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  • Beti Brown

In Memory of a Herb Seller

Bilal Saleh, a beloved face on the streets of Ramallah, a city in the West Bank, Palestine. He sells herbs on the street; sage, thyme, sumac. He gathers the herbs himself in the hills surrounding where he lives.

Sold. Gathered. Lived.

Bilal was murdered by an Israeli settler on the 28th October. Shot in the chest as he harvested olives on his family’s land. By a settler, acting with impunity and protected by soldiers from the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF).

As the world watches the genocide in Gaza, the situation is growing increasingly dire for Palestinians in the West Bank, Al Quds (Jerusalem) and ‘48 Palestine (Israel).

In less than a month, mass arrests in the West Bank have doubled the Palestinian prison population; hundreds of Palestinian citizens of Israel, along with Jewish Israelis, have been persecuted by law enforcement and other institutions for speaking out against the bombing of Gaza; thousands of Gazan workers in ‘48 Palestine have had their work visas revoked and are missing - believed to be held in detention camps; over 500 Palestinians from 13 communities have been violently displaced from Area C and over 100 Palestinains, including 34 children have been killed in the West Bank.

Bilal was 40 years old, from a village south of Nablus called Al Sawiya; like many villages in the West Bank, it is encircled by Israeli settlements which are illegal under international law. He was described by his uncle as “a poor hardworking man of the earth”. After being orphaned at a young age Bilal dropped out of high school to work as a tiler, before starting to explore the hills where he foraged for herbs to sell.

Before he was killed, the earth and land to which Bilal belonged and that nurtured him were shrinking from beneath his feet- the village of Al Sawiya is home to 3500 people who own 12000 dunums (2965 acres), but only have access to 600 dunums (less than 150 acres). The rest of the land is controlled by Israeli Occupation forces and illegal settlers, who attack and harass the Palestinian population, burn their farms, cut down their trees and steal their olive harvest. This kind of settler violence, perpetrated with the protection of the IOF, is common in the West Bank.

As Bilal was nurtured by the land and what grows from it, so too are the people of Palestine as a collective. 75 years after the Nakba (meaning catastrophe in Arabic and referring to the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians from their ancestral land), Palestinian refugees and their descendants still mourn the loss of their connection to their homeland.

The herbs Bilal sold form an essential part of Palestinian culture and identity. The thyme which is blended with sesame seeds and other herbs to make za'atar. The marimia (sage) which is made into a tea at the first mention of a sore tummy to a Palestinian mother, before you've had the chance to argue! The nana (mint) which is added to sugary black tea, tiny hot glasses thrust into your hand in every home you enter. Parsley in tabbouleh and falafel; cinnamon, turmeric, cumin for the show stopping 'upside down' dish maqlouba; rose or orange water in baklava; cardamom in the coffee. Walk through any market in Palestine and you will see old women sitting on crates selling bunches of fresh herbs, stalls selling bright pink pickled cauliflower, and herbs and spices which scent the air.

Like cultures the world over, traditional healing systems in Palestine have been somewhat marginalised and replaced by mainstream medicine. Where once the market’s attareen (herbalist) would have formulated medicines for their community’s ailments, now they sell simples- single herbs for customers to blend at home or use in cooking, or in some cases souvenirs. Much like the people of Palestine in the wider context, attarine continue, steadfast, healing their communities and connecting people to the land through herbal medicine. Growers continue to grow herbs on ancestral land, even under the threat of violent expulsion and even as their products are often exported to Israel and re-exported under Israeli brand names for a higher price. In the face of expropriation and dispossession, Palestinians send out tap roots, reaching deep into the earth of their homeland, like the olive trees Bilal was tending when he was killed.

The olive tree has become a symbol of sumud - steadfastness - and the resilience of the Palestinian people. The olive harvest in October is an opportunity for families and communities to come together, to share stories and connect with the land. To be rooted in spite of the ongoing Nakba and ever present threat of displacement. Settlers often target olive groves for vandalism and destruction. The enduring symbol of these ancient and gnarled trees, whose fruit nourishes and whose image emboldens, is not lost on them.

I experienced first hand this destruction of Palestinian flora during my time in Al Khalil (Hebron) in 2012. I was working with the organisation Youth Against Settlements, sleeping in the centre. One morning I woke up to find the garden ransacked, furniture set alight, plants uprooted. My colleague in the organisation drank his shay w nana (tea with mint) without sugar that day, a custom for those in mourning.

These individual cases of settler violence against Palestinians and their land echo the wider policies and practices of the state of Israel. A key goal of Zionism’s ongoing settler colonial project from its inception has been to “make the desert bloom”- disregarding the diversity and ecological balance that has existed in Palestine long before the first invasive pine trees were planted. The planting of these pine trees was not simply a gardening faux pas. British-Israeli writer Susan Nathan writes that for Israel “trees are a weapon of continuing dispossession”- a practice of greenwashing whereby native species of plants - as well as the people who have lived with and cultivated them for generations - are removed and replaced with non-native species. Plantations of European pine species crowd out smaller plants, prevent shepherds from grazing flocks, destroy ancient Bedouin routes and guard and expand illegal settlements. Friends of the Earth have also noted the environmental injustice, colonialism and ethnic cleansing inflicted upon Palestinians and their land, from expropriation of land and water sources to tactics of sewage dumping and pollution as a weapon. While these policies and practices have caused immense ecological destruction as well as untold human misery, the state of Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) machine hides the damage beneath a green shroud, using their planting of trees as further justification for ethnic cleansing.

Still, the olive trees remain, steadfast.

We mourn Bilal. We mourn the 9000+ (at time of writing) Palestinians in Gaza killed by Israeli bombs. We mourn the villages that now lie beneath Israeli national parks.

But we also fight, for a ceasefire in Gaza. For the aid which Gazans so desperately need. For an end to the siege. For full civil rights for Palestinians in ‘48. For the right of the Palestinians in the diaspora to return to their homeland. For an end to the occupation. For Bilal and his memory.

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