Near Sea Of Galilee, Groves Of Olive Trees Bind People To Land -- Arab-Israeli Enmity Dims During Harvest

DEIR HANNA, Israel - The sons and daughters of Ahmad and Amina Khateeb return to the olive groves of Galilee about this time every year. They gather under the trees, the fruit heavy and clean from the first rains. Together, they harvest the crop from the fields of their forefathers.

Saleh, at 37 the youngest of the 13 Khateeb children, pokes an oak staff into the leafy, green boughs and shakes it. Olives fall like hail on the plastic tarps spread beneath the trees.

The women sift through the fallen fruit for fat green olives. These will be cured in jars at home. The bulk of the crop, collected in boxes and crates, will be hauled to the local olive press to make oil.

The Khateeb family gathering is being repeated in Arab villages across Galilee. For this is the time of the olives, the season of harvest.

Every man with a grove will set out for the fields after sunrise and not leave before dusk.

Olive trees and stone fences

Olive trees cover the hillsides across the country, and stone fences built by hand distinguish one man's land from another's.

An olive branch has long been the symbol of peace. But the tree has also become the symbol of a people and an emblem of the long-running dispute over land between Arab and Jew.

"If you don't have olive trees, you don't exist," says Ali Khateeb, a son of Ahmad and Amina, who is visiting from Norway. "When you mention the olive tree, you mention the whole Palestinian culture - the whole tradition. Oil and earth. The symbolism of the olive tree is unexplainable."

Deir Hanna residents farm about 3,000 dunams of land - about 750 acres. Several of the gnarled trunks on the Khateebs' land stand like ancient gnomes. They are among the oldest trees - centuries old, as the villagers tell it. The bounty in olives and oil have earned the area a reputation unmatched in the country.

If the American Midwest is the country's breadbasket, the Galilee region - the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee - is "the biggest jar of oil in Israel," says Deir Hanna's Mayor Raja Khateeb, the surname of many in this village of 7,000. "This region is the heart of the Galilee.

"We have olive trees since the Noah period," says the mayor with a mischievous smile. "When he sent the dove and it brought the branch, it was from these olive trees."

Family tradition runs deep

Olive trees may no longer provide the main income of the families, but the families nevertheless harvest the crop.

"If you haven't olives, you haven't property," says Raja Khateeb, the father of five children. "The olive tree has been planted by our grandfather, who keeps it for our fathers, who keep it for us, and we have to keep it for our sons, to keep it for their sons."

Sticks and chain saws help speed the process along, but most of the work is done by hand. Saleh, the youngest Khateeb son, uses an oak staff to jostle the olives free. Another worker climbs into the tree, grabs hold of a branch and shakes it. With a chain saw, he prunes a hole in the tree's leafy top so more sun can reach the olives, a necessity for a good crop.

It is midday. The family has harvested about 30 small trees. The olives they miss on the trees will remain for the birds. The ones on the ground will be scooped up by youngsters hoping to sell them for a few pennies to the local oil press.

Jews, Arabs brought together

This year, as in the two years before, Israelis from towns and cities as far away as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have arrived in buses and cars to watch families like the Khateebs harvest their crop.

Arab and Jewish leaders from the surrounding towns organize weekend olive festivals during the harvest.

One weekend in Deir Hanna, Nasser Khateeb - a teacher most of the year - stands in front of several ancient trees, explaining the harvest in fluent Hebrew. His visitors listen intently.

Dani Alter, a former theater producer from Jerusalem, is among the crowd. A resident of a nearby Jewish community, he helped organize the local olive festival, and the experience defies the stereotypes of Arab-Jewish tensions.

"People will come here, and nobody will throw stones," Alter says. "They can come and eat and enjoy the beautiful weather."