The Cry of the Olive Trees 

Environmental Ecocide in Palestine

By the ISNA Green Initiative Team

Jan/Feb 2024

Today we are witnessing unjust wars, the degradation and exploitation caused by the Zionist apartheid state, of not only a group of people and their economy, but also the violation of the rights of voiceless nature. This is causing the exponential rise of unsustainable practices, environmental degradation, and biodiversity decline. Further choking the existence of the occupied people and their land is the added layer of climate change. High temperatures, increased rainfall, sea levels rising, and increasing toxic wastes in the land have become unmanageable. 

The dehumanizing and oppression of people deprived of human rights and the right of self-determination; illegal settler colonialism; restrictions on movement; the destruction of farmlands and the native biodiversity of fauna, flora and its pollinators — to the dismantling of renewable energy infrastructure and an agricultural economy — is a direct result of an apartheid state, resulting in an ecocide. Ironically, under the facade of the victim, today the apartheid state is the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Part of the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of agriculture and civilization, Palestine is located at the intersection of continents and has five phytogeographical areas. Since 1948, those Palestinians surrounded by Israel have been living under its brutal occupation, where uprooting olive trees, demolishing homes (Rebuilding and marauding Israeli settlers are being used to constrict the Palestinians’ economy and limit their access to food, clean water, hygiene, and natural resources. Uprooting olive trees and choking off the water are tools for the ever-expanding boundaries of the Zionist state, not a “Jewish state,” as stated by Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, spokesperson of Neturei Karta. 

This is not dissimilar to other stories of land acquisition, in particular apartheid in South Africa, European colonialism, or slavery in the Americas, and the same realities in the Ottoman and Arab empires. Archbishop Tutu said he saw “the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.” 

Zoughbi Alzoughbi (founder and director, Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center), who once visited a Native American reservation, said, “I found a historical map showing the stages of land dispossession of the First Nation people … To the staff and supporters of Wi’am the message was obvious; both Native Americans and Palestinians were Native to their lands, colonized by another people, told there was a way to live peacefully together, then violently removed from their own land, then forced onto small reservations of land, then slowly had even that land taken away by home demolitions and new settler colonies, only to end up treated by the colonizers as obstacles to peace and not as people.”

The Importance of Olive Trees

Olive trees are a primary source of income — about $12.3 million lost — for over 80,000 Palestinian families who rely on the olive harvest. According to UN figures, approximately 48% of the West Bank’s agricultural land is planted with olive trees. These trees account for 70% of Palestine’s fruit production and contribute approximately 14% to its economy. In addition, 93% of the harvest is used for olive oil production and the remaining 7% for local consumption. Olives, olive oil, and olive wood are used to produce soaps, table olives, and pickles 

Since 1967, 800,000 olive trees and 2.5 million trees have been uprooted — supposedly for security reasons. Since 1995, 60% of Palestinians have lost farmland to Israeli settlements, walls, military zones, by-pass roads and other closures (MIFTAH and Israeli agricultural export companies such as Mehadrin and Hadiklaim are among the primary beneficiaries of the destruction of Palestinian agriculture — they export produce from illegal settlements using stolen Palestinian land and water, as well as profit from the siege on Gaza.

Since October 2007 Palestinians have been unable to access their farmland (BDS & AlJazeera Nov 6. 2023). Israel has denied Palestinians access to their natural resources, including shared water resources, an estimated 1.5 billion barrels of oil reserves in the West Bank and more than $2.5 billion worth of natural gas off Gaza’s coast (UNPress, Oct. 17, 2022).

As the Israeli government cuts off fuel supplies, Palestinians living in Gaza use rooftop solar panels to help access electricity. However, since the Oct. 7 attack Israeli forces have ordered a complete siege of Gaza, which has cut off electricity and fuel supplies and targets hospitals via the solar panels on the AlShifa Hospital (ClimateHomeNews). 

Writing in The Guardian [UK] on July 9, 2019, Miriam Berger reported that Israel sprays the buffer zone to allegedly deprive potential “terror elements” of cover; however, farmers in Gaza say doing so damages crops and livelihoods. Forensic Architecture, a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, stated that over the last five years Israeli planes have sprayed herbicide more than 30 times on the Israeli side of the buffer zone with Gaza. Even private rooftop home gardens are not spared.

Israeli water construction is another way to strangle Palestinian agriculture so that Israel can acquire more land. Tel Aviv builds water pipelines through Palestinian lands that help destroy the land, a practice that constricts the Palestinians’ water use and causes the destruction of olive trees and ends a generational livelihood (Corradin, Camilla. Israel: Water as a tool to dominate Palestinians. AlJazeera News. 2016).

Only an estimated 1% of solid waste is currently being recycled. The Israeli occupation has transformed the occupied Palestinian lands into a landfill for hazardous and toxic wastes and sewage since 1967. In fact, 60% of Israeli waste ends up in the occupied areas. This reality chokes the life of Palestinians while destroying the soil, and poisoning and polluting the groundwater. Israel’s disposal of its wastes is a clear violation of international laws related to environmental protection (MiddleEast Monitor, 2018).

A Solution 

The Olive Tree is a symbol of peace in all Abrahamic faiths. The Torah says, “Even if you are at war with a city … you must not destroy its trees” (Deut 20:19-20).  In Gen. 8:11-12, a dove returned an olive branch to Noah on the Ark, signaling the Flood’s end. Quran 24:35 proclaims, “The parable of His light is as if there were a niche within it a lamp: the lamp enclosed in glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: lit from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touch it.” 

The Quran explains that humanity holds a privileged position among God’s creations — vicegerent (khalifa) — and that each person is entrusted with caring for God’s creation. And yet it repeatedly warns Muslims against hubris by asserting that they are no better than any other creature. The Prophet (salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) acknowledges that God’s knowledge and power covers everything. Therefore, abusing one of His creations, whether it is a living being or a natural resource, is a grave sin. 

Prophet Muhammad was a steadfast advocate of environmental justice, its preservation and conservation and environmental rights. He constantly sought to maintain a harmonious balance between all members of humanity and nature. He was a strong proponent of sustainable practices and equal access by all users of the environment. His words about the environment can be related to contemporary environmental issues.

In closing, the solution lies in the cry of the olive trees. This cry denotes a non-diverse, colonialist worldview, the exact opposite of the Abrahamic traditions. Muslims, as followers of the middle way — as God’s khalifah — are obliged to safeguard the trust gifted by God. Killing innocent women and children is murder, which God abhors. Indiscriminate killing cannot be validated as self-defense by any side. 

May God bless the slaughtered humans– and the destroyed environment. “O humanity! Indeed, We created you from a male and a female, and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may ˹get to˺ know one another. Surely the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you. Allah is truly All-Knowing, All-Aware” (49:13).

The ISNA Green Initiative Team comprises Huda Alkaff; Saffet Catovic; Nana Firman; Uzma Mirza; S. Masroor Shah (Chair).

Tell us what you thought by joining our Facebook community. You can also send comments and story pitches to Islamic Horizons does not publish unsolicited material.