By Anita Andersson
Anita Andersson was the World YWCA President from 1995 to 1999. She visited Palestine to participate in the Olive Tree Campaign, which is a joint advocacy initiative of the YMCA of East Jerusalem and the YMCA of Palestine. It seeks to replant trees in areas where they have been uprooted and destroyed, or in areas where the fields are threatened to be confiscated by the Israeli Occupation Army, or Israeli settlers.
In November I was in Palestine where I spent two weeks picking olives and visiting friends. In Palestine it was like summer in August – hot and sunny. This olive picking programme is now a tradition each October by the Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI) of the YWCA and YMCA of Palestine and East Jerusalem and the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG). I participated in the programme in 2007, and at that time I was the only person from Sweden. This time I had company from my old friend and colleague Barbro. Both of us have been in Palestine many times before, mainly for work, and now we both are retired. In total there were 70 people participating in the campaign, from over 15 countries, and in addition several who joined just for the olive picking for a day or two.
The olive tree can live very long and it is a symbol of identity to the land and the generations who have lived, and will continue to live, on that land. During the occupation not only people, but also trees have been uprooted to give space for Israelis and for security fences, the wall, by-pass roads, etc. Some farmers have problems with settlers living too close, or that their land is considered to be a security area, or that the land happened to be on the wrong side of the checkpoint. To work their own lands, farmers sometimes need permits, and very often it is a problem to get the permits for enough people during harvest time. Land that is not used during some years will be confiscated due to a very old law in the area. Being in possession of other passports, we are considered “internationals” and can move more freely, and by picking the olives we 1) help the farmer with his harvest, 2) prove that this piece of land is active, and 3) learn more about the Palestinian situation.
In my group the youngest was 12 years old. He came with his mother who had been on a kibbutz in her youth and wanted to come back and see how things have changed. The oldest person was 83 – a strong peace activists, he had participated in the programme several times. Another interesting person that I met is an 80 year old named Rei. I asked Rei how he got involved and he sad “because of my bad conscience”. Earlier on in his life Rei worked with Isreali trade unions, assisting them to develop. We stayed in Beit Sahour in the Bethlehem area and we also visited Hebron.
Barbro and I came a few days before the programme started, and we were thus able to meet some of our old friends – especially in the YMCA and to be in the old city in Jerusalem. In the old city we encountered more tourists and pilgrims and Israeli flags than we have ever seen before! It was good to see the tourists and the businesses, but very sad and alarming to realise that it is now a priority from the Israelis to make Jerusalem less Palestinian and more Israeli. By tradition East Jerusalem is considered Palestine and West Jerusalem Israel, but now the borders of Jerusalem have been changed to include former parts of the Palestinian West Bank. Settlers are getting permits to build on Palestinian land and Palestinian houses are being demolished. Palestinians living on the West Bank (or in Gaza) need permits to get into Jerusalem, however it is hard to get a permit and you don’t get one for wanting to see family members of going to a holy place. It is hard to get a permit even to go to the hospital! If you are a resident in Jerusalem but have not stayed at your address during some time (maybe because your home has been demolished) you loose your residency rights.
During our free day, Barbro and I went to the YMCA and the old city. Some of the other participants attended the Friday demonstrations and experienced tear gas in Bili’in, close to Ramallah. Other particpants went to the Shejk Jarrah area, close to the YWCA and not far from the legendary American Colony Hotel. That area has been in the media a lot due to the long conflict between some families with correct ownership documents for their homes and the Israelis who want to evict them. The houses have now been demolished, and demonstrations continue each Friday. Jimmy Carter, ex President of the United States also participated in these demonstrations! I think it was the first time that an ex-president was in Jerusalem participating in a pro-Palestinian demonstration!!
My experience in Palestine has been, yet again, very inspiring. If you get involved in the olive tree campaign – by buying a tree or participating in the planting in February or picking in October, you will feel rewarded. It is nice to be part of this network!