We’ve been called by a farmer who would like a protective presence during olive tree planting as his farm’s olive trees had been cut down by settlers 12 years ago. While he is ready now to try again the settlers continue to be a problem for families in the area. The nearby settlement (a suburb of Jerusalem) grows ever larger and thirsts for land. Settlers get concerned when Palestinians farm and often call the army to ‘protect them’ from these incursions.
We agreed to meet at the farm, finding him, his brother, one of his sons, a nephew, a family friend and his daughter (for a short time) and a donkey named Selena. We helped transport and plant about 33 olive trees, 5 fig trees and a lemon tree on his strip of the family property.
The family has been farming the area for at least 100 years with grapevines and olive trees planted in every other strip. There are 6 brothers and 3 sisters with an interest in this land, together with their children. Life under occupation has been difficult, with trees being cut down, and the Israeli Army a constant presence. Family members have been told they would be shot if they spend the night on their land and soldiers told the farmer to stop building a cistern to water the farm. His brother has suffered two home demolitions and was imprisoned by the Military Government for standing in front of a bulldozer that was about to plow his house down. The incident took place 14 years ago, but the 3 years he spent in prison and the 6 months his 15-year-old daughter served are fresh in his mind.
We were welcomed warmly, allowed to participate in planting (a particular passion for at least one of us) and were well fed at an impromptu barbeque. I am more out of shape than I thought I and was soon obviously worn out trying to pick holes in the rich red earthed soil mixed with limestone rock. Fortunately, the farmer took pity on me. While his brother, his nephew and his son dug holes, he planted saplings and I backfilled. Trying my best to ensure they weren’t leaning out of the ground at an angle.
Some of the saplings were too dried out to plant. The farmer said he’d picked them up and kept them in his house last year. Not wanting to chance planting under the eye of the settlement. He thought an EAPPI presence might keep the occupation forces at bay but had to wait until his time and ours matched up. Three or four saplings paid the price. We see neither soldier nor settler, perhaps we do make a difference. He certainly thinks so.
The barbeque was something special. A small twig fire was laid, limestone rocks piled beneath and around. More fuel added while we planted and chicken parts, held between a wire basket sandwich, were placed over glowing coals to roast for our eating pleasure. Whole onions were set in the coals while whole tomatoes were handed out along with pita rounds, hummus and pop. I ate more than my share of the chicken as my colleagues are vegetarians. Something that confused the heck out of pretty much everyone else. Imagine my consternation when the second course, ground beef and spice kebabs, were placed on the grill and I had to take another pita for the team. I haven’t felt that full since Christmas.
During the meal, the farmer’s brother and one of our team who speaks Hebrew fell into a conversation. She told us afterward that she’d asked him if he thought it would be alright to speak Hebrew to folk in line at the checkpoint. He (an ex-prisoner of the Israeli Military) said it would be. “It is our language too,” he’d said, “the language of this land. We are both of the land, sky and earth, we cannot be separated.”
As I listened to their body language, his compelling and strong, born out of years of reflection, hers interested, apologetic and inviting, I thought of the handover service at St. George’s Church in Jerusalem, where the text from Luke focused on the sending of the 70.
“Take nothing with you”, but accept that which is given, enter the houses of welcome, offer a ministry of healing, peace and comfort. Here we are, I thought, welcomed into the humblest of circumstances, a farmer’s field where even the outbuildings are targets for demolition, where the fruit-bearing trees are under constant threat, where livelihoods are next to impossible to assure. Here we are, well-fed, welcomed and one in the labour of planting. Planting as an act of faith in the future, planting as an act of resistance to despair.
When I asked the farmer, as we left, what message he would send to the world outside, he said, “Tell them to come here, to see the fields, to know the trees, to delight in this land, as we do.”
Good words to end on, I think…