Refugee Stories

Roots of the Soul: The Olive Harvest in Biddu

Um Hamid, 62, stands in a bright pink dress, a splash of colour among the silvery green of the olive grove. She watches as her husband, son, and grandsons work busily among the trees.

Her grandson (despite wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan ‘work sucks’) is hard at work up a ladder, picking olives and throwing them down to the black tarpaulin spread below.

‘I wanted my grandsons to come and pick the olives, to come and see the trees,’ Um Hamid explains. ‘But I worry about them, if they go too far, I’m concerned, they shoot anything that moves.’

‘They’ refers to the settlers who live in the settlement overlooking the village and olive groves of Biddu. Biddu is a small town situated 9km to the northwest of Jerusalem. Approximately 80% of Biddu’s 9,000 residents are, like Um Hamid and her husband, Palestine refugees.

Biddu is a largely agricultural community, dependent to a great extent on the lands surrounding the village and the product of the olive harvest. Biddu used to have 200,000 olive trees. Now, after the construction of the West Bank Barrier that divides the West Bank from Israel, only 50,000 of those trees are accessible, the rest are on the other side of the Barrier.

The Barrier divides the olive groves of Um Hamid and her family. Some of their olive trees were uprooted and replanted to make way for the Barrier. Many of them failed to survive the replanting and now stand dry and withered by the side of the road.

Following the Barrier construction only 25% of Um Hamid’s olive groves are accessible. There is an access gate, but opening times have become more erratic in recent months, and getting through the Barrier to tend the groves the other side on a regular basis is simply not feasible.

Gazing across the landscape Um Hamid can see her trees, but cannot reach them. ‘Look’ says her son, ‘you can see the trees are a different colour, they look straggly. That is because we can’t get to them to look after them.’

Even tending the land that the family has on the Biddu side of the Barrier is not straightforward.  There have been incidents of shooting and stun grenades coming from the overlooking settlement. The grove is littered with empty stun grenade cases.

There have also been clashes between the family and settlers. In one incident Um Hamid was badly beaten. ‘My back was covered in bruises’ she says, ‘I had to spend a year getting physiotherapy.’

Um Hamid is a refugee from Salbit, a village near to where Ben Gurion airport now stands. Her family fled in 1948. She was two when she left, but her parents told her of the village and even though her family now has land in Biddu Salbit is still the place she thinks of as home.

‘The original place where you are from is everything, no matter where you end up,’ Um Hamid muses. ‘We want to tell our children about where we are from. We tell them small things, to keep our history alive. I gave my daughter the name of a Palestinian city. When she was small I would tell her our history when she asked about her name.’

Coming to pick olives, despite the danger, is part of the same process of keeping their sense of the past alive. ‘I want my grandchildren to understand the trees and the land, and understand our relationship with them.’

Abu Hamid is also from Salbit. Before the building of the Barrier he used to work as a driver, delivering vegetables over the Green Line. ‘I used to be so happy when I was sent to deliver vegetables in Salbit. Even though it was no longer my village, I was happy to put my feet on the ground.’ On one of his last trips he picked a plant from the village and brought it back, it now grows outside his house.

In the olive grove the family moves steadily from tree to tree, picking all the olives off the branches and then pruning the tree to ensure new growth and a healthy crop the next year. The boys occasionally wander closer the barrier, but Um Hamid calls them anxiously back.

‘We are not covering our expenses by being here’ says Um Hamid. ‘We come to pick our olives to show the settlers that we are staying here, and will not be frightened away. They have offered us money, but for all the money in the world I would not sell one stone. The relationship between us and our trees is one of the soul.’  

For more information on the Olive Harvest click here.