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Reflections on Palestine: Symbols of Homeland

Acting in Faith  |  By Pedro Rios, Nov 24, 2015
Olives on an olive tree near Jerusalem.

Olives on an olive tree near Jerusalem.

Photo: AFSC / Perdo Rios / AFSC

In September 2015, I joined colleagues from around the country on a delegation to the occupied Palestinian territories to meet with farmers, business people, politicians, and activists, in order to learn about how Israeli occupation impacts daily life for Palestinians living in the occupied territories.  Our delegation visited the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Jerusalem.  This is second in a series of articles on my reflections of my visit to Palestine.- Pedro

As I travelled throughout the occupied Palestinian territories, it was evident to me that life under Israeli occupation means that Palestinians must live under a constant state of siege.  Israeli military and police forces use violence to enforce apartheid-style policies to control every aspect of Palestinian life.  I heard numerous stories about how the Israeli government flagrantly violates international human rights conventions and agreements, and witnessed examples of how Palestinians live with unreasonable restrictions that are meant to humiliate and demean an entire people.  In spite of this, there were natural resources that have become symbols in Palestinian life that call for a dignified homeland.  These symbols - water, olive trees, and cactus plants – all are palpable objects that transcend the callousness of occupation because they represent long-lasting survival in spite of what appears to be a permanent occupation.  I offer brief reflections on each below.  I believe they each merit a more just and thorough contemplation for what they’ve come to mean to Palestinians.

Water, life

From my forehead bursts the sword of light / And from my hand springs the water of the river / All the hearts of the people are my identity / So take away my passport! Mahmoud Darwish, “Passport”

Water, as much as love, is essential to human life.  Those of us on the West Coast are acclimating ourselves to this reality. The catastrophic drought has revealed to us a desert landscape hidden under manicured lawns.  And so we respond with changes, collecting the elusive rainwater, fixing incessant drips, becoming more conscientious of our water usage.

It’s different throughout the occupied Palestinian territories though.  Palestinians also collect rainwater in black receptacles that sit on top of rooftops. The receptacles are a back-up system for when water-shutoffs take place, which could be for days or even weeks.  For Israeli settlements that are unlawful under international law, water is accessible on a year-round basis without restrictions. Often when Palestinians attempt creative ways to capture rainwater, such as with a cistern, Israeli forces demolish the cistern claiming its illegal because it lacks permits from the Israeli government.

Black water tanks on top of Palestinian homes.  These collect rainwater and serve as a back-up system for when the Israeli government shuts-off water service.

The World Health Organization recommends 100 liters of water per person per day. Israeli West Bank settlers average 183 liters of water per day compared, for instance, to 38 liters per day for Palestinians in the Jenin area of the West Bank.  Construction of the separation wall has further divided Palestinians from water sources and their ancestral lands, systematically cutting off important lifelines.

In Gaza our delegation stayed in a hotel with a view of the Mediterranean Sea.  Before daybreak I saw fishing boats returning from the night’s fishing tours.  The beautiful glistening sea from the port lights disavows the harsh constraints by which Palestinian fishermen must abide. Israel imposes conditions that affect the fishing industry and frequently fires at fishing boats that violate imposed limits.  The 1993 Oslo accords provided access to 20 nautical miles, but it’s common for Israel to enforce impossible fishing restrictions, limiting access to as low as 6 or even 3 nautical miles, hardly a reasonable distance to get a meaningful catch.  This affects the livelihoods of all who depend on the fishing industry for food.

If water can be described in metaphorical terms, for the Israeli government it is another tool in the war arsenal, a natural resource to manipulate for control.  For Palestinians, it is a lifeline to depend upon, for sanctuary, survival, and existence.

A fishing boat in Gaza during daybreak.  Fishing in these waters can be a life or death situation.

The steadfast olive trees

“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would have become tears …” Mahmoud Darwish

Just as water is an indispensable part of Palestinian life, so is the olive tree.  Associated with peace in sacred texts, the olive tree is characteristic of Palestinian heritage, economic stability, and ancestral lineage.  Everywhere our delegation went, it was evident that olives and olive oil were of significant importance to the Mediterranean cuisine. An olive tree can last thousands of years.  Olive wood is beautifully textured; it is durable, and used for furniture and other household items.

But the olive tree also represents an unwavering endurance when placed into the current context of military occupation. I wonder if this association with Palestinian culture and agricultural communities makes it a target for Israeli military violence.  Israeli forces have willfully uprooted, burned, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of olive trees since the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel occupied greater portions of the West Bank and other Palestinian lands. “Our olive is resistance” became the campaign call for the Union of Agricultural Workers Committee, a non-profit that supports agricultural farmers in the West Bank against Israeli settler violence.

