There are many victims of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but perhaps none so poignant as the olive tree. Since 2005, 9,500 Palestinian trees, mostly olive trees, have been killed, slashed or otherwise “vandalized,” says the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din. That’s not counting those bulldozed to make way for Israeli settlements and for the wall separating Israel from the territories. And the problem is ongoing – earlier today, another 10 Palestinian olive trees were uprooted during a protest in the West Bank, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Today there are approximately 10 million olive trees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, according to Oxfam International. Still, the loss of trees means something, because they are an important part of Palestinian culture. The trees take up about 45 per cent of agricultural land in the two territories and create between 15 and 19 per cent of Palestinian agricultural production. That translates to between $160 million and $191 million a year, Oxfam says, and employs around 100,000 people.
Past some of those trees, in the shadow of that wall in early February, run 10 people, mostly from Northern Michigan. The runners are led by Chris Treter (pronounced “tree-ter”), a former activist who owns Higher Grounds Trading Co., a coffee shop in Traverse City. Treter’s shop also sells olive oil from the Palestinian territories.
Treter’s shop sells only Fair Trade-certified goods, but he thinks he needs to “go beyond fair trade.” Treter, 37, wants to create an extended community that connect his shop with its ultimate suppliers, many of whom live in poverty.
“I think people want to give to causes that they know that they can trust that will help bring direct change to the people that are in their ‘community’ but live halfway around the world,” Treter said in an email from the West Bank.
During the five-day, 129-mile run from At-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills to Jenin in the north, Palestinians sometimes jump in and run along with the Michiganders. One chants “3-2-1. To Jenin yella run!” (“yella” is an Arabic expression for “hurry up”).
The run has gone well after a rough day one, when Israeli police stopped them for two hours and arrested one of their Palestinian hosts, Nasser Abufarha, who says he holds U.S. and Palestinian citizenship. The runners said Abufarha was later charged with organizing an illegal demonstration.
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Treter said in an email interview from the West Bank, “I am quite surprised by the level of intimidation and oppression the Palestinian people face at the hands of the Israeli occupation.”
Branding it an ‘occupation’ shows that Treter is not just a humanitarian jogging towards Jenin, but an activist with a point of view.
This puts the Run Across Palestine in a different light than Treter’s first two efforts to create an extended community. In 2005, Higher Grounds took donations to launch its ongoing Chiapas Water Project, which helps Mexican farmers gain access to safe, clean drinking water.
Then, in 2010, Treter started a non-profit called On The Ground to handle a new project. He had developed a coffee-trading relationship with Ethiopian farmers, and found out the farmers wanted schools for their children. Treter decided to help them raise money through a Run Across Ethiopia, which took place in January 2011. Runners, who paid their own way to Ethiopia and slept in host villages while there, raised $200,000 for schools, books and scholarships.
Why running, as opposed to simply donating the money? “Because it is the perfect bridge,” Treter said. “You get to see and meet many people … People are encouraged in the attempt to run such long distances and therefore will pay attention.”
Norman Plumstead went with him to Ethiopia. Plumstead, a vice president with Honor Bank in Traverse City, also runs the site TraverseGourmet.com, which ties together local artisan foods. Plumstead was so inspired by Treter’s example that he joined the On The Ground board, recently becoming its president.
“We really saw 250 miles of the countryside, one step at a time,” he said of Ethiopia. What amazed him was the amount of work Ethiopian farmers put in just to survive. He believes Michiganders wanted to help because “we’re a community of farmers.” Traverse City is located in a rich agricultural area best known for cherry production.
Perhaps because of Treter’s politics, the Run Across Palestine raised only $20,000. “People are not open to giving nearly as freely to Palestinian causes,” Treter said via email.
Treter puts this down to what he sees as a pro-Israel bias in the U.S. Treter says Muslims have been “demonized” after 9/11, which compounds the negative image many Americans already had of Palestinian Arabs, who have a much longer history of being called terrorists in the Western media.
That does not mean he is anti-Israel, says On The Ground board member Chelsea Bay Dennis, a graphic designer in Traverse City. “We’re not trying to say we’re pro this or anti anything,” she said. “Where we’re coming from is we’re pro-farmers.”
Treter says that is what drove him to raise awareness of the challenges facing ordinary Palestinian farmers, “something we don’t get to learn about in our mass media,” he said.
Then again, plenty of people in Michigan could ask why they should help people in Ethiopia, the Middle East or Mexico when so many Michiganders are in need. Treter points back to the simple idea of community — “the individual that is making our clothes, coffee or, in this case, olive oil lives half way around the world yet our actions are directly affected by them and them by us.”
In the West Bank village of Nesf Jubail on day four of the run, a sign greets them that says, “For the love of the olive, welcome to Palestine.” Children in school uniforms jubilantly cheer them and give them high fives. Treter says he has been wowed by the Palestinians he’s met. “It is by far the most warm culture I have been to and such a far cry from the way our mass media portrays them.”