For centuries the olive branch has been offered as a symbol of unconditional peace, since olive trees take decades to produce fruit and thus can only be cultivated during long periods of stability. Ironically, these symbols of peace are a significant crop in the Middle East, where they are prized for their ability to flourish for hundreds of years despite bad soil and little water. Moreover, the widespread destruction of olive trees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the Intifada is a microcosm of the ongoing internecine conflict between Israel and Palestine. Just as the fighting has claimed almost 3,000 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli lives, it has also claimed an unlikely victim in hundreds of thousands of olive trees.

During 2000, the first year of the Intifada, the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture reported that some 374,030 trees had been destroyed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since olive products are the second most profitable Palestinian export, Palestinian farmers incurred losses totaling almost US$300 million between September 2000 and June 2001.

The destruction of the olive trees resulted from defensive measures taken by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and attacks by occupying Jewish settlers. Israelis claim that Palestinians exploit olive groves as a defensive shield when they attack Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. An IDF army commander, Col. Eitan Abrahams, explained to a Christian Science Monitor journalist that “owners of groves are to blame when their trees are uprooted. If the owner of the grove, whom I assume knows the sniper or the petrol bomb throwers, does not take the measures he must take, then his grove will come down.” Eitan insisted that the tree removals “are for the safety of settlers ... . No one should tell me that an olive tree is more important than a human life.” Israeli settlers who occupy the West Bank and Gaza Strip have also torched and hacked olive trees to intimidate Palestinian residents. Moreover, the IDF often protects Jewish settlers as they engage in such obliteration of Palestinian property; there have been dozens of documented accounts of settlers attacking Palestinians on their way to harvest their olive crop. Frustrated Palestinians thus claim that the Israeli government is deliberately trying to ruin the Palestinian economy. Monitoring Israeli Colonizing Activities, a joint project of the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem and the Land Research Center, writes that “Israel has chosen to wage war against the Palestinian people not only in the battlefields, but also in the olive fields.”

In addition to causing material losses to Palestinian farmers, the destruction of olive trees adversely impacts their identity as a people; many see uprooting the tree as an an Israel attempt to clear the land of the marks of Palestinian history and culture. The account of Ahmed Kasem, a Palestinian farmer, documents the olive tree tragedy: “I planted my olive trees when I was only 20 years old. Fifty-six years later, I saw them being recklessly cut and uprooted.” In remembrance of the many decades he tended to his trees, Kasem placed the remaining roots of the trees in his yard. “I look at the roots everyday. I will always keep the roots to remind my grandchildren what the IDF did to me and to them.”

As Israeli troops occupy Palestinian lands and Palestinian militants continue operations throughout Israel, the issue of olive tree destruction has been overshadowed. In the Bible, it is said that after the devastation of the flood, a dove from the ark brought an olive leaf to Noah. But in this region, olive trees are growing rarer as the harbingers of peace.