Olive Harvesting in Jayyous

Pamela Olson
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 [1] 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. Otherwise...”

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 stop admiring.

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 home.


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 anymore.)

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. [2]

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 me. [3]

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.”

“Really? Why?”

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 jurist, 1773-1850

In an hour or so I found myself on a small ridge and asked a young couple if they knew where my friend’s land was.

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 October 2003:


    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 groves.

    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 settlements.

    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 why.

    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 homelike.

    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 press.

    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 on.

    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 and yogurt.

    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 red.

    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 defeated.

    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 Israeli settlements.

    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 millennia.


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 Renaissance.

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 Show?”


“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 ‘security’ apparati.

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, nothing else.”

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? For what?

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 of humanity.

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, saba... Seven.”

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 a joyride.

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 something.

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 picked olives.

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 filigree.

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 running water.

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 under.

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 were bulldozed.

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." [4]

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 PayPal info.

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 could do.

The first soldier finally came to me and asked, “Min weyn inti?” He spoke as rudely to me as he did to the other passengers.

Min Amerika.”

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?”

“Teaching English.”

“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 further incident.

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. [5] 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 be.

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 something soon.




[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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

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