Of olive groves and pine trees — the story of Palestine

The conifers that now dominate the landscape are a symbolic stand-in for diaspora Jews around the world whom Israel claims as its own.
Published December 18, 2023

The hills of Palestine are covered in dusty scars where olive trees once grew. In their place, rows and rows of pine trees have been planted. The metaphor almost writes itself. While olive trees are indigenous to the land, take decades to mature, and produce vital food and oil, the pines grow fast, produce no fruit, and serve as non-native nostalgia for Europe, from where many of their planters fled.

The story of Israel and Palestine can be told through these trees. For the Palestinians, the uprooting of their saplings tells of their dispossession from their own land — the axes taken to their trunks tells of the thousands of torsos killed in the occupation, and the branches shorn of their olives by hands that did not plant them tells of their enduring misery at the hands of their occupier.

Meanwhile, the conifers that now dominate the landscape are a symbolic stand-in for diaspora Jews around the world whom Israel claims as its own. The evergreens aim to ease the anxiety of their relentless rootlessness, to finally build, for a people without a land, a connection with a land that is not theirs.

Uprooting and planting

The uprooting of olive groves came with the negation that they were even there in the first place. Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, wrote in 1898 of Palestine that “the land is poor and neglected … and the fields lie fallow”, and Israel’s first prime minister stated his intention to both protect the desert and make it bloom.

This task was given to the Jewish National Fund (JNF) — possibly the most powerful parks and recreation department in the world — which fundamentally reshaped the area’s entire landscape. It has taken over 90 per cent of the land and planted over 250 million trees since 1901, mostly pines but also the water-guzzling eucalyptus.

The JNF plants these in the name of diaspora Jews, whether they are celebrating births, bar mitzvahs or even Mother’s Day. Irus Braverman writes:

Shortly after my birth, my parents received a JNF certificate indicating that, together with the Jerusalem municipality, JNF had planted a tree in my name in Jerusalem’s Peace Forest …The front of my certificate shows a lonely, fragile tree, while in the background, yet also at the centre of the picture, a mass of green forest prevails. Tellingly, the inscription on the certificate reads, “A tree is planted in the name of the newborn in the Peace Forest in Jerusalem. We wish you the fortune of seeing it/her grow with much pleasure and ease.”

The tree is a stand-in for Jews who can assuage their guilt for not physically being in Israel. As a venture of ‘green colonialism’, they also fittingly hide the presence of demolished Palestinian villages.

Meanwhile, over 800,000 olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli authorities and settlers since 1967. For those that remain, Palestinians are often restricted with barbed wire from accessing their own orchards and their olives are either stolen, set on fire, or sprayed with soil-damaging pesticides.

For the Palestinians, the olive tree is central to their diet, economy, culture and art. Nearly half of their arable land is planted with olive trees, which support the livelihoods of more than 80,000 Palestinian families and contribute to 14 per cent of their economy.

More than that though, the olive tree also stands in for the evicted Palestinian. The trees are notoriously resilient and durable, able to withstand extreme cold and heat, living for thousands of years, with their roots burrowing deep into the soil for water.

Israelis also view the olive groves as Palestinians personified. Braverman reports a Chief Inspector from Israel’s Civil Administration stating that: Like children, their trees look so naive, as if they can’t harm anyone. But like [their] children, several years later, they turn into a ticking bomb.

In Palestinian poems, saplings are depicted as sprouting where Palestinian blood was shed, growing to be watching and patient spectators to their plight. Almost as if they stand bearing witness, collecting time, their branches raised to the listening heavens.

The law and the land

Every year, when the olives turn from green to black in autumn, Palestinians begin their harvest. Every year, they are met with seasonal violence. This year, the violence has been worse as those newly armed by the Israeli army shoot at and kill Palestinians while soldiers drag them off their land for picking their own olives.

As an occupying power, Israel has to ensure public order and safety and is the ’administrator and usufructuary of public buildings, real estate, forests, and agricultural estates’. While it can take natural resources if needed, it cannot pillage or confiscate private property (unless militarily required).

Most of the olive groves are privately owned, and Palestinians have the right to ‘freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources’, so they can only be taken by Israel if required to pay for the cost of the occupation and not to enrich Israel’s own economy.

Instead of paying the Palestinians compensation for uprooting their olive groves — something also ordered by the International Court of Justice — the Israelis demanded the Palestinians pay for their demolished homes and destroyed olive orchards. Israel does not require the olive economy to pay for the cost of occupation. Its citizens enjoy a GDP of around $55,000 per capita per year, while for those in the West Bank, it plummets to $4,458 per year, and in Gaza, it was a shocking $1,257 before the current conflict.

Israel circumvents the law of occupation by continuing to apply an ancient, Ottoman-era law to the West Bank. Article 78 of the Ottoman Land Code 1858 is a Lockean-provision, allowing anyone who has cultivated the land for 10 years without dispute to own it. Israel’s inverted interpretation of this law claims all uncultivated lands as ‘unowned’ and, therefore, state land. In doing so, they circumscribe the limitations on claiming private property under the law of occupation.

They also justify removing olive trees on the basis that they ‘invade’ state land. This is despite the fact that the Israeli High Court has upheld the right of Palestinian residents to access their lands and required the IDF to give security to farmers for olive cultivation. But the IDF, in ‘complying’ with this judgment, has put in place a bureaucratic structure so Kafkaesque that it remains difficult for Palestinians to cultivate their orchards.

Trees and faith

Certain trees have received protection during war throughout history. After the death of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the caliph Abu Bakr Siddique addressed a Muslim army and gave them instructions on 10 matters, one of which was to not cut fruit-bearing trees.

Similarly, in the Book of Deuteronomy, it was ordered that if a city was besieged, its trees were not to be destroyed “for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down.” The Holy Quran even uses olive oil “as a simile for the light of Allah Himself: ‘oil so luminous it seems to shine, though no fire has been touched to it. A light upon light.’”

It was among the gnarled olive trees in the garden of Gethsemane that Jesus prayed, knowing he was about to be betrayed and crucified. Where he cried out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, before eventually submitting himself to God’s care, “not my will, but yours, be done.” His anguish took place under the olive’s twisted trunks, the oldest of which may have been planted by the ancient Jews themselves.

A fragile, fertile resistance

In my village in northern Pakistan, the area is dominated by pine trees. We’ve planted an olive orchard there, a gift from the government to my uncle — a hundred sprouts of olive trees now nestling amongst the conifers.

My four-year-old nephew is as old as them and my dad is showing him the groves, saying next time he visits Pakistan, they’ll be bigger. “When I come next time they’ll be massive massive massive,” he says, throwing up his arms. “Well, maybe not that big,” my dad smiles in response.

Like all miracles, their growth is invisible but there, the boughs slowly reaching for the future. My parents tell me the pine trees were only planted a few decades ago as part of the last afforestation spree — that pines are a pioneer species, known for taking over, acting as if they were always there. Even in the young olive orchard, the ground is strewn with their needles and cones, laying claim to every inch.

In the town of Migdal Ha-Emek, the JNF tried to cover the ruins of a Palestinian village with pine trees, which were unable to adapt to the local soil and became diseased. Pappé writes that the original villagers later visited the town, where they saw that the broken trunks of the planted pines had split in two, and in between them, the shoots of olive trees had broken through.

Header image: Olive and pine trees overlook the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel. Photo via Shutterstock