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Could olive oil get peace moving?

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KAI RYSSDAL: The unofficial truce that had been holding between the Israelis and the Palestinians has broken down. There were rocket attacks and air raids in the West Bank and Gaza over night. So far, politics hasn’t been able to bring peace to this part of the world. Marketplace’s Sam Eaton went to the West Bank, where some Palestinians and Israelis are using economics as a road map.

SAM EATON: The hills surrounding Jenin in the northern West Bank are bone dry except for the neat rows of silver-green olive trees. According to Muslim tradition these ancient trees are blessed by God. But in today’s fractured Palestinian economy they’ve assumed a more practical role.

Mahmoud Issa: The olive tree is the main feeder of the family. In conditions of siege and a bad economy it’s our only source of income. And it’s a given source of income.

Palestinian olive farmer Mahmoud Issa takes a break from plowing to hammer a busted tractor part back into place. He says the trees surrounding us have been passed down from father to son for centuries.

A cycle unbroken until today. Israeli forces recently walled off much of Issa’s land in order to protect a nearby Jewish settlement. Now he needs a special permit to cross the barbed-wire checkpoint and work his fields. He says it was like losing a part of himself.

Issa: This is the catastrophe. There is a great deal of humiliation in crossing. You can’t cross with dignity.

These conditions have fueled violence in the region for decades. But instead of casting stones at Israeli tanks Issa, and a newly formed cooperative of eight hundred farmers, are resisting through economic means.

Behind the steel doors of this warehouse on the outskirts of Jenin workers bottle extra virgin olive oil destined for markets in the US and Europe. It’s both certified organic and Fair Trade. That means consumers pay higher prices so that farmers like Issa are guaranteed a “fair” wage, more than twice what they’d make selling on the local market. But it’s not just the money that’s driving them. The program’s director, Nasser Abufarha, says each bottle sold abroad carries an important message: made in Palestine.

Nasser Abufarha: It’s an exercise of recognition. Especially in the western world where the word Palestine has been deleted from the atlases. We put Palestine on the shelf. That’s a recognition of Palestinians as a nation, a recognition of Palestine as a country, as a place.

Abufarha says that recognition is the first step toward any lasting peace with Israel. It also opens the door for the next step, economic cooperation. An American organic soap company is creating a model for doing just that. Olive oil is the main ingredient for Dr Bronner’s famous liquid soap. So in a symbolic act of peace, the company has begun mixing oil from both sides of the conflict. It’s only a fraction of the region’s total harvest. But Abufarha says it’s a start.

Abufarha: The mixing is not going to address all the problems that exist on the ground in Palestine and Israel. But the more these exchanges become equitable and respect of each other’s identity, eachother’s entitlement to land, to fair return from our farms. When we can bond with each other on these principles, the future is very bright.

Michael Strauss: It gives the hope that maybe in the future there will be some cooperation.

Olive farmer Michael Strauss grows the Israeli portion of Dr. Bronner’s olive oil supply. His hillside grove is only ten miles from Abufarha’s warehouse. But unlike the West Bank, the economy here is humming. Trucks passing on the highway below us carry a steady stream of Israeli goods to the port of Haifa for export. Economically Israel is doing just fine. But Strauss says the Israelis still need the Palestinians.

Strauss: There’s an English saying if we don’t work together, we’ll hang together. So that is exactly what it is. If we don’t find a way to cooperate in a broader sense, I don’t know how the existence in the Middle East is going to continue in the right way, yes.

Strauss says his olive grove will likely be returned someday to the Palestinian family who planted it more than 200 years ago. A time, he says, when Jews and Muslims coexisted peacefully. Strauss, who’s 68 years old, says he may not see peace in his lifetime. But his olive trees, which live as long as a thousand years, will.

In northern Israel, I’m Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

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