Israel uprooted at least 800,000 olive trees since 1967 in the West Bank.
For decades, the olive tree has been the main subject among Palestinian poets, who write of their love for their homeland in the backdrop of Israel’s brutal occupation.
In one of his many famous poems, renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish glorified the olive tree as he personified it in one of his many verses, portraying it as a lady that “does not cry or laugh” and one of “the modest slopes with her shadow covering its stem, and does not take off its leaves in front of a storm.”
For the past 75 years, olive trees in Palestine have stood tall as key witnesses to all the horrors perpetuated by Israeli, while feeding the land and its people with all it has to offer—most important of which is olive oil.
While generations of Palestinians have grown up far from from their motherland due to the mass dispossession caused by Zionist militias in 1948, olive oil has remained a staple in every Palestinian household regardless of location, serving as a wealth passed from one generation to the other and an ever present reminder of home.
Rana Al Khatib, a 32-year-old Palestinian residing in Qatar, is among those who grew up far from home and yet inherited the stories of her grandparents who were forcibly dispossessed by Israel.
Al Khatib’s grandparents in 1948 were amid the hundreds of thousands who were forced to walk out of Palestine on foot to neighbouring countries.
“It’s [olive oil] holy and I believe in energy and every step in the process makes a difference in what we’re actually consuming and this oil is not only coming from a holy land, but the most beautiful land,” Al Khatib told Doha News.
Joudie Kalla, 45-year-old Palestinian and renowned chef from Safad and Al-Lydd residing in the United Kingdom, was born to refugee parents in Syria.
After living in Qatar and moving further from the Middle East to London at the age of four, she still finds a way to buy Palestinian olive oil from a company named Zaytoun that benefits farmers back in her homeland.
“It is not only about the oil, but the symbolism of it as well. It is about our roots and the depth and how meaningful it is to us as a people. Olive oil is more than something we drizzle on food, it is a source of history for us that connects us back to our home,” Kalla, author of award winning cookbooks, Palestine on a Plate and Baladi – Palestine, told Doha News.
Over in the United States, 27-year-old Diala Ghneim, a Jordanian- American of Palestinian descent, told Doha News that a grocery store nearby always supplied her family with Palestinian olive oil.
“I clearly remember as a child going to those super markets with my father and us looking between the olive oil supply for Palestinian olive oil. Even if that meant driving further away or paying more money for Palestinian olive oil. Till this day we are loyal to Palestinian olive oil,” Ghneim said.
For a younger Palestinian, Noor Mazen, a 25-year-old residing in Qatar, olive oil has been a crucial element in her upbringing. When she was a school student, her main lunch was a sandwich of a flavourful mix of olive oil and za’atar, or thyme, both from Palestine.
“I always had a za’atar and olive oil sandwich whenever I went to school and I’m known for it. Whenever someone asks ‘who is Noor?’ They would say ‘the one who eats za’atar and olive oil’,” she told Doha News.
Resistance and existence
Palestine is home to the world’s oldest olive trees, some of which are as old as 4,000 years, and which to carry a major cultural significance to Palestinians around the world.
Olive trees are known to be drought-resistant and are able to grow despite poor conditions, a characteristic regularly used to describe resilient Palestinians living under decades of occupation.
The trees are passed on from one generation to another and are given their time to blossom for the harvest season, which begins in October.
In Palestine, Noor Mazen’s family head to the fields to pick olives from the trees to prepare them for their family members living abroad. The only time her family ran out of Palestinian olive oil and olives was during Covid-19, when trade and travel were disrupted.
“During the harvest season, our family back home takes charge in collecting olives every season and presses them. The pieces are manually cut by my cousins before they pack them and distribute them to the rest of the family,” the young Palestinian said.
Given the symbolism the olive trees have, Israel is known to uproot the plants while attacking farmers during the harvest season. Israeli settlers backed by forces armed to the teeth also hassle farmers, preventing them from accessing their green jewels.
A 2012 study published by the Palestinian Authority and the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem found that Israel has uprooted at least 800,000 olive trees since 1967 in the West Bank.
“When one thinks about the importance of continuing to hold our traditions close and dear to our hearts, what struggles our families had to go through in Palestine, the razing of olive trees by settlers in Palestine ruining thousands of years worth of history, the olive tree begins to hold so much more meaning to it,” Kalla said.
A daily essential
Palestinians who consume the green good on a daily basis, collectively believe their olive oil is unique and stands out in terms of its taste and quality.
“Personally I have never tried anything like it. It is fresh, it is peppery, it is thick and luscious and also pressed by the hands of our people which makes it more beautiful to eat and consume. Others are good but Palestinian olive oil is in a different league,” the award-winning chef told Doha News.
As a Palestinian chef living abroad, Kalla incorporates olive oil from home in dishes that are both savoury and sweet.
However, the uses of the daily essential go beyond her kitchen and cookbooks as Kalla uses it as a moisturiser, hair product and body soap. Her aunt had even used it on her ears whenever she had an ear ache.
“She would warm up the olive oil, soak a cotton wool in it and then drain it and put it in my ear. And miraculously the ear would heal. I still do it to this day, it’s an integral part of my day to day life,” Kalla said.
Echoing similar sentiments, Al Khatib’s family also use olive oil for treatment purposes, indicating that the land alone possess the medicine necessary for its people.
As a mother of two, Al Khatib also tries to engrain the love for Palestine in her children by reading them books that mention olive oil.
For Ghneim, food is another key element in uniting families, especially as they preserve their identity far from home.
“Food is such a core component of Palestinian identity and having the families together on the weekends reminds us of who we are,” Ghneim said as she reflected back on her childhood memories.
Preserving Palestinian culture
As Israeli land theft persists and older generations die with their memories of a liberated Palestine, Palestinians in both the homeland and diaspora and have taken on the mission to preserve their culture.
Under its ethnic cleansing campaign, Israel goes as far as altering Palestinian recipes, most famously hummus, labelling the levantine delicacy as theirs, which in turn has made the preservation of food among Palestinians an important act of resistance.
In her work, Kalla ensures to educate people about the origins of Palestinian dishes, urging others to fight to protect the country’s food and culture in order to “take hold of the narrative”.
“Palestinian food is literally being wiped out by our occupiers and we must stand together to battle this in a way that opens people’s eyes to the beauty of our country, her food, her history and also the delicacies that are indigenous to our roots,” Kalla said.
As olive trees in the occupied land continue to bear witness to Israeli crimes, there is no doubt that their roots hold together an entire nation – and generations, united in their cause for liberation and life.
“A liberated Palestine is a place where every person is treated equally regardless of their religion or ethnic origin. There is no occupation or blockade, there is freedom of movement and economic stability,” Ghneim said.