As the sun beat down on a hillside in the southern most reaches of the holy land, a man rides triumphantly along the main street of town upon a donkey, surrounded by friends and family. But this isn't a Palm Sunday story from 2,000 years ago. It's from late last year, and instead of palm fronds this cheerful and determined group of Palestinians hold olive seedlings. They're headed off to plant a tree on their agricultural land - a brave act of resistance in a context where Israeli settlements litter the once-bare countryside and the military restrict the movement of civilians.
Followed closely behind by a group of supportive internationals and Israeli activists, the residents of the proud Palestinian town of At Tuwani begin their march to the outskirts of town holding banners, gardening equipment and flags. At the chosen spot halfway up a hill some begin to dig a suitable hole for a new seedling while a couple of women fix a banner to a fence. The banner says 'Women for freedom of movement' and billows freely in the wind.
I was in the holy land to monitor human rights and provide protective presence to those who are nonviolently resisting the occupation. I asked one of the Israeli activists what sort of difficulties they face when they participate in such actions. He told me that their car will often be stopped on the road as they travel from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and the Israeli soldiers will look for any possible reason to detain them. They have been arrested and questioned multiple times during land actions. Palestinians pay an even higher price for engagement in activism, and are subject to military courts rather than civilian. The cost of nonviolent activism for all is high in a context like this.
Glancing behind this group, I notice a few Israeli settlers beginning to gather by a small shed about twenty metres away. These settlers live in an outpost a short way up the hill near to the Jewish settlement called Ma'on. Both the Ma'on settlement and the nearby outpost encroach upon the agricultural land that belongs to the residents of At Tuwani. Settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under international law. Outposts are too. These settlers, who presumably believe they are entitled to be where they are, seemed unsettled by the presence of a cheerful and harmless group of predominantly women and children standing up for their rights. After a few attempts to harass our group and prevent them in their path, they called in the Israeli army for backup.
Within minutes we were surrounded by six army jeeps, a police car and a civil administration vehicle. When the army first arrived, it wasn't clear what they would do. Some of the Palestinian women stood up on rocks and spoke eloquently about their rights. Others plant more trees, defiantly daring the army to stop them. A group of men light a small campfire, and begin to brew their tea. Eventually, the army received orders from post, and declared the area a closed military zone. Some of the soldiers were young men and women, aged still in their teens, who seemed hesitant and afraid. They briefly detained one Israeli activist and ushered the rest of us back to At Tuwani.
Just moments later, a group of about 30 settlers entered the Palestinian village of At Tuwani singing and trespassing in various homes. In a very relaxed way, and only because so many internationals were there, the army encouraged the settlers to leave. None of them was detained or arrested as far as we know. This is how justice unfolds in the holy land.
While olive branches have come to be understood as an international symbol of peace and conciliation, they also represent the homelands and livelihoods that are under threat while settlements continue to expand onto Palestinian land. Planting more olive trees, and doing so on land that has been stolen, is an act of strength, resistance and summud (steadfast perseverance) not dissimilar to Jesus' triumphant march into Jerusalem. This Palm Sunday my thoughts will be with Palestinians who continue to be engaged in the struggle for their rights.
Between November 2016 and February 2017 Australian Aletia Dundas served as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a project of the World Council of Churches. She and her team monitored human rights abuses and provided protective accompaniment to people who work nonviolently to end the occupation.
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