The separation wall in al-Walaja, where olive tree groves become inaccessible to Palestinian farmers.

In the Palestinian village of al-Walaja located in the West Bank, the oldest olive tree is estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old.  Known as Al-Badawi, the Old One, it is in constant danger of being harmed because of the construction of the separation wall, which began in 2007.  Hundreds of olive trees have been uprooted to accommodate the expanding Gilo Israeli settlement and a bypass road that Palestinians are forbidden from using in the areas that surround al-Walaja.

While in al-Walaja our delegation met with Shireen al-Araj, a passionate community leader who has been fighting for the survival of her village, despite insurmountable challenges.  She spoke of how the separation wall has kept al-Walaja residents from harvesting the olives from their groves because suddenly they are located on the opposite side of the wall.  The people from al-Walaja have been removed from their lands twice since 1948, and their current struggle involves keeping their shrinking territory from being targeted for an Israeli national park. “Steadfast,” samidin, is how she describes the will of the farmers and shepherds that call al-Walaja home, and it reminds me of how much alike the Palestinian will for survival is as age-old as the olive trees themselves.

Shireen al-Araj from the West Bank village of al-Walaja explains how the Israeli settlement Gilo encroaches onto Palestinian land.

Patience, the enduring cactus plants

The prickly pear that borders the ways into the villages was a faithful guardian of signs. When we were children, just a few moments ago, these plants showed us where the paths were…. — Mahmoud Darwish, “Prickly pear”

“Sabr,” or patience, is the name of the cactus plant used as a natural barrier to demarcate land and protect livestock that I saw throughout the occupied territories. I know this plant as nopal, the same one emblazoned on the Mexican flag. It is a symbol of Mexican identity and culture, and from a delicious nopalitos salad to a popular insult to those who deny their Mexican identity, “tienes un nopal en la frente,” it is quintessentially Mexican.  So I was pleasantly surprised to see the cacti and its prickly pears throughout the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip.

Unlike the olive tree, the cactus plant is not indigenous to the land, but it has naturalized over time to the arid climate and the desert landscape and can be found throughout the Middle East.  According to one source, 15th Century European colonialists took the cactus plant to the Old World on their ships to fight off scurvy.

A poster of Jawaher Abu Rahmah on a cactus plant.  Jawaher died from tear gas inhalation after one of the Friday protests on December 31, 2010.

One of our guides explained that its meaning, patience, reflects Palestinians’ resiliency in resisting Israeli occupation, because just like Palestinians, the plant persists and regrows despite being razed by Israeli forces to make way for unlawful Israeli settlements.

I saw the cactus plant along the roads in the village of Bil’in located in the West Bank near Ramallah.  Every Friday, since 2005, the people of Bil’in stage a non-violent protest against the building of the separation wall that keeps villagers from their agricultural lands.  The Israeli Defense Forces respond by shooting rubber-coated bullets and copious amounts of tear gas.  Sometimes they fire live ammunition.

While in Bil’in, I met with Iyad Burnat, a community leader of the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall.  He was recovering from broken ribs and bruises all over his body.  Two weeks prior he had been severely beaten by Israeli military forces, held in detention for hours without medical care, and eventually left at the side of the road.  He believed he was targeted because he had international visits scheduled the following week. 

My colleague Patrick by a collection of expended grenade canisters that have been used against Palestinians during weekly protests in Bil’in, West Bank.

“These always generate more interest on our plight as Palestinians, and a hope that the occupation will eventually end,” he told me.  I asked Iyad if this latest incident discouraged him to continue.  Iyad told me that the future of his children depended on his willingness to continue to fight for his land.  He could not join the weekly protests while he recovered, but he assured me he would march as soon as he was physically able to.

With all of their ascribed qualities that water, the olive tree, and the cactus plant take on, the natural resources have become symbols for survival and inspire hope, as much as those who live in the West Bank and in Gaza do, and as much as Shireen al-Araj and Iyad Burnat do, that one day Palestinians will be able to live with dignity in a liberated homeland.  They represent the possibility that the cruel military occupation that defines Palestinian life will undoubtedly end.

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Burning the olive trees: The haze of fear in Jerusalem

About the Author

Pedro Rios serves as director of the AFSC’s U.S./Mexico Border Program and has been on staff with AFSC for 13 years. He is also chairperson for the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, a coalition of over 33 different organizations in San Diego working to support the rights of immigrants.

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