No Peace Under the Olive Tree
For over a dozen years, every time I travel to the Middle East, and in particular to Israel and Palestine, I hear the sentence “no peace under the olive tree” at home, and it wasn’t until now that I had a closer look at it, because it’s also the title of the famous 1950s Italian movie directed by Giuseppe de Santis. It tells the story of almost a Greek tragedy transplanted to a village in Abruzzo where good and evil clash. A man takes advantage of the wartime chaos andsteals from his neighbour, appropriating his herd of sheep to increase his own wealth. Unfortunately, while trying to take the sheep back, the rightful owner is sent to prison due to false witness testimonies.This old black and white movie is superimposed over the modern West Bank and the events unfolding therein. I could impose individual frames on the images from both Samaria and Judea. Olive trees were always a symbol of peace and reconciliation; this, however, could not be further from the truth. In the shade of those trees, neighbours are unable to reach an agreement, and to make sure the olive branches don’t get in the way of their war, they burn entire orchards down and fell perfectly healthy trees. I made my last trip to Samaria and Judea in June. I wanted to see and meet the people living there. The city of Nablus, the biblical Shechem inhabited by the Samaritans and conquered by the Arabs in 636 who turned it into “little Damascus”, certainly makes an impression. From 1949 it was part of the Kingdom of Jordan and in 1967 it became part of the Western Bank territory.Unfortunately, the future of the city once called “little Damascus” for its development similar to the capital of Syria was quite sad.In April 2002, Nablus along with other cities on the West Bank were targeted by the Israelis who destroyed the old town, demolishing many historic buildings. Partially reconstructed, it’s teeming with life, even though it still suffers from a lack of tourists. The inhabitants are very welcoming and open to sightseers, despite their well-known nationalistic and conservative views. And of course, you can’t get a knafeh as good as in Nablus anywhere else, not in Beirut, not in Amman. It’s too bad that hurried foreign pilgrims visit biblical locations such as Mount Gerizim and Jacob’s Well just to take a sip of water and check a box in their tour programme when both the old and new part of Nablus can be very interesting for sightseers. Also, you can’t be in Nablus and not visit the Balata Camp. As every other camp in the Middle East I’ve visited, it makes adiscouraging impression. There isn’t a camp that would have an air of optimism about it, regardless of who’s in charge and how long it’s been operating; it’s only a refugee camp – a piece of misery in the desert.
Most people living in the Balata Camp come from old Jaffa, similarly to the inhabitants of Ramallah who say about themselves: I’m from Jaffa, but I was born here. The young generation, born at the camp, has a realistic outlook, not counting on anything to change, and is easy prey for terrorist organisations as well as drug and weapons dealers. However, even in this “sad place onearth”, in Nablus or Jenin, you can meet people who try to change the course of history.
During my meetings with activists, volunteers and people organising workshops for kids, I’ve had the opportunity to take a close look at the situation in Samaria and Judea, which is to say, on the West Bank. I’vemet people who build bridges instead of walls. They are indomitable and don’t falter in the face of adversity. They organise artistic workshops as exemplified by the “Freedom Theatre” (created after the Jenin offensive in 2002), which doubles as a Culture centre for the Jenin refugee camp. Under guidance of professionals in the field, young people stage professional theatrical productions, offer training in acting, pedagogy and photography, as well as publish books, exhibitions and short movies.
In their spare time, the teachers and trainers organise sports associations and professional clubs, and all that to keep children away from politics. Palestinian and Israeli writers try to find a common denominator in creating good neighbourly relations. It’s not true that there is no solution or hope. Even if only a single olive tree was left on the West Bank, people would still be able to sit in its shade and talk. And that’s what it’s all about, meeting other people.