A Palestinian in the village of Qusra holds the broken branch of an olive tree. (Photo: Associated Press/Nasser Ishtayeh)
Located in the hills south of Nablus, Qusra has been making headlines on a regular basis over the past few years. Tucked in between highway 60 and the Jordan valley it is a rural community that would happily go on living without outside attention. Unfortunately for the farmers and shepherds that populate these hills their land is coveted by a cluster of settlements to the south and west of the village.
Qusra is the largest of a small bunch of Palestinian villages and as such it has been the target of a seemingly endless wave of attacks by religious fanatics. In the summer of 2011 everyday brought a new story of sectarian violence. Olive trees were torched or chopped down, houses and cars were vandalized, shepherds and their livestock were attacked by knife or gun wielding settlers. This violence culminated in the month of September when international attention was focused on the Palestinian statehood bid in the United Nations. On september 23rd 2011 when the world was listening to Abbas and Netanyahu’s speeches in New York City a villager was fatally shot during clashes in between settlers and villagers who stood at the entrance of their town.
Two years later I am back in the Nablus area and the villages are in the news again. On Monday August 12th settlers attacked the neighboring town of Jalud and set fire to fields on a hill above the village. On Tuesday I call a contact in Qusra and arrange to visit.
Tareq is a Palestinian farmer, he lives a traditional lifestyle following in the footsteps of many generations before him. His house is located above a shop where he slaughters and sells chickens. In his backyard he keeps a half dozen beehives. Down the road, in a small stone hut his sheep find shelter from the hot sun. He has a small herd which he uses mainly to make cheese and yoghurt. They also provide manure to fertilize his olive groves. Living off the land is tough in this arid mediterranean climate so he pieces together an income from all these small ventures. His family buys potatoes from Israel, they wash them and package them for sale in Palestinian shops. The village is surrounded by olive trees. These are the pride of every palestinian farmer. They grow slowly and give a steady yield of fruit and oil every year. They fear two predators. the gazelles who eat the leaves and rub their heads against the trunks, damaging the younger trees, and the settlers who burn and chop down entire rows of trees, young and old. Most trees will recover on their own from the superficial wounds inflicted by the gazelles, but only the farmer’s determination and hard work can save the olive groves from the racially motivated violence.
Tareq receives me with the typical generosity of Palestinian villagers. We wait out the hottest hours of the day in his house eating cookies and drinking sweet hot tea. He tells me that things have been quiet for the past three months in Qusra. The incessant settler attacks brought international attention, peace activists and observers. This prompted the army to set up in between the village and the settlements. Not to be deterred, the settlers focused their attention on the next village down the road, hence the arson attack in Jalud on Monday.
Tareq has suffered directly from the attacks. He has lost trees, his house has been targeted by angry mobs and he has been taken to hospital three times for settler inflicted injuries.
His son and nephew are busy gathering hoes and buckets while his daughter brings us an old coca cola bottle full of gasoline. We throw the equipment in the back of a busted up subaru stationwagon, pour the content of the plastic bottle into the tank and take off for the hills.
On the way up Tareq points to a patch of scorched earth. Amid the ashes you can see small olive trees shooting up. In the nearby groves olives ripen on the mature trees. Settlers burnt down entire patches but the villagers replanted almost immediately.
We stop near the top of the hill. Tareq’s reaction to the violence has been to redevelop land that his grandfather used to farm. There are small trees growing on recently cleared land. Above us the land is still a mess of stones and thistles. Below us olive trees cover the land until the houses begin.
In the cold months Tareq brought up his entire family to clear stones and plough the thick ochre dirt. He planted rows of trees, no more than a meter tall. Mature trees don’t require much maintenance, some ploughing in the spring so that the wild grasses don’t drink up all the water or feed wild fires.
Young trees however need a little help making it through the hot months. This is why we are up here this afternoon. Tareq, his son and his nephew get to work digging small moats around each trunk. During breaks they fill me in on the situation in the village. Although the area is surrounded by settlements, there is only one visible from where we are sitting. By the entrance of the village, off the main highway sits the neatly planned community of Migdalim. Do they cause problems ? “No! They are good people”. What ? “Yes, they come and shop in our supermarkets, they are normal people”. Tareq has made it clear up until now that he only has issues with the religious fanatics that vandalize his livelihood and assault him, still I am shocked to hear that he has good relations with settlers living so close to his village.”When there is peace they will get money from the israeli government and relocate inside the green line”. I express my surprise again and he confirms that settlers have told him in so many words that all they are waiting for is the government’s relocation package and pay off in order to pack up and leave. Until then they are happy living on Qusra’s land and shopping in their supermarkets. Unlike other settlements they allow the farmers to tend to the trees all the way up to the security fence that surrounds the community. This may seem like a small concession but to the farmers of Awarta, Beit Furik and so many other villages in the Nablus area this is huge. In these villages the Palestinians watch their trees from beyond the no man’s land and coordinate with the Israeli Army to harvest in a few days land that requires weeks of labor.
An antique Massey Ferguson workhorse pulls up with a tank of water in tow. It’s time to irrigate the moats before covering them up with dirt to prevent evaporation and ensure that the trees soak up all the precious water.
When the cold months return Tareq will clear more land and plant more trees. In defiance of the settlers, in resistance to the ongoing Nakba and as an act of survival, he will continue to redevelop the land that his father left him so he can pass it on to his own children.
I came to Qusra expecting to see signs of violence, instead I found a community using ploughs and olive shoots to fight for survival. I found incredible tolerance from the people most affected by sectarian hatred. I found optimism and hope in a territory where depression and despair are thick on the ground.