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Aida Bandak: Stories of the olive tree and lost land

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 23.05.2006:

EVERYBODY WAS RUNNING AWAY FROM THE VALLEY LIKE HELL

3 November 2004

The following interview by Mirvet Giacaman is with a woman whose family owned land near Abu Ghneim, a hilltop on West Bank land located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. After the war in 1967, Israel annexed it to the Jerusalem municipality. In 1997 it was chosen for the establishment of a large Jewish settlement, in Hebrew called Har Homa or Mountain of the Wall. Thousands of acres were confiscated for this settlement as well as for its bypass road and the segregation barrier. Many Palestinian families from the Bethlehem area have been forbidden to use their land when it happened to be close to the settlement and the barrier.

Q. Can you tell who you are exactly?

A. I am Aida Bandak, married to Victor Baboun. I have four kids, one boy and three girls, the youngest 12 years and the oldest 20 years.

Q. What is the traditional way of harvesting the olive trees?

A. In the past they closed the schools for a couple of days and everyone was on holiday so that we could harvest the olives. Then all the family used to go to the land and put down blankets under the trees. In this way the olives would not hit the ground and would be kept clean and in good shape. During the picking we used to sing traditional olive picking songs but nowadays our children forget these songs because for the last four years we didn’t harvest the trees.

Q. What does the olive tree represent to you?

A. It represents peace and steadfastness, the unity of the family, and it has also religious and historical meanings. The olive is a blessed tree, it gives olives and oil. From olives we can, for instance, make soap, and from the olive branches we can make the handicrafted wooden sculptures that are used for gifts.

Q. After picking the olives, what do you do?

A. Everyone kneels to start collecting the olives on the blankets and to put them in the basket. This tree evokes memories. It let us think of our ancestors who cultivated the land and planted the trees for us so that we could benefit from it later on. They planted and we are harvesting. After collecting the olives, we used to have a rest with a cup of black coffee so as to get energy for the next tree.

Q. Tell us about your land.

A. It is in the Shami’a Valley and you can see Abu Ghneim.

Q. What’s the size of your land?

A. We have 22 dunams [1 dunam is 1000 square meters], two of them confiscated for the barrier while the remainder is out of bounds. We can’t cultivate that land or build upon it. In the past we used to harvest the olives. We left a part for oil and salads, and the rest we kept. But now we barely can buy oil because of the bad economic situation. I am frustrated. I wish the past days come back. We were harvesting the olives with all the family together, young and old. We made food for everyone: the peasant dish, rice with lentils. Now my land has gone. I have no trees or olives. The Israelis confiscated the land and now we can’t go and harvest the olives. We don’t know what to do. We can’t get our olives. And now we are buying instead of selling the oil. Now the Israelis are asking that if we want to harvest the olives this year we should give them the original ownership papers. They want to give us a receipt but we are afraid of giving them the original papers because we may never get them back.

Q. Did you try to do something about this?

A. We spoke with different authorities, sending letters. We asked the municipality to help us with different institutions and parties. But nothing succeeded. Now the last statement of the Israeli army says that we can’t even build on the land because we have to stay some hundreds of meters away from the barrier. In the future we can’t do anything with the land. Now the municipality is asking us to come and hand over the original papers to the Israelis so that they will issue permits for all the people who own confiscated or inaccessible lands. But of course everybody knows that they will take the original paper and will give us nothing later on. So we are sacrificed. In the end the Israelis will confiscate the land.

Q. What is your feeling when you see your land and you are not able to harvest it?

A. It is a very depressive feeling, because from the time of our ancestors it was used as a source of income. Everyone is thinking about one’s children here. We want to build businesses and houses for them. We see the future destroyed. After being owners of land, we now become beggars of land. This is our land but we can’t reach it from here because they put a barrier. We can reach it from another side, far away, but for what purpose? If you reach it, the soldiers start shooting.

Next to our land is another piece that belongs to an uncle of my husband. His name is Jamil Baboun. Also they couldn’t reach it for the last four years. But they find themselves in an even worse situation because all their land has been confiscated and they can’t reach it at all.

Q. You told me that you keep on coming here to see if you can harvest the olives. What happens?

A. The Israeli jeeps are patrolling all the time. If they see anybody near the barrier they start shooting directly. If we go there they’ll start shooting at us, with teargas or live bullets. They are doing this because they want to take the land. Once they started shooting lots of teargas and life bullets and everybody was running away from the valley like hell.

My wish after this interview is that my message reaches everybody, that there will be a future for this land and that we can come back to the land to harvest the olive trees, so at least to get oil for our home use, and to build on the land and to have the freedom of using it like we used to do, in peace. I hope that if we will not get it back ourselves, it will be returned to our children.

The interview is adapted from the film:

Blessed Are the Olives: Palestinian Women Living Under Siege

A film by the Women’s Group of the Arab Educational Institute

Produced for the Pax Christi Netherlands/Middle East program

Filmmaker: Ramzi Hodali. Adviser: Toine van Teeffelen

Bethlehem, 2004

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