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Body Politics, Essays, Justice

Olive Trees Aflame: Nonviolence and Palestine (by Jonathan McRay)

In 2008, I worked in Ramallah as a journalist and interim editor for the Palestine Monitor, a web-based news source committed to “exposing life under occupation.” I traveled throughout the West Bank, writing several articles about the village of Ni’lin, whose olive groves and roads are fractured due to the construction of the separation wall.

This is Part Two of a four-part series of reflections on nonviolence by Jonathan McRay.

In 2008, I worked in Ramallah as a journalist and interim editor for the Palestine Monitor, a web-based news source committed to “exposing life under occupation.” I traveled throughout the West Bank, writing several articles about the village of Ni’lin, whose olive groves and roads are fractured due to the construction of the separation wall. I witnessed and engaged with villagers, as well as Israeli and international activists, nonviolently protesting the confiscation and devastation of their land. Villages like Ni’lin have lost and are losing increasing amounts of land, including ancient and viable farmland, to the wall that Israel adamantly maintains ensures the safety of settlements and Israel at large.

Israel began constructing the wall in 2002, and it is now over half-completed. In many sections, the wall is twice as tall and three times as long as the Berlin Wall and rarely follows the internationally-accepted border between Israel and occupied Palestine. Only 14% of the wall will be built on the Green Line when completed, and no part of the wall will be constructed on the Israeli side of the border; the remaining 86% will cut deep into the West Bank. Once completed, the wall will restrict Palestinians from nearly 40% of the West Bank, including some of the richest land and water. Half the Palestinian population participates in the annual olive harvest and nearly half of arable Palestinian land is planted with olive trees.  However, the wall separates farmers from much of their ancestral land, and almost nine thousand acres have been seized for the construction of the wall and its buffer zones. Hundreds of thousands of olive trees have been burned, uprooted and transplanted to settlements, or bulldozed by the Israeli Defense Forces to make way for construction. Farmer Asad Amera of Ni’lin told me that his village has been the victim of three Nakbas (“catastrophes”): the first in 1948 when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes by Jewish military advances; the second in 1967 when the occupation began; and the third with the construction of the wall and the destruction of olive trees.

I attended the first demonstration at Ni’lin on the inaugural day of construction. The building site was on the outskirts of the village, where numerous olive groves are planted some three kilometers inside the Green Line. We marched from the town center to the outskirts, where we could see three Israeli settlements reaching like white hands over the ashen hilltops. The military and police, accompanied by Caterpillar bulldozers, watched with finger-laden triggers as youth sat in front of machinery and we gathered around as popular committee leaders spoke with soldiers. The villagers assured the military that we were there nonviolently. But the squad commander yelled an order and sound grenades exploded at our feet and rubber-coated bullets spiraled through teargas clouds. Stone-throwing never seemed effective to me, but I struggled labeling it violence, especially as they bounced off tanks and kevlar. Stones and M-16s are not easily comparable. The Israeli military, however, claims these protests are illegal and that they cause severe damage to government property and military personnel.

Every protest I attended followed a similar chronology: the Israeli military always fired first, the crowd dispersed, and stones fell wildly. Police and military repeatedly responded with teargas (including an apparatus that shot 16 canisters at once), rubber-coated bullets, and live fire, most of which are supplied by the United States. At other demonstrations, the atmosphere was festive with beating drums and cookware, whistles and chants. And yet each time we were disrupted by charging soldiers and sparks from sound grenades lighting ancient olive trees aflame.
I have heard some commentators praising Palestinians’ newfound application of nonviolence, almost surprised to see it spring in the Middle East. This Orientalist view, often espoused by American political leaders, is not only hypocritical, because Israel and the U.S. are never encouraged to employ nonviolence, but is extremely ignorant of Palestinian history. Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived in the so-called Holy Land as neighbors for centuries. But European partitioning of the Middle East ruptured the land like tectonic plates and a massive influx of Jewish immigrants arrived on Mediterranean waves, many propelled by Zionism. This ideology espoused labor and land acquisition by replacing Arab workers with Jewish workers and by purchasing Arab land which could then no longer be sold to Arabs (King, 2009, p. 151).[1] However, Palestinians strove to protect their life and land, from both exclusive Zionist policies and British control, through nonviolent tactics such as organizing delegations, boycotts, resignations, and strikes (ibid, pp. 131-132). Around 97% of the first intifada’s tactics were nonviolent (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 119) and over 70% of Palestinian youth oppose violence against Israel.

