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A glass of lemon juice

Salma Zidane, a Palestinian widow, makes a modest life off a lemon grove. She has grown up on it and come to own it after her father’s death. She lives alone. Her two daughters are married and her son works as a cleaner in a restaurant in the United States. Abu Hasam, a loyal farm hand who has tended each of the lemon trees with his own hands for over five decades, is a source of strength for Salma.

One morning, Salma finds that Israel’s Defence Minister and his wife have moved into the house opposite her lemon grove. Viewing the grove as a security threat to the Minister, Israel Nivon, and his wife, Mira, since it offered easy cover for snipers, Israel’s Secret Service informs Salma that her lemon grove would be cut down and that she would be compensated for it. A local Palestinian leader reminds her that they had never accepted compensation from Israel and tries to pacify her by reminding her of losses bigger than hers: Israel had demolished the homes of so many locals and confiscated local land for building prisons for them. Deeply attached to her grove, Salma is undeterred by his words and decides to fight it out in the courts.

Abjuring a direct engagement with the savage dimensions of the conflict in the West Bank, Israeli director Eran Riklis’ film, Lemon Tree (2008) conveys nevertheless the enormity of the power differential between the Israelis and the Palestinians living in the occupied territory. Alongside the tormented realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict that keep revealing themselves quietly all through the film, we see that conscience has not vanished among the oppressors and that the oppressed do not share only hatred towards the other side. Finding it hard to reconcile to the plight of Salma – and indeed of Palestinians at large – Mira walks out of her marriage, leaving her husband to confront the unwisdom in his strategy mindset. An Israeli officer, who had known Salma’s husband, ensures that she and her lawyer are given a travel permit to reach the court on a day of curfew. And Salma offers a glass of lemon juice to a sympathetic Israeli journalist whose narration of Salma’s side of the story in her newspaper brings global media attention to her struggle. Salma and Mira face each other across the fence dividing their homes on a few occasions but do not speak ever since they don’t know each other’s language (Arabic and Hebrew, respectively). Lemon Tree seems to imply that the male-driven militant conflict hasn’t allowed scope for the empathetic powers of women to pre-empt violence.

Recalling the parable-like Lemon Tree at this moment is to wonder if the bloody killings in Israel and Gaza could have been averted had people with a conscience been at the helm in these places. The crisis is indeed more widespread. It has been two weeks since Hamas’ horrific attacks on Israel on October 7, and the latter’s deadly retaliation in response. The Gulf Cooperation Council and the ASEAN countries called for a complete ceasefire only two days ago. The United Nations or any of the political leaders in the western countries are yet to do so. What does it take to act as if armed violence on civilians was simply unacceptable? True, the Israel-Palestine conflict is a complex matter, but the complexity cannot cloud the simple truths that all life is precious and that violence cannot ensure a just peace.

Large numbers of people across the world seek a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Gaza. In their minds, non-violence alone can bring about a healing, a lasting peace, between Israel and Palestine.

(Published 21 October 2023, 18:58 IST)

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