“I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of( the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” Exodus 3:8
Land. What is it? In some places, like my country America, it’s a commodity, only worth as much as it can bring its owner. In other places, land ownership is a matter of personal pride. Sometimes, attachment to a plot of land can be deeply personal. Sometimes it can be ideological. It can be individual, or collective. The ways in which people relate to land can be infinite. But the land, unfortunately, is not.
In the last week, I’ve gotten to see a few more places and talk to a lot of people, and see the land from a few different perspectives. Each one has a little bit of truth, a little bit of falsehood, and a lot of reality.
Land As History
This one is probably the most obvious. Roots go deep here, and some places are valuable because they contain centuries of memories. Historical sites and artifacts date back thousands of years and aid people in their fabrication of national narratives. It gives people pride, in a sense, to know that the land that they tread on was once home to a golden civilization.
The ruins of Hisham’s Palace, built in the 7th century outside of Jericho, remind Muslims of a day and age when most of the Middle East was ruled by an Islamic Caliphate.
Land as a Struggle
In my expert opinion as an experienced meteorologist and agriculturalist, I’d say that the climate and terrain in this area range from bearable to impossible. It doesn’t seem like much here is easy. A fellow intern and I just spent the weekend hiking through Wadi Qelt, a river valley that runs between Jerusalem and Jericho. I spent seven hours under the desert sun scrambling up rocks and into gullies and getting scratched and bruised, and by the end of the exhausting trek, I began to take some pride in the trail that I had conquered. If that was just a few hours, imagine a lifetime struggling against the land.
The Bedouin who live in Wadi el-Qelt scratch out a living herding goats near an oasis. Living a life that is really not too far removed from that of his remote ancestors (without too much romanticizing), one Bedouin shepherd told me that he sells 20 goats each year for about $100 a piece. He also told me that he pays $500/ton of feed for them. I don’t really know how many tons a flock of goats can eat in a year, but I do have a lot of respect for a man who can feed a large family with such a large base income. He lives simply with his wife and children in a tent near a stream, and when I asked him if he’d lived there his whole life, he said, “Of course. I have all I need here. Water and free space.”
This land, geographically speaking, is not for the faint of heart. Living here requires toughness, tribal cohesion and stubbornness. It makes sense that people who feel that their ancestors have conquered the land and people who struggle against the land every day are not likely to be quick to let go of it.
Land as a Creation
The land here has shaped people, but they have shaped it too. Ever since the Israeli Declaration of Independence asserted in 1948 that pioneering Zionists “made the deserts bloom”, there has been a debate between Israelis and Palestinians about who were the first promoters of modern agriculture in Palestine. Such a debate tells us something about how much people on both sides of the border value their contributions to the land. They don’t just see it as a geological fact, they see it as their creation.
At this farm outside of Ein Sinya, young Palestinian boys pick squash. In both Israeli and Palestinian culture, it seems that there is an intrinsic value placed on working with the land.
This woman, whose family owns the fruit orchards behind her, takes pride in her family’s work. There is a local saying, according to her, that goes something like this: “Offer me the whole world, but I won’t give you a single apple from Palestine.”
Land as a Holy Place:
This is a crucial one, but a tough one. So far, I haven’t quite visited enough places to write about this. I know it’s important, so let’s make a point of returning to this one in a few weeks.
Land as a Symbol of Pride:
Two days ago, I visited Jericho with my fellow interns, and we saw the Tree of Zacchaeus, a site that holds significance for Christians. When Jesus was visiting the city, the story goes, a corrupt Jewish tax collector named Zacchaeus climbed up a sycamore tree to get a better look at the Messiah, which resulted in a dinner invitation from Jesus, and later, salvation. Lonely Planet and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism both confirm that a certain tree a half a kilometer out of town is the sycamore tree of Gospel fame.
After seeing the tree and taking photos of it, I asked some locals why it was fenced in on a big plot of land. Apparently, the land that the tree is on is owned by Russia. For some reason, my first thought was one of indignation – what could those Russians want with my tree? Of course I calmed down and realized that it wasn’t my tree any more than anyone else’s, and that by ‘owning’ the tree the Russians weren’t bothering me or the tree at all. But I’ve tried to tuck that initial emotion away in my memory, because I know that it’s a smal example of a common emotion.
Land as a Common Challenge:
There are a few sad cases where environmental problems will force Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs to with each other.
One such example is the Dead Sea, which is fed by the Jordan River. Overdrawing of water from the river by adjacent countries has led the river to shrink drastically. Many expect that the river won’t exist at all in several years. As a result, the Dead Sea has also been shrinking rapidly. The environmental futures of Israel, Palestine, Syria, and Jordan, are all dependent on some sort of cooperation.
Land as Home:
It’s helpful, for me at least, to consider all these ways that people connect to their land. But it’s important to remember that these ideas are all different sides of the same coin (an expression which shows my skewed perception of mathematics and dimensions). For many people, the land has value that is economic, personal, historical, and so on, and the principles are so intertwined, they are impossible to separate.
There’s a reason why so many people here use the olive tree to symbolize the pride in their land. Think about it. Olive trees grow to be old, they are firmly rooted in the soil, they were planted by hard working ancestors, they persevere against difficult conditions, they are beautiful, they grown tall and proud, and most importantly, they never leave the spot where they were planted.