
Without help she'll be forced to quit university
early--which, the way things are going, probably means
forever. This semester is taken care of with the help
of some generous donors, but we are seeking help for
the next semester, which starts in January. If anyone
wants to make a small contribution, I can send my
I caught a bus from Qalqiliya to Ramallah with a
friend of Abir’s, a pretty young girl who’s studying
to be a midwife. She was sweet and polite, but her
bitterness, bubbling under a mask of poised composure,
was so complete and out of character I wondered what
her story was.
The ride was uneventful until we were stopped by a
sinister-looking bunch of soldiers and settlers, many
sporting skullcaps or black hats, long curly earlocks,
big guns, and sneers. One soldier came on board to
harass us, and another came just to watch.
The first soldier randomly picked people and
insolently asked them questions like, “Shu indek fi
Ramallah?” He wanted to know what they were doing in
Ramallah, where their family was, how old they were,
where they were coming from – irrelevant personal
information they had no right or reason to ask.
They had a stunning amount power and authority over
us, though, so even though the passengers feigned
nonchalance while answering the boy's impertinent
questions, we all instinctively stiffened. This was
one of those times when the soldiers could pick out
and pick on anyone they liked, like they did to Ammar
twice last month or worse, and there was nothing we
The first soldier finally came to me and asked, “Min
weyn inti?” He spoke as rudely to me as he did to the
“Americhai?” He seemed surprised.
The second soldier looked over the first soldier’s
shoulder at my passport and snickered, “Oh my God.”
The first soldier switched to broken English. “What
you are doing here?”
“Where do you stay?”
“What you were doing in Qalqiliya?”
“Visiting a friend.”
“Your friend is from Qalqiliya?”
Long pause. He seemed disappointed and at a loss.
“OK,” he finally said. He handed my passport back,
and he and the gawking soldier exited the bus without
I turned to the Palestinian girl next to me and
whispered, “Majnun” (crazy), although that wasn't
quite the word I was looking for.
“Animals,” she said in English.
On 15 October, shortly after I left, two Jayyous
farmers were detained, beaten, and threatened for half
an hour by uniformed Israelis who had been hiding
among their trees. Not long afterwards, three 15- and
16-year-old children were arrested, and one of them
remains in custody.
I can’t stress enough that the situation in Jayyous is
a pleasure cruise compared to many villages,
especially the ones situated near ‘friction zones’, a
euphemism for ‘violent ideological Israeli settler
zones’. On 20 October a settler drove into a
Palestinian village near Nablus, hit three Palestinian
schoolgirls with his car, and fled. Two of the girls
had broken bones and the other had her teeth broken.
A Palestinian guy was shot in the neck by a settler
while picking olives the other day, and settlers in
Salfit region set a Palestinian olive grove on fire
and then threw rocks at the villagers as they tried to
put out the flames. On 26 October, a settler shot and
killed a 17-year-old boy as he was picking olives near
Urif village, Nablus region.  And on and on.
Na’el called me when he got back to Ramallah and
invited me to First Breakfast for Ramadan at his
family’s house. (During Ramadan people fast from
sunrise to sundown, and this time of year have
breakfast around 5:15 p.m.) He brought me a bottle of
fresh oil from their fields, but he said not to bother
coming back to Jayyous for olive harvesting any time
soon. Many foreigners, including Israelis, had showed
up to help with the harvests and express their
solidarity. Soon after I left, the soldiers decided
not to let any foreigners cross the gate anymore.
If someone had offered me a thousand dollars to stay
in Ramallah instead of harvesting olives, I wouldn’t
have taken it. I looked forward to it all year, and
the nine days in the fields mellowed my nerves and
refreshed my spirit in ways words can’t express and
money can’t touch. It was one of my favorite weeks
this year, and it was only a shadow of what it used to
Olive harvesting in Palestine is a livelihood, a
vacation, a family gathering, days climbing trees and
nights under the stars, a useful art, a beautiful
vocation. Picnics and jokes, sun and shade, cold
water and giggling kids. And out of it comes a gift
from the earth, a healthy, zaki oil used for
everything all year, in remembrance of the good times
we had gathering it.
It’s all on the chopping block if we don’t do
 Jericho is the transportation hub when arriving
from Amman, where he had to fly into because
Palestinians aren’t allowed to use Israel’s airport.
 A map of the route of the Wall around Qalqiliya
and Jayyous can be found here.
From the lay of the fence, it is clear that the Wall
is a land grab, not a security measure.
Here are some pictures of Qalqiliya’s concrete Wall.
A couple of testimonies about how the Wall has
affected some families.
Try to imagine this monster Wall surrounding your town
or next to your house, or imagine your house, land,
school, church, or mosque destroyed for the sake of
building it. Mom, imagine your new flowerbeds or the
deck you just built bulldozed by a foreign army. Then
imagine your kids not being able to go to school or to
the doctor because of it.
The Wall is not just a prison, but also a tool of
ethnic cleansing. Some Palestinian villages are left
outside the Wall, trapped between the Wall and the
Green Line, not allowed to enter Israel and not able
to enter the West Bank. These unfortunate villagers
will either have to sit in their villages with no
civil services, schools, hospitals, or jobs and rot,
or move to towns villages inside the Wall, thereby
destroying centuries-old towns and leaving the land
open for Israeli annexation, a clear case of ethnic cleansing. Or they can walk into
Israel with a bomb strapped to them; there’s no
‘security fence’ to stop them, and not much of a life
awaiting them inside what may soon be the biggest
open-air prison in the world.
The International Court of Justice in The Hague, the
highest court in the world, has ruled the Wall
illegal. I quote the ruling: “The construction of
the wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power,
in the Occupied Palestinian Territory... is contrary
to international law. ... Israel is under obligation
to... cease forthwith the works of construction of the
wall... [and] make reparation for all damage caused by
the construction of the wall. ... All States parties
to the Fourth Geneva Convention... have in addition
the obligation... to ensure compliance by Israel with
international humanitarian law.”
Israel ignored the ruling, and the rest of the
governments of the world so far have, too.
 An Israeli human rights group has issued a
statement that the Permit System to cross the Wall is
blatantly racist, indicative of Israel’s Apartheid
system, because Jewish people are allowed free access
to annexed Palestinian lands on the basis of their
religious affiliation, while Palestinians are not.
“3.5 million Palestinian Christians and Muslims are
denied the same political and civil rights as Jews.
These Palestinians must drive on separate roads, in
cars bearing distinctive license plates, and only to
and from designated Palestinian areas. It is illegal
for a Palestinian to drive a car with an Israeli
license plate. These Palestinians, as non-Jews,
neither qualify for Israeli citizenship nor have the
right to vote in Israeli elections.
“In South Africa, such an allocation of rights and
privileges based on ethnic or religious affiliation
was called apartheid. In Israel, it is called the
Middle East's only democracy.”
~Michael Tarazi, legal adviser to the Palestine
Liberation Organization, in a New York Times op-ed
Next: Rest in Peace, Abu Ammar