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  • Essay
  • Apr 09 2024
  • Irus Braverman
    is Professor of Law, Adjunct Professor of Geography, and, Research Professor at the Department of Research and Sustainability at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York. Her main interests lie in the interdisciplinary study of law, geography, and anthropology.

Two major tree landscapes prevail along the mountainous strip that cuts across the center of Palestine-Israel from the Hebron hills in the south to the Galilee in the north: conifer pine forests and deciduous olive groves. These treescapes are neither as random nor as natural as they might first seem. Trees in general, and olive and pine trees in particular, play a pivotal role in both Jewish and Palestinian lives and narratives in this region.  

Since 1901, the Jewish National Fund, an organization established by the Fifth Zionist Congress to purchase land for Jewish people in Palestine, has planted more than 250 million trees in the region, mostly pines. Over the years, the pine has become an emblem of the Zionist project of afforesting the Holy Land and turning it into a European landscape. While this tree has been central to “making the desert bloom,” as the Zionist phrase goes, so too has the olive tree become emblematic of the Palestinians’ steadfast connection (sumud) to the land. In assuming the totemic qualities of their people, both the olive and the pine trees signify and amplify colonial structures and dynamics. 

With an estimated total of 10 million trees, olives are the largest single agricultural product in the occupied West Bank. [1] Roughly 100,000 Palestinian families directly rely on these trees for their livelihood and, with another 50,000 people working with olive trees and their produce, between a quarter and a third of the Palestinian population of the West Bank depends on this tree. [2] During the harvest in October and November each year, the olive groves become places of celebration where families and friends gather to partake in traditions that have been practiced for generations.

Precisely for this strong physical, cultural, symbolic, and economic relationship with the Palestinians, olive trees have become targets for violence by the state of Israel and by Israeli settlers. A study published in 2012 by the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ) estimated that since 1967 Israeli authorities have uprooted 800,000 Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank. [3] Of 211 reported incidents of trees being cut down, set ablaze, stolen, or otherwise vandalized in the West Bank between 2005 and 2013, only four resulted in police indictments. [4]

There are multiple rationales behind tree uprootings. As punitive measures, such practices predate the state of Israel. Ottoman rulers uprooted the olive trees of local farmers (fellahin) as punishment for tax avoidance, and the British administration in Palestine later carried out uprootings through emergency regulations. However, Israel’s central rationale for uprooting olive trees has not been presented as punitive, or at least not explicitly so: the Israeli army has uprooted, and continues to uproot, thousands of olive and other fruit trees for the construction and maintenance of the Separation Wall, and to secure roads, increase visibility, and make way for watchtowers, checkpoints, and security fences around settlements in the West Bank. 


fig. 1


Despite the biblical prohibition of uprooting fruit trees—even when those are the enemy’s trees at a time of war—the uprooting of the Palestinian olive trees proceeds with immense fervor. According to the United Nations, more than 1,700 olive trees were vandalized during the 2020 olive harvest alone. [5] The olive might thus be understood as an “enemy soldier”: a totemic displacement of the adversary itself. For the Israeli state, these enemy soldiers are a threat to its existence and must therefore be eliminated from the landscape. The powerful affinity of the olive with the Palestinian people is thus not only the result of its economic, cultural, and historical significance, but increasingly so also a product of its brutal targeting by the state of Israel and by certain Israeli settlers. 

Through burning, uprooting, and denying Palestinians access to olive trees, the state of Israel and Israeli settlers have vested the tree with enormous power. The olive’s steadfastness, durability, and extraordinary longevity are all acutely representative of the Palestinian struggle against Israel’s settler colonialism and its occupying regime. The olive acts as both an anchor and an archive, standing for the Palestinians by witnessing and testifying to what is no longer there. Planting and cultivating olives becomes a project of Palestinian resistance. 

On October 28, Bilal Mohammad Saleh was allegedly shot in the chest by a Jewish settler while picking olives on his family’s land in the northern West Bank. His body was carried out to the road on the ladder that he had been using to reach his olives, witnesses reported. [6] That year, many Palestinian villagers across the West Bank were unable to access their olive trees, suffering immense losses as a result. 

Such actions by Israel have recently been augmented by another form of takeover: this time through configuring the olive tree as the new Zionist tree. Indeed, in 2021 the Jewish National Fund elected the olive as Israel’s national tree in a ceremony marking the 120th anniversary of this organization, whose disastrous legacies of pine afforestation still lingers in the natural landscape. During the event, the Jewish National Fund’s Chairman stated that: “The Olive tree is mentioned many times in the Bible, it is one of the seven species in which the Land of Israel was praised and above all the Olive has become a symbol of peace.”  

Strongly rooted in the Jewish tradition, such visions of peace are difficult to imagine amidst the unprecedented violence currently taking place in Palestine-Israel. “We haven’t been to the trees since Bilal was shot,” one Palestinian villager lamented in November 2023. “You have to understand: olive trees take a long time to grow. Maybe 50 years or more, so you can’t just replace them. For me, my olive trees and my sons are the same. They are all my children.” [7]

—Irus Braverman, December 2023




This essay was adapted from the following texts: 

Settling Nature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2023).

“Uprooting Identities: The Regulation of Olive Trees in the Occupied West Bank,” PoLAR 32:2 (2009), 237–63.

“The Tree is the Enemy Soldier: A Sociolegal Making of War Landscapes in the Occupied West Bank,” Law & Society Review 42:3 (2008), 449–82.



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