Whenever Salma has guests, she serves lemonade. Their eyes light up when they sip it, and they all render the same judgment: "Tasty!"
Satisfied guests are a rare consolation for Salma (Hiam Abbass), the stoic Palestinian woman at the center of the Israeli film Lemon Tree, which is based on true events. She tends the West Bank lemon grove that also was tended by her father. It is her livelihood. The grove is threatened when Israeli defense minister Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) and his wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), move into a house next to it. The minister's security agents say that terrorists could stage an attack from the grove, and so it must be uprooted.
So begins a legal struggle between Salma and the state of Israel, one that eventually goes before the Supreme Court. But no one suffers the illusion that the struggle is merely over lemons. "There must be another solution," Mira says of the decision to raze the grove. "Three thousand years and no one's found one," the defense minister muses in response.
The film's chief theme is, of course, the white-hot Palestinian crisis. We see the humiliating toll Israel's occupation of the West Bank takes on everyday Palestinians, who deal with overanxious Israeli soldiers and the ugly scar that is the ever-lengthening separation wall. They also deal with Israeli and Palestinian bureaucracies that are, respectively, uncaring and rife with cronyism.
What carries the film is the mesmerizing performance of Abbass, who cries silent tears of rage and, in a gasp-inducing moment, climbs a hastily built fence so she can care for her trees. The story of her courage in the face of injustice is written to be inspiring, and it recalls the heroines of films like Erin Brockovich, Silkwood, Norma Rae.
But the film falters with a subplot about Salma's fitful romance with her much younger lawyer (Ali Suliman). Salma's story is compelling and infuriating enough on its own. The love story is a distraction.