This article is part of a series produced for the World Council of Churches’ olive harvest initiative, a global initiative in 2020 to highlight the spiritual, economic and cultural importance of the olive harvest for Palestinian communities, and witnessing to the impact of the occupation.
“Just as you cannot live without water, olive oil is the same for us—and the olive tree is our life,” explains a smiling Abu-Issa under an awe-inspiring 13-meter olive tree. Its umbrella of branches extends over the al-Walaja hills, just north of Bethlehem.
The tree, said to be one of the oldest in the world, dates back several thousand years. While its exact age may be unknown, there is no doubt about the tree’s deep spiritual significance for the surrounding communities: “This tree is the most important in Palestine and it is sacred. God honored this olive tree. As Palestinians we take this tree as our symbol. It has stood strong against all the natural and the human factors that can affect its existence,” Abu-Issa explains.
Many people come to pray under the tree, receiving blessings and collecting the fallen leaves as keepsakes. Abu-Issa was elected by his family to be the third-generation caretaker of the tree. No one is able to visit it without him, yet he is eager to invite people of all faiths to enjoy the blessings of the tree.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the tree receives very few visitors. Abu-Issa is eager to invite more visitors once COVID-19 restrictions allow: “This tree is as important as the Church of the Nativity and the Aqsa Mosque. All the nations should take care of the tree because it is a blessing from God,” Abu-Issa reflects.
The tree is also an important source of income for the local community and is described as a “treasure,” as it provides a large amount of olives and oil of the highest quality. The multiple ancient trunks leak olive oil-scented sap, a living tribute to both the age of the tree and how it is brimming with life.
Al-Walaja at high risk
A stark contrast to the beautiful scenery in al-Walaja, the separation barrier bisects the hillside, cutting off residents of al-Walaja from most of their land: “As residents of al-Walaja we have experienced the loss of land. In 1948 we lost thousands of dunums which were mainly used for agriculture with 25 water springs. Nowadays the separation barrier is surrounding the village and on the lands of al-Walaja there is the settlement of Har Gilo, which is expanding,” says Abu-Issa.
Residents are also worried that their land will be annexed and become part of “Greater Jerusalem.” There are 70 demolition orders on houses in al-Walaja and a recently approved plan to expand the nearby settlement will certainly contribute to the pressure that the residents feel.
Many Palestinians across the West Bank face a similar threat, with settlers regularly destroying olive trees and harassing the harvesters. When asked about settler harassment, Abu-Issa explains that it has not happened here yet, but the old olive tree is perilously close to the separation barrier, only 20 meters, and could be vulnerable to future attack.
The tree remains a sign of both hope and resilience for the local communities and when asked about its future Abu-Issa replies: “It is all in God’s hands. We are staying here and we hope for the best and pray for peace in the Holy Land. This land is God’s land. One day he will bring justice for all nations.”