THE EARTH IN Palestine is very different to Ireland. It is a rich, orange colour, which comes away easily as you dig. Having lived in Dublin all my life, I am not much of a country person – but I know the dark mud you find in the fields and bogs of this rainy country.
The soil in Palestine is physically very different, but there is one very clear similarity between the two. The deep connection between the people and the land.
I have just returned from a campaign planting olive trees in Bethlehem, Palestine as part of the Joint Advocacy Initiative. This was in solidarity with local farmers who have been cut off from their land by Israeli motorways. These motorways are for Israeli citizens only, so many Palestinian farmers must journey for miles to get to their land, which previously had been nestled in close to their village.
They are frequently stopped and delayed at checkpoints, harassed and searched. And all in order to tend to their olive trees, their livelihood. Most of these fields are in Area C, which makes up the majority of the West Bank and is controlled by Israel.
Palestinians are prohibited from building on this land, even if they have owned it for generations. Any Palestinian constructions carried out in Area C can be demolished by the Israeli army.
Olive trees are remarkable things. They are astoundingly resilient, with deep roots allowing them to survive in the harshest of climates. The olive branch has been a symbol of peace since biblical times, when the Holy Family came to Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.
To this very place. The roots of the olive tree can find water far below the surface, which in this land is unfortunately very necessary. Israel controls 80% of water in the West Bank, and water shortages are frequent. In the refugee camps in Bethlehem, it is not uncommon to wake up and find no water in the taps. Water is sold to Palestinians at three times the price it is sold to Israelis.
In the hot summer months, Palestinians can have their water cut off for up to 30 days at a time, without warning. There are no water shortages in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I learnt fast how you can tell which are Israeli settlement houses and which are Palestinian houses.
Palestinian properties have black water containers on the roof to collect water reserves for when the water is cut off again. This visibly shows the apartheid system imposed by Israel. The facts are crystal clear – on average, one Israeli uses as much water as eight Palestinians.
The olive tree has long been a symbol of Palestine. On one day trip, we passed an ancient specimen, its leaves dancing in the breeze but its gnarled bark showing its age. This tree is 1,400 years old. It had been confiscated from its native earth and placed at the centre of a roundabout outside an Israeli settlement.
The symbolic hatred embodied in this act is shocking. But this is just one of the many injustices Palestinians face every day; from water shortages to restricted movement and the ever present Wall.
The Apartheid Wall runs like a scar all across the West Bank. At times an 8 metre high concrete mass with sniper towers at intervals, it is a constant reminder of the occupation. It cuts farmers off from their land, and frequently isolates families from carrying out normal everyday journeys.
In Aida Refugee Camp I met children who must undergo searches at checkpoints every morning to pass through the wall to school, a terrifying ordeal for a grown adult let alone a small child. I felt intimidated by the wall’s austere, grey presence; I can only imagine what it must be like to live every day in its shadow.
The city of Hebron knows all too well about checkpoints. Once a bustling commercial market town, the effects of the Israeli occupation are sadly all too evident. It feels like a ghost town. Soldiers patrol the streets with machine guns, and there are security cameras everywhere.
Extremist Israeli settlers who have moved in to the town carry out frequent acts of intimidation and harassment on the local Palestinian community. While we were there, perusing the few remaining Palestinian stalls, we got word that there had been a shooting near the Ibrahimi Mosque. The next few minutes were a confused panic, as our group was hurried back through a maze of side streets.
Killing of a child
Up high overlooking the city, we discovered that a 17-year-old Palestinian girl had been shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, close to the mosque. A child. Words cannot do justice to the devastation I felt at that moment. In the days that followed, there were five more killings in the West Bank. Defence for Children International states that Israeli forces have killed 49 Palestinian children, including 17 girls, since October 2015.
Irish people have always had a close relationship with the land – it provided food, shelter, warmth. This year, we are having a commemoration of the birth of our nation state, of breaking free from oppression and celebrating the 1916 Rising – our own intifada. Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote:
‘Between my finger and my thumb
the squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.’
While I was in Palestine, I dug with a shovel. Now I am back home, I am digging with the pen. Digging for justice. Because the olive tree that is Palestine must be allowed to grow.
It must be protected, given water and nutrients and space. We have to believe that this is achievable. As the little olive saplings we planted begin to take root in Palestine’s soil, I believe it is not only achievable, but inevitable. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish says, “without hope we are lost”.
This is what the olive tree campaign I travelled with is all about – it is keeping hope alive.
Katie O’Kelly is a playwright and actor, committed to creating politically relevant theatre. She participated in the Olive Tree Campaign, organised by the JointAdvocacy Initiative. Her play about Palestine will be on in The New Theatre, Temple Bar, from 2nd-7th May.