Last week, Israeli settlers uprooted over 400 Palestinian-owned olive trees near Nablus in the northern West Bank. This was not an isolated incident. According to Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, thousands of olive trees in the occupied territories have been systematically destroyed by settlers and the Israeli Defence Force over recent years.
The economic, social and psychological impact on Palestinians is demonstrable, yet most complaints pass without indictment or consequence. Deliberate vandalism of these olive groves is not only considered a violation of international protocols, including the fourth Geneva Convention and the Oslo Accords of 1993. It also disregards the special status of the olive tree in each of the Abrahamic traditions.
The Bible, the Q’uran and the Torah all emphasise the blessings of the olive tree and caution the faithful to protect and nurture it as a treasure for future generations. The mythology of the ancient Greeks echoes in my mind as I read report after report of old silver groves deliberately destroyed by fire, bulldozer, poison and axe in the occupied territories.
At a symbolic level, I wonder how the terrible cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians can ever be broken, when the very tree which symbolises wisdom in war and victory, and the concept of peace itself, is routinely and brazenly desecrated? In the contest for dominion over Athens, the goddess Athena was victorious over Poseidon because her gift, the olive tree, was so highly prized. From this gift, the Athenians obtained fruit, oil and wood which formed the basis of a thriving economy. Representations of Athena often include the olive branch, symbolising wisdom, excellence, purity and abundance.
During the wars between ancient Greek city-states, the destruction of olive groves was viewed as sacrilege. Perpetrators risked being deserted by Athena, the wise strategic deity who could out-manoeuvre her bloodthirsty half-brother Ares, God of War, in battle and thus lead favoured troops to victory. Athena is often depicted holding the goddess Nike, the embodiment of victory, in her hands.
The olive wreath is Nike’s gift to the victorious. Prosperity goes hand-in-hand with peace. The Goddess of Peace, Eirene, is depicted holding a cornucopia in one hand and an olive branch in the other. She often holds Ploutos, God of Wealth, in her arms. Euripides lamented man’s neglect of Eirene: ‘Eirene, the enemy of revenge, lover of families and children, patroness of wealth. Yet these blessings we viciously neglect, embrace wars; man with man, city with city fights, the strong enslaves the weak.’ Diplomats in ancient times carried a sprig of olive leaves to announce that they came on a peaceful mission.
Today, the United Nations seal depicts an olive wreath encircling a map of the world. The eagle on the Great Seal of the United States of America clasps an olive branch in one talon, and a bundle of arrows in the other. It could be argued that the US veto of Palestinian efforts to attain statehood at the UN this week indicate that the arrows of power trump the olive branch of Eirene in US policy on this matter.
Wisdom, victory, peace and prosperity have eluded Israelis and Palestinians for so many years. Widespread destruction of the ancient olive groves of the holy lands alienates the great Goddesses of wisdom, victory and peace and inflames the blood lust of Ares even further. The sacred texts tell us that in the days of King David, olive groves were protected, ‘like silver and gold’, by special guards whom the King appointed. Indeed, the official Seal of the State of Israel depicts the Menorah bracketed by two olive sprigs. Yet, blinded by the rage of Ares, settlers and troops destroy the trees that symbolise peace and prosperity – for the Palestinians, for Israel and for the world.
* Joanne Lock is an independent writer and editor based in Australia. To contact Joanne or read more of her work, please visit www.joannelock.com