I’ve also heard criticisms that Palestinian nonviolence lacks a central leader like Gandhi or King who can rally the unarmed troops. But prominent leaders have existed, many of whom have been imprisoned or deported. During the first intifada, high-ranking Palestinian leaders lived in exile from the daily toil of occupation. Instead, popular committees cultivated a movement of leaders, some more visible than others. Interestingly, the Communist Party, often associated with a revolutionary vanguard capturing the state, publically advocated for nonviolent tactics and “popular organizing of small, locally-governed institutions” that could transform social structures to prepare for national independence (King, 2009, p. 134). Decentralized power guaranteed the movement’s survival: as members were jailed new ones stepped into their shoes (ibid, p. 134).

Local Palestinian communities organized village-level popular committees all across the West Bank (Stephan, 2009, p. 315). From neighborhoods to regions, committees formed around education, healthcare, agriculture, business, and social reform (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 124). Popular committees, often initiated and run by women (King, 2009, p. 140), numbered around 45,000, a groundswell that emerged into a concerted civil society from which the intifada forcefully streamed (ibid, pp. 133-134). Parallel institutions made the occupied territories ungovernable for the Israeli military as Palestinians governed themselves (King, 2009, p. 142). The small village of Beit Sahour, where I’ve spent most of my time in Palestine, organized around 12,000 people into 36 committees, diversified along class and gender lines (ibid, p. 140). Radical democracy and nonviolence are not imports to the Middle East.

I know someone who has hoped to make a career out of working in Palestine. During a conversation about the then-imminent Palestinian bid for statehood, he quipped that, if the request succeeded, he might be out of a job before he even gets started. He meant it sarcastically, but the implication was that a Palestinian state is the answer, as if abject poverty, political infighting, Muslim-Christian hostility, ecological devastation, and IDF-mimicking police forces would suddenly vanish in the wake of a salvific state. So far, nation-state frameworks have resulted in the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. After the PA’s institution, women were mostly excluded from decision-making even though they had been leaders of popular committees (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011, p. 137). Perhaps state-focused organizing is the best tactical option considering that all four nonviolent secessionist campaigns since 1900 have failed (ibid, p. 73). While Palestinian self-determination isn’t strictly secession, the West Bank is certainly contiguous with Israel through economic dependency, security collaboration, and Israel’s resource control. Land is continually pulled from beneath Palestinians’ feet like a carpet, and Israel’s monopolization of water may decide the conflict for everyone.

However, nonviolent resistance has an advantage in territorial campaigns like self-determination and anti-occupation (ibid, p. 7). The consensus on nonviolence during the first intifada fell apart in the third year after enough leaders were deported or imprisoned (ibid, p. 145), making a decentralized movement of leaders extremely urgent. Perhaps the greatest possibility lies in the resurrection and resilience of popular committees. They already play an important role in the current intifada against the wall (King, 2009, p. 149), and have been effective in Budrus, Bil’in, and initially in Ni’lin. Popular committees could connect with grassroots Israeli movements, like Israeli-Bedouin agricultural partnerships in the Negev. Maybe people would hear voices like Martin Buber who, instead of initially fighting for a Jewish state, called for an Arab-Jewish confederation in the land.

Six thousand trees have been destroyed or isolated from Ni’lin. Many of these trees were among the oldest of the groves and, as the oldest, were the most productive. Due to settlements and the wall, Ni’lin has been reduced to 56% of its original size.

The section of the wall through Ni’lin is now complete, but the protests continue.


Abufarha, N. (2008). Land of symbols: Cactus, poppies, orange and olive trees in Palestine. Identities, 15, 343-368.

Braverman, I. (2009). Uprooting identities: The regulation of olive trees in the occupied West Bank. PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 32, 237-264.

Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M. J. (2011). Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

King, M. E. (2009). Palestinian civil resistance against the Israeli military occupation. In M. J. Stephan (ed.), Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East (pp. 131-155). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  

Makdisi, Saree. (2008). Palestine inside out: An everyday occupation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Stephan, M. J. (2009). Civilian jihad: Nonviolent struggle, democratization, and governance in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


[1] These land acquisitions are still occurring. During a flight to Tel Aviv, I once met a man still involved in this enterprise.

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