Runners offer an olive branch to Palestine
Last year, six ultra-marathon runners set out on an unforgettable journey unlike any other run they had done before. The runners, all from the US, planned to complete 129 miles in just five days. But this wasn’t just about clocking up marathon miles or scoring best times. This was about running to build bridges of understanding between the Middle East and the West.
The team was running a route planned across Palestine, from Hebron to Jenin, with the aim of planting olive trees for Palestinian farmers as they went.
The run, known as The Run Across Palestine, was organised by On the Ground, an organisation which aims to support sustainable community development across the world, and the Palestine Fair Trade Association. Their journey became the subject of a recent documentary, The People and the Olive, by the American filmmaker Aaron Dennis, which was shown at independent screenings in the UK this summer. Dennis filmed the runners every day, interviewing farmers along the way to create an insight into the reality of life in the West Bank.
Thousands of Palestinian families depend upon the fruit of olive tree crops for their income and living. But since 2001, an estimated half a million olive trees have been uprooted, burnt or bulldozed by Israeli military and settlers. According to the United Nations, more than 870 trees were destroyed in the first week of the annual harvest of 2012 alone.
Every year, the olive harvest risks being attacked by Israeli settlers and Palestinian farmers risk losing their livelihood. In the film, a Palestinian woman from Beit Ummar stands in front of her family’s land and says: “Land is a human being’s honour. And we cannot give it up.”
In The People and the Olive, the cameras follow the runners along barren rural highways and patches of green hillsides. They run beside crumbling housing developments and ruins and then through crowded marketplaces where children give them high-fives. All the while, they run under incredibly bright sun.
At one point, the runners approach Jerusalem. The wall that separates Bethlehem and Jerusalem is a giant, grey concrete slab covered in graffiti. “This wall may take care of the present. But it has no place in the future,” reads one slogan. Claire Everhart, one of the runners, stops in front of it. “This thing should not be here,” she says, visibly affected by the barrier.
Later, the team has to leave its team of organisers from the Palestinian Fair Trade Association behind as they head in and then out of Jerusalem – one of the organisers can’t enter the city despite having been born there and holding an American passport. “Once a Palestinian, always a Palestinian,” she says. When asked what she would do if she was allowed in, she says: “I think I’d run to Jerusalem.”
For the runners, the journey was tough in more ways than one.
“This run was physically and emotionally the hardest thing that I have done,” says Randi Lyn Stolz, one of the runners who took part. “The second I stepped over the finish ribbon, the tears started flowing. All of our emotions were so strong.” The Palestinian landscape and extreme weather conditions made it more challenging. “The mountainous terrain was insane. The impact on my body going up and down is painful even now just thinking about it. By the end of the run, I was running with ice packs wrapped around my knees that were swollen to the size of ripe grapefruits,” says Stolz.
The journey was made tougher by unexpected interruptions. On the first day of their run, the team was stopped just 10km after they started by Israeli police who told them not to run on the road itself, but beside it. Two kilometres later, they were stopped again and this time questioned by 15 police officers who ended up arresting Nasser Abufarha, the founder of the Palestine Fair Trade Association, who played a huge part in organising the run’s logistics.
At another point in their journey, Israeli forces pointed guns while the runners planted olive trees in a grove with community members and one time, percussion hand grenades and tear gas were used.
But the runners say they were overwhelmed by the positivity that outweighed the negativity they encountered. They ended up planting more than 2,000 olive trees.
“The response was huge,” says Stolz. “Every town, city and community we went through, people were waving at us with peace signs and the Palestinian flag. They were very appreciative to us for just listening to them and getting their story out.”
• The People and the Olive can be watched online at www.thepeopleandtheolive.com
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