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Thursday, 19 February 2009

Report on Olive Planting Activity in Al Wallaja

by Roman Gawel, Bustan Qaraaqa volunteer

On Monday February 9th, Bustan Qaraaqa team members and volunteers joined a group of olive tree planters from the East Jerusalem YMCA’s Keep Hope Alive campaign to plant 200 trees on the land of a farmer (Na’el Khalil) in the village of Al Wallaja.

The Keep Hope Alive campaign is an initiative to plant olive trees for farmers who have had their land confiscated by the Israeli occupation in order to make way for the Wall or for Israeli settlements, and also to plant internationally sponsored trees on land that is threatened with confiscation (read more).

Al Wallaje is a village we have worked in quite a lot in recent months. It is located on the northwest side of Bethlehem city, and is unfortunate enough to be trapped between the Green Line (Palestine’s internationally recognized border with Israel) and the Wall. The villagers have already lost over 80% of their land, the whole village having been uprooted in 1948 and moved to the east of the Green Line, and then again in 1967 when the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem were moved. Initially they owned over 18 square kilometres of land, whereas now they have access to just two and a half square kilometres. As the village is bordered by two settlements (Gilo and Har Gilo) they are under constant threat of further land confiscation to make way for settlement expansion. In addition, many of the houses in the village have demolition orders pending on them, as the Israeli authorities have refused villagers permission to build homes.

Na’el himself faces possible demolition of his family’s home and his two greenhouses, where he grows vegetables which feed the family and provide them with much of their income.

On Monday, together with 39 international volunteers and the staff of the East Jerusalem YMCA, we planted around 200 Olive trees on the terraces of Na’el Khalil’s land facing out over the wadi and the land lost to the Israeli authorities. An enjoyable, though hot and humid day ensued as we laboured in the unseasonably hot weather. The JAI volunteers got to hear more stories of the impacts of the occupation and to see some of the local amazing flora. This year, the drought is even worse than last year’s record breaker. Na’el was trying new planting techniques to maximise the chances of the trees taking and Qaraaqa staff managed to help with building water catchments around the newly planted trees to enhance their chances of survival in the dry year.

After the tree planting was done, the JAI volunteers went off to a talk, so we went down into the wadi to investigate the stolen land. Despite the lack of rainfall, the olive groves were carpeted with wild-flowers. We managed to procure a large amount of seeds and cuttings of the local flora. It became painfully obvious that this land was far and away more productive than that which remained in the villagers’ charge. The area used to be oak, olive and carob woodland with a scrubby under-storey.

As we walked, we happened upon something upsetting: tree planting (probably done by the Jewish national fund) had occurred between the settlements and the village of Al Wallaja. They had chosen to plant pine trees. The areas with mature pines were covered in un-decayed needles, the biome barely able to process them. The soil biota had clearly been warped so the scrubby bushes vital for the survival of tortoises and gazelles were gone. Row upon row of sapling pine was planted along the length of the wadi in this beautiful and fertile spot. When these plants reach full maturity, it will turn the area into what will be effectively a forested desert for the local wildlife and cause huge erosion as the under-storey disappears.

These trees seem to have been planted with the political objective of denying villagers access to the land on which they stand. The choice of tree itself is worrying – is it ecological vandalism, with the aim of rendering the land useless for farming or is it ignorance? One thing is certain: the outcome of this type of tree-planting will be one of ecological destruction, and it is a matter of time before the land is rendered useless for anyone, Palestinian or Israeli, Arab or Jew.

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