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At-Home with Gila Svirsky
23 January 2000
Subject: The Politics of the Tree
Today was Tu BShvat, the New Year of the Trees in Judaism. Traditionally, this is the time when the great rains have passed in the Holy Land, and the trees are drinking in the water and thinking about blooming. Only the almond tree actually gets to work showing its flowers, and even this tree holds off on its display for another few weeks during a long and cold winter like this one.
But the holiday of Tu BShvat is also a political one. Can anything, even nature, be free of politics in the Middle East? On Tu BShvat, Israelis plant trees not only to connect with nature, but also because the tree is a symbol of life, of permanence, of ties with the land. One plants a tree where one lives, where one expects to live for many generations, where one is in possession of the land. This how the tree enters the zone of politics.
Yesterday, in honor of Tu BShvat, tens of thousands of Israeli children and their parents set out to the hills and valleys of Israel to plant trees and declare their connection to the land. Also yesterday, three busloads of Israelis and internationals set out from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to bring olive tree saplings to the Palestinians who live in the mountains south of Hebron, and plant them together. This was not only an act of fellowship and good will; it was primarily an act of protest.
The story began two months ago, when Israeli soldiers appeared with orders giving notice to the 300 Palestinians who live there that they have 24 hours before eviction from their homes. One day later, the soldiers returned and forcibly removed the people from the shacks and caves where they lived men, women, children, sheep, and chickens, turning them out into the desolate mountain region.
These people are so poor, so disconnected from the urban centers, so marginal to affairs of state, that it took weeks for the story to trickle into town. When it finally did, a query elicited a letter from the Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense which confirmed the story, explaining that the inhabitants were ordered to leave so that the area could be used by the IDF as a firing zone. That was the official explanation, as if this justified the deed. A press report suggested that this land was promised to the nearby Israeli settlement of Maon in exchange for the outpost they were forced to abandon also two months ago. Thus, 300 Palestinians were left without shelter in the dead of winter with their children, sheep and chickens, their other possessions either destroyed or left behind during the eviction. Some went to stay with families in villages nearby. Some have found other caves. Others have no solution.
And thus, on the Jewish New Year of the Trees, three busloads of us and 100 olive trees made our way to this region, an event organized by BTselem, the Israeli human rights organization. As we drove south away from Jerusalem, the land became more barren and inhospitable, with boulders and rocks studding the hills, making cultivation impossible or very difficult. Isolated Palestinian homes or tiny villages dotted the landscape, most of the homes lacking electricity, running water, or other basic amenities. Last night, the temperature there hovered just above freezing, with rain and strong winds. In some homes, the livestock share human space, bringing warmth into the otherwise shivering cold.
Perched high above the agrarian Palestinian homes are strategically placed Israeli settlements, bedroom communities tied to Israeli cities, the residents leading suburban lives that are heavily subsidized by a series of Israeli governments that encouraged their presence by tax-incentives, loan funds, and house-building grants. Needless to say, there are excellent access roads, a telephone in every home, electricity, hot and cold running water, a car per family, and a high cyclone fence, sometimes electrified, surrounding it all.
Our bus turned one of the mountain curves and met an army roadblock, set up to prevent our passage. We waited for an hour in the cold, gray drizzle as the BTselem organizer negotiated with the army commander until a compromise was reached: The human rights activists would be allowed to enter, but the saplings would not. The politics of the tree. So the olive trees remained behind in someones car.
At the entrance to the village, we parked the buses, which could not enter the narrow, winding village road. 150 of us disembarked and trekked along the gravelly road past the village well and toward the homes. The villagers lined the road to see this curiosity Israelis who enter a Palestinian area without guns or jeeps. They greeted us shyly and a few of us stopped to chat with a group of women and children. We tried to make friends with the little ones. One very young woman held a toddler, perhaps two years old, and I stretched out my arms toward her. The mother was first surprised, then trustingly extended her daughter to me, who studied me with great suspicion. Whats her name? I asked in my halting Arabic, and the mother said Navine, I think. (Levine? asked a puzzled voice behind me.)
The mother walked by my side as I carried her child, following the group to where we would be listening to speeches. But she tugged at my arm, pulling me towards the homes, and my friend Judy and I followed her into a poor, one-room structure that belonged to her family. Smoke filled the room as two fires inside made a failing attempt to keep out some of the cold. No door and a bare stone floor made that difficult. The only furniture were two cradles and several simple rugs piled into the corner. This was the home of these villagers, not of the refugees from the neighboring village, who now lived in tents or under the sky.
Samira was the young mothers name, and she introduced us to her own mother, who shook our hand solemnly. They opened one of the rugs for us to sit on and I kept Navine with me as we sat down, surprised by how willing she was to have a stranger hold her. Samira poured for us a tall glass of thick sheep milk, which we did our best to sip, but the taste was strange to our palates. Fortunately, the sweet tea came soon after, made from the water supply in a large bucket in the corner. Navine now climbed off me and watched as her mother removed her brother from the cradle and nursed him. She hugged and kissed him a few times, and then got in a poke when her mother was not looking.
Grandmother was now praying on a mat in the corner, and we waited until she was done to say our thank yous and leave. They were very warm, and by now we kissed each other on both cheeks as we left.
Outside, the speeches were moving, as Palestinians and Israelis spoke of their longing for an end to the injustice and a beginning of peace. For me they were the usual words, but I dont think they were ever spoken quite this way before in this village, and never by Israelis. As they ended, my friend Yehudit got bitten by a village dog who seems not to have understood the speeches.
Many Israelis were now invited to homes by the villagers, and they enjoyed their own milk and tea. Those who speak better Arabic than I learned that dairy is the primary form of subsistence, as the cheeses made from the sheep milk are sold in nearby markets. The remoteness from urban centers, the simplicity of the lifestyle, the distance from political affairs, make the expulsion of these 300 people so much more senseless and cruel.
And thus we parted, determined to rescind the unjust order. BTselem had brought some journalists with us, who promised it would be well-covered in the news, and it was, at least locally. A lawyer with us said he had already filed a case with the High Court, and needed public outcry to lend support to his petition, so the Committee Against Home Demolitions is planning a series of demonstrations this week. And a collection was taken up to buy tents for those who have no shelter.
Oh, and the olive trees. They will find their way to the villagers, who will plant them without us. Maybe next year we'll do it together?
Update for visitors of At-Home with Gila Svirsky:
Following a prolonged court case, the residents of these villages have been allowed to return to their homes.
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March 1996: Bombs, Revenge, and One Iota of Hope
2 Nov 1996: Hand in Hand in Hebron
4 Apr 1997: Children Still Alive and Abdallah
25 May 1998: So We Wont Die in Any More Wars
10 July 1998: Lena Doesnt Live Here Anymore
2 Aug 1998: Lenas New Home... Destroyed
3 Jan 1999: Rifle Grenade #400
9 July 1999: A Housewarming for Peace
23 Jan 2000: The Politics of the Tree
18 Oct 2000: On Violence by Israeli Arabs
10 Nov 2000: Peace Efforts in Israel
22 Nov 2000: We Refuse to Be Enemies
23 Nov 2000: Meeting of Women MKs for Peace
26 Nov 2000: Views of Faisal Husseini
28 Nov 2000: Lack of coverage for womens events
1 Dec 2000: Principles and Action
8 Dec 2000: Women in Black today
30 Dec 2000: On the Way to Crowning Jerusalem with Peace
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Letters from Jerusalem, 2002
Letters from Jerusalem, 2003
New & recent letters from Jerusalem (2004)
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