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A tree grows in Palestine

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz 01/23/1999

It was one of the favorite holidays of our distant childhood. True, it was a regular school day, but the tree-planting ceremony in Meir Park in Tel Aviv, with hundreds of children dressed in white, thousands of saplings, the small round holes in the damp earth - it was all a great thrill. Together with the weekly contribution to the blue-and-white tin box of the Jewish National Fund, a momentary bond was perhaps formed with the land and the soil, as our teachers and leaders wished.What is left of all that? Meir Park is now a place where homeless people huddle. No trees are planted nowadays next to new homes in Tel Aviv (that would interfere with the parking lot) and this year, because of the bad weather and the teachers' strike, the tree planting was done by the relief-works corps of the JNF.

What's left, then, is the question of whether we internalized anything of those festive tree plantings, anything that is still a part of us, other than the sweet memories. Are we able to evoke those happy memories even when the Other plants a tree? The answer, unfortunately, is that we are not able.

The Education Ministry this year distributed a Haggadat Seder Tu Bishvat (a compilation of passages to be recited during an Arbor Day meal, based on the format of the Pesach seder) printed on glossy paper, an "offering of love to the Land of Israel" which was intended "to draw individuals closer to neighbors, community closer to society and nation closer to its landscapes." But Tu Bishvat, Israel's Arbor Day, which was marked yesterday, is the holiday of the Jewish trees exclusively.

As in many other cases, a dual value system is at work here in Israel: one set of values for the Jews, another for the land's other inhabitants. A tree represents a value only if it is planted by Jewish hands.

The nation of planters has become the nation of uprooters. "Do not uproot what has been planted," the Israelis sing, referring, of course, only to what they have set down in the earth. The Palestinians' trees, which in many instances are far more ancient than our trees, can become objects of destruction without anyone protesting - not the organizers of the Arbor Day festivities, not the authors of the glossy booklets of the Education Ministry and not the environmental activists.

But by an act of the devil, without Arbor Day and without the tree plantings carried out by the relief-works staff of the JNF, the tree is nevertheless a deeply rooted symbol in the rural Palestinian society, and every uprooting of a tree inflicts pain that is almost as searing as the pain for human casualties.

Their bond with the land - without moledet (homeland) lessons in school - is sometimes stronger than ours. Maybe that is why Israel tries to uproot so many of their trees.

The facts: In the past year alone, a relatively merciful year for the Palestinians' trees, "only" 15,180 trees of Palestinians were uprooted, according to the figures of the Canon, the Palestinian Association for Protection of Human and Environmental Rights. Another Palestinian organization, Land and Water, says that 13,580 trees were wrenched from the earth last year by the Israeli security forces and another 3,200 by settlers. Two other groups, the Palestinian Committee for Legal Protection of the Land and the Palestinian Council for Justice and Peace, adduce similar figures. According to these groups, Israel has uprooted some 50,000 trees in the West Bank since the signing of the Oslo accord - the exact number of saplings that the JNF distributed this year for our Tu Bishvat celebrations.

But these statistics do not of course tell the whole story. Two weeks after last year's Tu Bishvat, when the saplings planted by our children were still trying to strike roots in the freshly turned soil, I visited the olive grove of Ayash Abu Hilwan, a farmer from the village of Beit Dejan, east of Nablus. He had never heard of the Jewish Arbor Day, but he was painfully aware of what Jews had done to his trees.

Twelve years earlier, he had planted his olive trees on the rocky hillside that overlooks his home, a place that had always been considered part of the village's land. He tilled the soil, cleared the rocks and pruned and irrigated the trees. For 12 years he worked his grove. There was no fruit for his labor because in the hard, rocky soil of Beit Dejan, it takes an olive tree more than a dozen years to produce fruit. But the farmer waited patiently and believed that his children would harvest the crop, just as his father had left him olive trees.

Thirteen days after Tu Bishvat, the destroyers of the Civil Administration appeared and began cutting. They cut and uprooted, sawed tree after tree, not sparing a single one. Thirteen days after Tu Bishvat, 600 trees were cut down, the farmer related; the Civil Administration says the number was 291. "It is like raising a child for 12 years and, suddenly, he is gone. Someone killed him," Abu Hilwan, his eyes moist, told me then in his blasted grove.

The tree choppers invoked plenty of legal arguments, but on that ravaged hillside all that remained were the scars and the oppressive questions that no self-righteous legalisms of the Civil Administration can erase. The struggle being waged by the Civil Administration to demonstrate who the true master and sovereign of the land is does not spare a single tree nor a single value.

War has its own rules: uproot, destroy, cut down - only to show the Palestinians, natives of this land, who the lord and master is. This is something we don't tell our children on Tu Bishvat. But it was there, in the devastated grove at Beit Dejan, among the uprooted olive trees of Abu Hilwan, only 13 days after Tu Bishvat, that I knew for certain that absolutely nothing remained of our festive tree-planting in that Tel Aviv park

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