Thursday, March 31, 2011

How many lives is a jar of olives worth?

Strange question you might think but it did occur to me to wonder as I listened to Mark Thomas tonight at ARC.  Mark is a comedian with a political conscience and unlikely to be enjoyed by someone of extreme right wing views.  Last year he set out to walk the length of the Separation Barrier between Israel and Palestine, to meet people, try to understand them, and come back to tell us about it in a sometimes amusing sometimes serious way.
The Set, ARC, waiting for Mark to appear
Except that, as he was quick to point out, the Separation Barrier doesn't actuall go between Israel and Palestine but is built and being extended entirely on Palestinian land and it snakes round settlements, often significant distances inside Palestine.  The end result is something which is roughly twice as long as the boundary between the two states.
Also in places it has holes in it so it doesn't actually separate.  And there are ways to get across it without going through the checkpoints, such as in the basket of a crane on a building site or hidden in a rubbish waggon.  So it doesn't stop determined terrorists, who would just go by sea if they couldn't do it any other way unfortunately.
As in most conflict zones there are thousands of people for whom the only way to survive is to try to eke out a living locally.  In Palestine that usually means Olive trees.  These are amazing trees which grow so slowly and live so long that most of the ones bearing fruit were there long before the current human residents were even thought of, before some of their parents were thought of.  And those bent, twisty trees produce a precious fruit that can make all the difference to a family.  Zaytoun is a cooperative which brings together small farmers to give them a stronger voice in the market place, helps them to produce goods which are wanted outside Palestine and for which people will pay a price commensurate with the quality.  Now Fairtrade accredited as well, they sell not just olives but beautiful olive oil as well as sun dried tomatoes in olive oil.  Now they're branching out into other products to reduce their dependence on olives - almonds, dates, couscous and herbs.  All helping to make the difference, helping to put food on their plates and a smile on their faces.
But the harvest isn't achieved without pain.  We heard from Mark, who witnessed it at first hand, about the demonstrations that take place every Friday in an effort to get an Israeli court order implemented to remove the barrier round one settlement; about the tunnel under the road which is used by children to get from home to school - a good idea you might think until you find out that in wet weather the sewer overflows and its contents run through that same tunnel, but "it's OK" because the architect designed in a step at the side for the children to walk on so they didn't have to walk in the sewage!  We heard about the children who come down the hill to school between two Israeli settlements where the settlers come out and throw stones at the children as they pass, unless the army sends an armoured car to protect them, which it does some days and not others.
Hence my thoughts about blood and olive trees.  By buying the produce from Zaytoun we can help a little - we can support some farmers to be able to eke out a living in the midst of conflict.  And by talking about it we can raise awareness that not all Palestinians are terrorists, just as not all Israelis are Zionists.  Sadly there are enough on both sides of that barrier to make it very difficult indeed to imagine a political solution being achieved.  And all the while children grow up thinking it's right to throw stones at other children, thinking that everyone on the other side of a huge barrier is evil.
We need every statesman and woman to put every effort they can into finding a way to dismantle hundreds of years of antagonism.  But every great leap starts with a little step.  Perhaps buying a jar of Palestinian olives could be that first step.

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