Israeli activists help Palestinians harvest olive crop

JIT, West Bank — Fearful that radical Jewish settlers will swoop and steal their olives, Palestinians are turning to an unlikely source of protection to secure this year’s desperately needed harvest.

Several hundred Israelis, from left-wing activists to moderate Jewish settlers, regularly volunteer to help Palestinians pick olives, believing that their presence deters the worst excesses of radical violence. “I think what we do now is the way of peace. Palestinians and Jews work hand in hand on the trees and pick fruit together,” says Zacharia Sada, West Bank coordinator for the Israeli rights group Rabbis For Human Rights. “It gives us hope that the other side of the occupation, the Jewish people, are a peaceful people and want to live together,” he adds, sitting in the shade and listening to the soothing sound of olives pattering to the ground.

For Palestinians, the olive is a tree that most symbolises their attachment to the land in the occupied West Bank.

A middle-aged woman in a flowered dress and white headscarf balances on a branch to reach fruit as an army jeep drives by.

“Thank God. That’s what there is,” grins Ahmed Yamiin, thanking volunteers profusely for their help as he sews up sacks of freshly picked olives in this village where Jewish settlers have routinely vandalised olive groves.

Across the road, behind Jit and beyond Yamiin’s weather-beaten face, looms the settlement of Qedumim, with its red-roofed villas and manicured gardens.

“Normally there are 150 to 200 people [helping] in the village, but they are too frightened to come here,” he says. Only Yamiin and three other Palestinians were willing to join the volunteers this day in harvesting the olives next to the road. “Some of them come with dogs. When they come along, some drive in their cars very dangerously to scare us off. They throw rocks.

They shoo us away,” says Yamiin when asked about the Jewish settlers.

Adding to their problems, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are mired in the worst economic crisis since the Palestinian Authority was created, battling sanctions imposed by Israel and the West against the elected but Islamist Hamas-led government.

As a result none of the 160,000 civil servants on the Palestinian Authority payroll has been paid properly since March. “For seven months they’ve had no money. It’s the main problem in the village. Now if the army and settlers don’t let them get to their lands, or if the settlers steal the fruit…” trails off Sada, a Jit local himself.

Money will come by turning olives into oil at Jit’s shabby breeze block olive press, which Ahmed says produces around 15,000 kilos of oil per year. But already this harvest observers are seeing a tentative improvement — the first since the high court ruled in June that Israel, as the occupying force, has a duty to protect the local population and ensure they can use their land. “I’ve already seen more flexibility from the army in terms of willingness to do what the Palestinians ask,” says Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, which helps with the harvest in 30 West Bank villages.

“Although there’ve been some days when the soldiers have been nasty or threatening,” he adds. “One day they said ‘you move any further than here and we’ll shoot you and treat you like terrorists’.”

The Israeli military insisted it was cooperating with police and the civil administration “to ensure that the Palestinian olive farmers are able to pick their olives without disruption”. Rabbis For Human Rights, which has a couple of hundred volunteers on its books, has been helping with the harvest for the past four years. Their activities are bolstered by other Israeli groups that also send volunteers.

“The real test is not the olive harvest, it is what comes after,” says Ascherman, predicting “disaster” should the military stick by a new policy of excluding Israeli activists from contested areas.

“The attitude that looks at Israeli volunteers as causing trouble and provocation is a very dangerous attitude,” he says, adding that law enforcement against settlers who commit crimes against Palestinians was “worse to dismal”.

He also warns that the high court ruling will be more difficult to enforce in those parts of the West Bank siphoned off to the “Israeli side” of the concrete separation barrier, ostensibly built as a last defence to stop “terrorist” infiltration.

“We’re back to square one on this,” Ascherman says. “Many people are denied permits to get to their land … We’re extremely concerned.” Š

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