A short distance from Manger Square, in the road behind the Bethlehem Peace Centre are the remains of four ancient olive trees - trees that were uprooted by Israeli authorities to make way for the separation wall. The olive tree is at the heart of the Palestinian economy and also its culture. Since the start of the occupation of Palestine hundreds of thousands of olive trees have been uprooted.
This morning we were hosted by Olive Aid a new project set up with the UK Charity Friends Of Bethlehem University. The aims of the charity are to replant olive groves and provide families with a sustainable income from olives and olive based products.
A consultant of the project Nadi Farraj, an agronomist with the Institute for Community Partnership - an arm of Bethlehem University - took us first to the Olive Museum in Bethlehem's old city to see the traditional ways in which olive oil was made, then on to a modern cooperative which has 1,000 members. Here we were able to see the complete process of production as farmers first weighted then poured their olive crop into the first stage of processing. They were washed, heated, pressed and eventually the oil was produced. While we were there we saw an old couple collect their valuable annual olive oil supply. From their four olive trees they had managed to produce 36 liters of oil! It was wonderful to see them sitting, tasting the oil as it came out of the final vat into their simple plastic containers. We were told that each 18 litre container was worth around £180. Some of this would be kept for family use and some sold on to others.
Then it was into cars and vans for a mystery tour. We had thought that we were to be taken to a local olive grove to meet farmers there...but as we drove further from Bethlehem and further into the desert we knew that we were heading for a surprise!
And surprise we had! After about an hours drive, into an area that seemed to be the top of the world, no vegetation, no people, we came to a stop at a small Bedouin settlement. Here we met the 30 members of an extended family, living in this harsh environment with their sheep and goats. Children ran to greet us and then the elder of the family warmly welcomed us to their home and took us to the large family living area where the women had prepared a wonderful lunch of mutton and rice. We were humbled by the hospitality as the men encouraged us to eat and the women kept coming with more of the most delicious bread.
This community is one of a number with whom Olive Aid work. An area of rocky land near their settlement has been fenced off - to prevent the sheep and goats from getting in. Simple irrigation pipes have been laid and as we entered we saw that around 30 holes had been made in the stony ground ( no soil here) for the planting of olive saplings! Nadi had brought these for us to plant - much to the amusement of our hosts who watched us clamber into these holes and then try to re-fill them with picks and shovels.
Such a simple thing to do - yet it felt quite profound! The hope and trust we shared, that in this dry, barren place, life could be supported and the community would one day have their own little olive grove! Earlier in the morning we had seen a plaque which said: 'Plant Hope - Harvest Peace' - what an honour to be a small part of this process.
This is the kind of project that can really help us make connections between peace, justice and care for the earth. Planting saplings is another act of nonviolent resistence, restoring justice to the community and offering sustainable development. We all left, more determined to support olive cooperative projects at home - buying and promoting Palestinian olives, oil, soap, oil both as a means of telling the story of Palestine and also as a means of supporting the economy.
What a treat for one of our group, Fr Rob Esdaile, who celebrated his birthday today.
Pat Gaffney, General Secretary of Pax Christi is on a delegation to the Holy Land.