A Tree Grows in Palestine


Ecocide and Ethnic Cleansing

By David Kattenburg

Al-Walaja – population 2400 — is a lovely place to visit, nestled on the flanks and bottom of a set of valleys eight kilometers southwest of Jerusalem, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Tourists come to Al-Walaja from around the world, or from nearby Bethlehem, to enjoy the lovely surrounding landscape. A huge, gnarly olive tree, reputedly over 5000 years-old, is a big draw. For political tourists, Israel’s imposing and highly illegal “security barrier,” soon to enclose little Al-Walaja in a sort of a cage, is a must-see.



I toured Al-Walaja in the company of a congenial guy named Baha Hilo. The history Baha shared is the story of the Palestinian people in microcosm.

It begins with the Nakba, in the summer of 1948. Forced expulsions at their peak, the people of Al-Walaja were driven out of their homes, replaced by Jewish immigrants in red-rooved “Swiss cottages,” as Baha calls them. To the east they walked, across what would soon become the Armistice Line separating Israel “proper” from the Jordanian controlled West Bank — the Green Line. There, on four square kilometers of land, the dispossessed people of Al-Walaja re-established life.

Olive trees on Al-Walaja hillside

But in the wake of the June 1967 war, Israel followed them, seizing additional lands. The dispossession of the people of Al-Walaja has not ceased since then: separated from their agricultural lands by barriers of concrete and barbed wire; their homes bulldozed for lack of a permit, which Israel almost never provides.

Electric fence section of Israel’s separation barrier surrounding Al-Walaja

In this audio story (click on play button above), Baha and I walk between a set of houses, down a rubble-strewn path. We come across a scene of devastation: the remains of one of more than eighty homes Israel has bulldozed over the past decades. A mere 3% of Palestinian construction requests get approved, Baha tells me. Perhaps your family has land and wants to expand, build a house. Ninety-seven percent of applications to the occupation’s “Civil Administration” get rejected. Many build anyway. Occupation police come in and demolish a family’s life savings.

Demolished home, Al-Walaja, Israeli-occupied Palestine

Treading carefully over blocks of concrete, mangled rebar and abandoned family possessions, Baha leads me to the edge of the valley overlooking what once belonged to Al-Walaja – it still does – but that now lies inside Israel “proper,” where Palestinians can’t go. To the east and northeast, the southern margins of Jerusalem bristle with shiny Jewish settlements.

Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention (1949) prohibits an occupying power from transferring its citizens into occupied territory. Doing so is a “grave breach,” that “High Contracting Parties” to the convention (e.g. the US, Canada, UK, France, etc.) are duty bound to hold a violator accountable for.

Illegal Gilo settlement, across barrier and valley from Al-Walaja

Standing on a hill overlooking Al-Walaja, gazing towards the horizon and into the valley, I try to catch my bearings. Where is Jerusalem? Which way is Bethlehem? What’s that settlement over there? Natural and political geography are indecipherable.

There are no visible borders, Baha explains. You just have to know that that’s a settlement, and that one is too, and so on. The “crazy thing,” says Baha, is how settlers are subject to one law – Israeli civil law governing Jewish citizens of Israel and the settlements — while the 2400 residents of Al-Walaja are subject to three separate Israeli legal systems:

  1. Jerusalem municipal law for those whose homes happen to have landed within Jerusalem’s expanded municipal boundaries; residency cards get revoked if your home is bulldozed, or if the separation barrier locks you out; for any reason, really, with essentially no recourse;
  2. Israeli military law for those whose homes happen to be located in ‘West Bank’ Oslo Area ‘B’ or ‘C’, administered by the occupation’s Civil Administration;
  3. Israeli law for the few whose homes happen to have been gerrymandered onto Israel’s side of the Green Line, now trapped in a legal no man’s land, with no rights. Certainly no right to vote. 

“Every one of these three systems qualifies as apartheid,” says Baha. “We’re talking about three sets of apartheid regimes applied and imposed on 2400 people! It’s complicated on a micro level!”

Separation barrier surrounding Al-Walaja

One very visible physical feature demarcates the land surrounding Al-Walaja: Israel’s separation barrier. Often referred to as a wall, it consists of eight-meter high slabs of concrete, interspersed by long stretches of electrified fence and fortified ditches. When complete, Israel’s barrier will run 700 kilometers up and down the Green Line dividing Israel — as internationally recognized — and Israeli-occupied territory Palestinians claim for a future state.

Over 80% of its length, the barrier dives across the Green Line and into occupied Palestine – sometimes deeply — seizing Palestinian farm lands; gerrymandering settlements onto Israel’s side. Palestinian towns like Qalqiliya and Tulkarm are completely encircled, ingress and exit controlled by occupation police at a single checkpoint. This is what Israel has in mind for Al-Walaja.

Separation barrier surrounding Al-Walaja

The Israeli wall around Al-Walaja will be 7 kms in length, locking residents in what Baha Hilo calls a “cage,” with a single gate controlled by Israeli police.

Israel’s separation barrier is part concrete, part fence.

In this audio story, listen to Baha lead me and a group of Europeans down a narrow path, into the valley, for a visit to this incredibly big olive tree that locals say is 5000 years-old.

On the way, we gaze down on what seems to be a paved road, for cars. This one will soon provide a path for Israel’s wall. Barbed wire is now in place, separating farmers from their land.

Heading down to see a big old tree.

We meet a 44-year-old farmer named Abu Issa (‘father of Jesus’).  Abu Issa and his family look after the giant old olive tree. It’s the largest I’ve ever seen. Abu Issa says it covers a quarter acre of land and is nearly ten times larger than a regular tree. On close examination, the tree’s trunk is divided into numerous interlaced arms sprouting from the ground, twelve meters high and some twenty paces around their base.

Abu Issa’s grandfather and father cared for this olive tree in their day. Now it’s Abu Issa’s job. In a good year, it produces a half a ton of olives that render up wonderful olive oil (Abu Issa sells his olive oil in 2.5 L soda bottles).

Of course, old olive trees provide much more than just a living. They are hugely symbolic. Palestinian Sufis enjoy gathering around this one, Baha tells me.

Abu Issa and the huge olive tree he looks after

Israel is not blind to the role olive trees play in Palestinian culture. Since the start of its occupation, fifty years ago, an estimated 800,000 have been burned, chopped down or uprooted by Israeli occupation forces and Jewish settlers. Israel wants to remove signs of Palestinian existence, says Baha. How better to actualize the old Zionist depiction of Israel as a “land without people, for a people without land”?

A nonsensical quest, says Baha: “Only a fool would believe that Palestine is a land without people, when you’ve got thousand-year-old trees. Only a fool.”

Baha Hilo

As we climb back up to the road, Baha and I pause on the edge of a valley. On the other side, Gilo settlement glistens in the sunshine. Below, in the stone terrace and olive tree-lined valley, Israel will soon establish a national park for Jewish Israelis. No admission for Palestinians.

On the dismembered bits of land the people of Al-Walaja can and still do call home, a very large olive tree is the embodiment of their village’s will to survive — and nature’s too. How Palestine’s biggest olive tree will respond to Israel’s wall, twenty meters away, running all around the village, is anyone’s guess.

Very big olive tree

All images by David Kattenburg