JIFNA, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — It was a glorious Indian summer day in the rocky hill country north of Jerusalem, and Musa Salameh was clearly a contented man as he played his small part in a ritual both colorful and central to the life of this historic land.
"It's a lovely time!" Salameh said as he breathed deeply of the pure air and the good fellowship. "We are waiting, year to year, to come for the olives."
Along with thousands of his fellow Palestinians, the 59-year-old messenger and shopkeeper had come with his hand-made wooden ladders, his sticks, his burlap sacks and his extended family for the annual harvesting of one of the oldest and most revered of the Earth's many fruits.
For most of the year, the estimated 10 million olive trees that cover the West Bank hills in neatly planted tiers go largely untended. The hollow, gnarled trunks of the older trees, a few of which are said to date from Roman times, take on a haunting appearance under the cold, gray sky of a winter morning.
Fall Harvest Ritual
In spring, the trees produce small, pale blossoms that soon give way to the first olive buds in early summer. The fruit ripens around the time of the first autumn rain, and then, for a few weeks in October and November, the hills come alive with the harvest.
West Bank schools declare a holiday so that youngsters can help their families gather the olives. Men make up excuses to be absent from their jobs, across the so-called "Green Line" in pre-1967 Israel, and the women pack picnic lunches to be spread on the ground under the silvery leaves of the nearest olive tree.
The harvesting day is long, from about 6 a.m. nearly until sundown, and the pickers--young people particularly--complain sometimes that the work is tedious.
A Milking Motion
The olives are removed by hand; a harvester pulls at each branch in a milking motion. Typically, the more agile youngsters climb the tree to get at the inside branches while the men climb ladders to the high limbs and the women work on lower branches or gather fallen olives into cans or sacks.
The olives most difficult to reach or most stubborn are knocked out of the trees with long sticks; it may take a family a full day to pick clean just two or three trees.
While it may bore the restless young, the harvest is vitally important economically. In a good year, like this one, olives may account for 25% of the value of all goods and services produced on the West Bank, said Israel's area agricultural officer, Yoreh Artzi.
More than $50 million worth of West Bank olive oil is expected to be exported to Jordan this season. Nablus, the West Bank's largest city, has been famous for its olive oil soap since the 14th Century. Pickled olives for eating are also exported, and souvenirs carved from olive wood are a staple in Jerusalem and Bethlehem shops.
But for most older Palestinians, even those for whom farming has become a part-time endeavor, there is more in the harvest than money. The olive tree remains their link to the soil, and the olive harvest remains an almost sacred ritual of renewal.
Olives have been a staple of this region's diet since the earliest times, and olive oil has been used for cooking, light and anointing the body for as long as men and women have inhabited the land.
The olive features prominently in the holy books of all three of the great monotheistic religions--Judaism, Islam and Christianity--whose roots are here in the Middle East.
It was an olive branch that the dove is said to have returned to Noah on the Ark, a sign that the waters of the great flood were receding. The olive is one of the seven species with which the Bible says God blessed the ancient land of Israel. When Moses led the Israelites here, they found a land already fertile with "vineyards and olive trees, which thou plantedst not."
Trees of Bible Times
The Garden of Gethsemane, at the base of Jerusalem's Mount of Olives, has what are believed to be the most ancient of the Holy Land's olive trees. Some of them are said to have been 500 years old when Jesus Christ was arrested there on the eve of crucifixion. The Koran instructs Muslims to take an oath "by the fig and the olive."
Ironically, given the bloody history of the Holy Land, the olive branch is perhaps the most enduring of the world's symbols of peace.
Olive branches frame a menorah on the state seal of Israel, but while modern Israelis do grow olives--mostly in the Galilee, in the north--it is primarily an Arab enterprise.
Five times as much land is given to olive cultivation on the West Bank as within the pre-1967 borders of Israel. Even in Israel proper, about 80% of the olive trees are cultivated by Arab, rather than Jewish, citizens.
To some West Bank Arabs, the olive tree is a silent but potent political ally.
"The Arabs believe the Israelis won't take over their land if it's planted with olives," explained Ahmed Jabr, the Arab agricultural planning and development director for the West Bank.
Land Use Restricted