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Palestine. The Holy Land. An ancient motherland, where every nook and cranny possesses a piece of sacred history. Home of the olive tree: a renowned symbol of peace and tranquility yet trampled in the face of oppression. A centuries-old fruit bearer, ripped from its roots, as though it holds no weight, no meaning. 

I’ve been lucky enough to be allowed entry into my beautiful homeland four times before. I was very young the first time and didn’t know much, but I could see the guns and tanks everywhere we went and hear the innocent children as they screamed at soldiers to put them down. After crossing the Allenby bridge at the Jordanian border and waiting for over a day at military checkpoints in the occupied West Bank with nausea sweeping over me through the countless bumpy bus rides, we had finally arrived at my grandparents’ house in the small village of Kifl Haris. They immediately greeted me: my sitti with her warm embrace, and my sido lifting me up into the air while screams of joy escaped me, my fatigue superseded by the excitement of seeing my estranged family. When he finally put me down, the sound of a small kitten drew me near the back of the house. In an attempt to follow the soft purrs, I stumbled upon their colorful garden, pervaded by plants I did not know the names of. Treading through the greens with careful steps, the leaves of the fruits and flowers brushed over the back of my hand, tickling me as though they longed for the presence of a child among them. Using one of the purple plastic chairs lying on the back deck, I stood to reach grape vines hanging above me and climbed trees to pluck sweet figs and bitter pomegranates. My arms overflowing with fruit and with a kitten in tow, I emerged 15 minutes later with the biggest smile plastered onto my face. Seeing how much I adored their garden, my grandparents were excited to introduce me to their eminent glory: their olive tree groves. After freshening up, we all piled into my grandpa’s 10-year-old Volkswagen that rattled at every turn. As we drove the short distance together, I was awestruck by the majestic mountains that crowned the landscape and the palm trees that lined the streets. Children played soccer with a makeshift ball while soldiers strapped with AK-47s loomed in the background.

As we approached our destination, I nearly jumped out of the moving car as I got a glimpse of what awaited me. The beautiful earthy green field was filled with olive trees standing tall, laden with olives and stretching beyond the corners of my eyes. Waving at me in the breeze, they begged me to climb up their strong limbs and pluck their olives gently. For the second time that day, I was completely blown away by the scene that surrounded me. As I ran towards the first tree I laid eyes on, standing on my tiptoes to reach the tall branches, my sido hauled me up on his shoulders. While I struggled to grab as many as I could, my sido grabbed my wrist and set me back down. He explained why we don’t pick olives one by one — there are simply too many of them on each tree. Instead, with his instruction, we spread out a few white cloth sheets underneath the tree. As my sido beat the olive tree with his wooden cane, the sheet-covered ground beneath us quickly filled with black and green olives. While I sorted through the ripe black olives and put away the firm green ones that still had to be cured, the olives gleamed under the scorching sun. I suddenly wondered if my ancestors also experienced this feeling of inner peace at this very spot while they sorted through olives like me. 

While we worked, my sido told me stories about the history of the land: ancient prophets who roamed the lush fields centuries ago, the religious significance of the monotheistic faiths associated with the region and the Crusades that were fought not far from where we were standing. His face was overtaken with a childlike marvel when describing the spiritual aura surrounding the Al-Aqsa mosque and golden Dome of Rock, but the light in his eyes dimmed when he mentioned the Gaza Strip, which was still under complete siege. This meant that little kids like me had restricted access to clean water to wash their favorite shirts or take baths with their toys. They were forbidden from getting too close to the beach, even on a bright summer day. They were denied usage of electricity to watch TV as their family shared breakfast or stay up late to play computer games. They were barred from traveling for vacations or leaving Gaza to visit family. They were stripped of the opportunity to grow up and attend college or carry dreams for their future. As I listened to my sido in silence, blood rushed to my head and tears welled up in my eyes. I gripped each olive harder, afraid that they would fall out of my trembling hands and smash on the ground. How could the world remain silent as children suffered under such brutal conditions? How could a land famous for its olive trees not know peace? 

The answer: settler-colonialism in all its glory. Settler colonialism is a distinct form of colonialism that seeks to uproot and dispossess the indigenous population of a desired land, replacing them with a new group of colonizing settlers, while ruling over the remaining indigenous peoples through an imperialist authoritative structure. The state of Israel is, in fact, a settler colony, and its Zionist ideology is rooted in the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Israel’s propaganda machine, however, supervises and censors raw footage, presenting the world with a one-sided narrative while giving no room for Palestinian voices to be heard. It has painted a picture in which colonized Palestinians are the sole aggressors, leaving the poor colonizer Israel, the principal nuclear power in the Middle East, with no choice but to defend itself. Part of Israel’s dangerous rhetoric to depict itself as the victim is through an intentional conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. This draws sympathy and unwavering support for Israel from the Western world, rendering it nearly impossible to criticize Israel and its use of brute force against Palestinians without being labeled an antisemite. 

So, how then, can I tell my side of the story without being silenced? How can I appeal to a Western audience who is already dead set on the fact that I belong to a group of savage terrorists and convince them of my right to freely exist? Is the only way I have to tell my story through the lens of an innocent happy child spending time with her grandparents, picking fruits and olives? Must I always omit the gruesome details of settler-colonialism and the constant threat of dispossession in favor of descriptions of pretty scenery? Can I only garner support for my dignity by slipping in the subtleties of living under an excruciatingly violent military occupation with a smile on my face? Why is it expected that I accept the subjugation with my head low to avoid upsetting my oppressor and its supporters?

How can I remain silent when an apartheid power is actively profiting off of the conquest of my land? How can I be asked to “understand both sides” when a colonizer still denies me access to the land my ancestors called home less than 73 years ago? How can I extend an olive branch to an oppressor who consistently denies my existence and tries to erase my story?

MiC Columnist Mariam Odeh can be contacted at odehmari@umich.edu