A few days ago, Ismael—the farmer I met a few weeks ago who has been denied access to his olive trees because they are on land claimed (though not yet inhabited) by Ariel settlers—finally obtained permission to finish harvesting before his crop is ruined by the rainy season. Ismael asked us to help his family pick olives today, both as protection from possible attacks from settlers or the army and as labor desperately needed to make up for lost time.
The soldier guarding Ariel was not happy to see us when my IWPS colleagues and I arrived. He told us flatly that we could not enter. We explained that we did not want to go to the settlement itself, only to pick olives with a farmer and his family on their land around the settlement. The soldier remained firm. We insisted that he call his superior, which he did. While we were waiting, my colleague Karin—who speaks and reads a little Hebrew—read out loud the first words on a big sign in front of us. She sounded them out slowly and then asked, “What does ‘Bruchim habaim’ mean?” The soldier spoke under his breath; “It means ‘Welcome.’” Karin laughed; “I guess this sign was not made for us or Ismael.”
Having received orders to let us in, the soldier reluctantly stepped aside and we entered Ariel, where we found Ismael, his sisters, wife, and mother harvesting their trees. It had rained the week before, so many olives had to be dug out from the mud on the ground. We picked for hours, fueled by flatbread with oil and spices. Around midday, we had visitors: an army jeep came speeding down the road and two soldiers stuck their heads out the window to scream something in Hebrew, rather threateningly. We were caught off guard; I almost fell out of the tree I was picking olives in. Ismael motioned to us to move to where we were visible but to let him do the talking.
When the soldiers saw me and the other internationals, their tones softened. One soldier asked us how we were doing. The soldiers wanted Ismael to get off the land and go home, but after learning from Ismael where we were from, the soldiers themselves decided to leave. My colleagues and I offered to complain about the harassment, but Ismael insisted that he preferred just to finish the work and avoid any more confrontations. He was not out to get apologies or compensation for his troubles; he just wanted to finish the harvest and go home.
Apart from the brief clash, the atmosphere was pleasant. Ismael sang and his wife and sister made fun of his terrible voice. Then, the women sang and I was reminded how many more tones traditional Arabic music uses compared to Western music. It’s more melodic than harmonic, which is why at first it often sounds “out of tune” to Western ears. One woman stopped her singing to ask my age. I said I was 24. She told me she had a son my age and that she would like me to marry him. I smiled and told her I had come to Palestine to work for peace, not to get married.
Another woman asked my religion and I answered that I was of Jewish origin. The mother who had asked me to marry her son looked over from her picking. The woman I had just answered looked surprised. The two began to talk excitedly. Ismael and his mother came over to join the conversation. I wished more than ever that I understood Arabic.
When the conversation stopped, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and one woman cupped my face in her hands and, looking into my eyes, said something utterly incomprehensible to me but no doubt very sweet. Another woman gave me a big hug, squeezing my hand as she walked away. Ismael’s mother looked at me through the tree branches and nodded, “Welcome.” Finally, the mother of the 24-year-old came to me and kissed both my cheeks before asking, “So will you marry my son?”
We were interrupted by a tour bus that had stopped on the road 30 ft from where Ismael stood. What were people doing touring a settlement? The passengers—perhaps Jewish Americans or Israelis interested in moving to Ariel—sat mesmerized by the sight of Ismael and his family picking olives. They moved closer to the windows and then, one by one, took out their cameras to take pictures. Ismael and his family stood bewildered. Ismael waved his arms for the bus to drive away but the passengers only took more pictures. I was nauseated. Ismael’s wife looked at me hopelessly. Ismael’s sister looked angry and humiliated and kept her head down as she continued to work.
The whole scene filled me with anger. For one thing, photographing without permission is something of a taboo in the Islamic tradition. But it was watching the passengers gawk at Ismael and his family as if they were animals in a zoo that angered me most. I could only assume they were surprised to see Palestinians at work on their land instead of crouched in dark caves building bombs.
The tour bus eventually left and by the end of the day the harvest was finished. Ismael had been turned away from his land for two months, but at last his trees were bare. The family rejoiced, put their olives and their eight-year-old son on the back of a donkey cart, and headed for home. My colleagues and I walked together with Ismael’s wife and sisters through the Ariel gate towards Kifl Haris. On our way we passed an Israeli bus stop on the road where a young man was waiting with an M16 slung around his shoulder. He was a civilian, no more than a teenager. Suddenly, one of Ismael’s sisters began to have a panic attack. She started breathing heavily and tears came to her eyes. We sat her down to rest and she tried to calm herself. When her breathing returned to normal, we walked as quickly as possible across Ariel’s settler road back to the village.
I don’t know why the woman panicked. I didn’t want to ask. She seemed embarrassed about her emotions, and yet the more I consider the situation, the more reasonable I find her reaction. There is nothing normal about sixteen-year-olds carrying semiautomatic weapons on their way to town. There is nothing sane about breezing through security if you have a yellow license plate, but getting the third degree if you have a donkey cart. It is not for those like Ismael’s sister, who get upset, that I fear most; at least they still recognize the fundamental injustice of the situation. I’m most worried about those who have adapted themselves to the Occupation so much that they aren’t angry anymore, or even worse, those who simply accept life under the Occupation because they have never known anything else.