`Make Olive Oil, Not War

World

Make Olive Oil, Not War

Dec. 17, 2012
By Omeros Demetriou

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Watch­ing the destruc­tion of olive groves in the West Bank (Getty)

The olive branch is uni­ver­sally rec­og­nized as a sym­bol of peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Although noto­ri­ously linked with Noah’s dove in the Old Tes­ta­ment, its metaphor­i­cal roots actu­ally date back to the ancient Romans in the 2nd and 3rd cen­turies BC who planted vast fields of olive trees as a peace offer­ing to con­quered lands. In mod­ern times, how­ever, it is the oil pro­duced by this sacred tree which has taken the cen­ter stage for regions around the world which con­tinue to expe­ri­ence inter-com­mu­nal strife.


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A mock doc­u­men­tary imag­ined the suc­cess of olive oil pro­duc­ers on Cyprus in 2030 if the reuni­fi­ca­tion of the island’s Greek and Turk­ish sides were real­ized.
 

The Mediter­ranean island of Cyprus is one such exam­ple. In 2011 the Inter­de­pen­dence Project, a part­ner­ship between the island’s Cham­bers of Com­merce, com­mis­sioned a video enti­tled, Cyprus: The Nine O’clock News in the Year 2030’. The mock­u­men­tary, whose news items reveal a sequence of events that might result from the island’s reuni­fi­ca­tion, high­lights olive oil as an exam­ple of bicom­mu­nal col­lab­o­ra­tion. The joint ven­ture known as Friend­ship Olive Oil’ aims to show how the spirit of entre­pre­neur­ship can over­come the divi­sion between the island’s com­mu­ni­ties, fol­low­ing the 1974 Turk­ish inva­sion and a polit­i­cal stale­mate which has per­sisted for over 38 years.

In Pales­tine, where olive oil has been cen­tral to dis­putes in the Israeli-occu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, its idyl­lic con­no­ta­tions are less clear. In addi­tion to its cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance, the olive oil indus­try is of para­mount impor­tance to the Pales­tin­ian econ­omy. It con­sti­tutes 14 per­cent of agri­cul­tural income and sup­ports the liveli­hoods of approx­i­mately 80,000 fam­i­lies. Despite this, a series of obsta­cles face olive oil pro­duc­ers in what the lib­eral Israeli press have labeled the Olive Wars. These include con­trolled water resources, the con­struc­tion of a secu­rity bar­rier that cuts off farm­ers from their olive groves, and a strin­gent per­mit sys­tem that inhibits thou­sands of peo­ple from access­ing their land for most of the har­vest sea­son. In defense of these restric­tions and the dead­lines imposed on this year’s har­vest, the Israeli author­i­ties argue that they are try­ing to pro­tect farm­ers from the ris­ing set­tler vio­lence and van­dal­ism. How­ever, for fam­i­lies whose liveli­hoods depend on the har­vest, pick­ing the olives before they are ripe can seri­ously reduce the oil’s qual­ity and thus the price pro­duc­ers can get for it.

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Another debate sur­round­ing olive oil’s sacred sta­tus in Pales­tine con­cerns Peace Oil’, an ini­tia­tive of reg­is­tered UK char­ity the Char­i­ties Advi­sory Trust. Peace Oil’s web­site declares that the oil is pro­duced in Israel by Jews and Arabs work­ing together, and by help­ing to mar­ket their pro­duce it hopes to bring finan­cial assis­tance to these enter­prises, thereby encour­ag­ing oth­ers. Despite its laud­able inten­tions, Peace Oil has come under fire from those who claim it is under­min­ing fairly traded oil pro­duced in the occu­pied West Bank, where eco­nomic assis­tance is most needed. Zay­toun, a coop­er­a­tive estab­lished in 2004 to ease access to west­ern mar­kets for Pales­tin­ian farm­ers, has accused Peace Oil of mis­lead­ing the public’s good­will and cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the notion of peace between the two com­mu­ni­ties. Sev­eral inter­na­tional NGO’s and reli­gious organ­i­sa­tions have writ­ten to church and char­ity groups urg­ing them to pro­mote Pales­tin­ian olive oil rather than Peace Oil.


Photo: Gary Fields

Buried in the Pales­tin­ian cause are saplings of hope prop­a­gated by a grow­ing move­ment of green-fin­gered activists, known as the guerilla gar­den­ers. They arrive from across the globe and from all walks of life to sup­port farm­ers in achiev­ing their rights to har­vest and to pro­tect them from the occu­pa­tion. An ini­tia­tive which began in 2001, the Olive Tree Cam­paign (OTC) seeks to plant and replant spon­sored olive trees in areas that have been uprooted and destroyed by the Israelis in the occu­pied West Bank and Gaza Strip. This year the OTC planted 8,800 olive trees for more than 131 Pales­tin­ian fam­i­lies, bring­ing the total since the pro­gram began to 78,164. By bring­ing together spon­sors and indi­vid­u­als from around the world, the cam­paign aspires to empower Pales­tin­ian farm­ers to deal with the sys­tem­atic destruc­tion of olive trees in a cre­ative and per­sis­tent way, and to guar­an­tee that this sacred liq­uid pre­serves its sym­bol­ism in this peace-thirsty region of the world.

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