I had just finished off a plate of homemade bread knaffe yesterday with a family in the south of Gaza, when we got the call: farmers in Beit Hanoun, a village in the north of the Gaza Strip, requested that ISM volunteers accompany them to pick olives near the buffer zone.
The buffer zone. I had heard of this area back in the fall of 2002 when I had come to the West Bank for the ISM’s first olive harvest campaign. Back then, Israeli two-ton Caterpillar bulldozers were crushing homes, orchards and all other life forms to create this dead zone between Gaza and Egypt. Israel displaced more than 10% of the population of Rafah, Gaza’s sourthernmost town, at that time, making Palestinian refugees from 1948 refugees yet again.
Today, this unilaterally-imposed 300 meter buffer zone extends all around the sliver of land that is the Gaza strip, to the north, east, and south, an effective kill zone for all who dare enter it. (To the west is the sea, also patrolled by the Israeli navy).
Nonetheless, I was excited about the idea of going out with the farmers. I love picking olives! I love being out on the land, feeling the hard purple and green fruit pop off the branches and onto a tarp spread on dirt below. And besides, we weren’t going inside the buffer zone – those trees were long gone – just in some area nearby.
L, the woman who had baked the delicious knaffe snack, and J, her husband, had also lost the majority of their farmland to the dead zone. J had just finished telling me about it, and L was quizzing me about my love life.
“Do you have any children?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Why not? Children are wonderful. I have five.”
I provide the response that seemed easiest at the moment. “Well I just got married a few months ago.”
“You should be on your honeymoon!” she exclaimed. “Where is your husband? Your husband should be here!”
Alas, I’m not sure if she really believed I was married, and I promised that next week I would bring photographs of my wedding.
The next day, Saturday, our group head to Beit Hanoun to pick olives.
“Be prepared to get shot,” said Saber, the founder of the Local Initiative of Beit Hanoun, an organization which works with farmers in the buffer zone to resist the Israeli occupation through nonviolence. “The Israeli army, they don’t distinguish between foreigners or Palestinians,” he added, pointing to the fluorescent yellow vests and megaphone we had brought along.
Then why are we here, I wondered. Surely not for our physical prowess in picking olives. But I understood that he was making sure were fully appraised of the situation. The task may seem mundane, but here there is always a risk.
We drove out to the edge of Beit Hanoun, where the trees suddenly stopped and nothing but barren land lay between us and the border. It was a sunny day in Gaza, and if you squinted your eyes and looked really carefully, in the distance, army towers could be seen, and beyond them, the town of Sderot in Israel. Surely, there could be no danger from the Israelis back here, I thought, we are much farther back than the designated 300 meters.
Turns out I was right and I was wrong.
Mohamed Ashure Shimbari and his family had already begun picking olives by the time we arrived, on a small plot of land next to a cement block house. Every time the Israelis invaded Gaza, they locked the family in a room, and used their house as a base. And though we were indeed, 800 meters from the border, the area was far from safe.
We began picking olives, and the elderly farmer who owned the land seemed exhausted, not from picking olives, but from living life in Gaza. J too, though in his mi-50s and younger, had had that look as well. After his family had lost everything in 1948 and fled to Gaza, J had managed to by farmland after working in Israel for over twenty years, as an electrician, a restaurant worker — “everything” — only to see it taken yet again.
In this area of Beit Hanoun where we were picking what was now the barren buffer zone, ten years ago been filled with orchards of lemon, orange, grapefruit and olive trees. There were also greenhouses of tomato, eggplant and cantaloupe. Saber pointed all around, explaining what was where and how there was no clean water. I couldn’t imagine it. It was like pointing to the Sahara desert and saying, “ imagine these sand dunes are jungle.”
We picked for a couple of hours, occasionally breaking for tea, when someone called out “jeepat.” Jeeps. Israeli army jeeps were patrolling the border. Then came a tank. A few people stopped picking, to peer at the tank.
“What’s it doing?” I asked.
“Showing they are strong,” one of the young Beit Hanoun volunteers answered.
The army was relatively far away, but apparently, one never knows if the Israeli army will shoot at you. Since Operation Cast lead in 2009, the U.N. estimates that Israeli tank and gunfire killed five Palestinian civilians, three of whom were children and injured twenty in areas near the buffer zone.
After we stripped the trees of their olives, we dumped them into large, 40 kilo bags and then head back into town. The day passed without incident, as it should have, but it was no honeymoon.