Reaping a dangerous harvest in the West Bank's olive groves

Some have been shot. Others harassed by Jewish settlers. Donald Macintyre joins the Palestinian farmers of Sinjil as they hurry to gather their crop
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Along the ridge above us, the armed crews of three Israeli police cars are stationed between the Jewish West Bank settlement of Givat Haroe and the Palestinian olive grove in the valley below, where the villagers of Sinjil are harvesting their trees as fast as their energy, sapped by a month of Ramadan fasting, allows. Whatever the momentous events elsewhere, the progress of the seasons cannot be ignored. The olives must be harvested, and this is a rare opportunity for the farmers to pick the crop on their own land without the fear of being chased away by the gun-toting settlers.

Along the ridge above us, the armed crews of three Israeli police cars are stationed between the Jewish West Bank settlement of Givat Haroe and the Palestinian olive grove in the valley below, where the villagers of Sinjil are harvesting their trees as fast as their energy, sapped by a month of Ramadan fasting, allows. Whatever the momentous events elsewhere, the progress of the seasons cannot be ignored. The olives must be harvested, and this is a rare opportunity for the farmers to pick the crop on their own land without the fear of being chased away by the gun-toting settlers.

The olive is supposed to symbolise peace; here it is at the heart of the conflict for the land between the settlers, who believe they have a God-given right to live anywhere in what they see as greater Israel, and the Palestinian owners of the trees, who are trying to farm on their side of the "green line" that marked the pre-1967 border between Jordan and Israel.

Halfway up a ladder, Nemiah Shaibani, picking olives with her sister and sister-in- law, looks up to the brow of the hill where the only sign of the settlement is the blue and white Israeli flag fluttering in the breeze. Nemiah, in her mid-fifties, still cannot think of the territory sloping out of sight down the other side of the hill as Givat Haroe. Rather it is Abu Adas, part of the farmland her family had tilled since she was a little girl. "The land of the settlement is the land of my grandfather," she says. The loss, however, would be easier to bear if her family could harvest the land left to them without fear of harassment. "All we want is to pick our olives and live in peace," she says.

But even down here in the valley, well inside the Palestinian side of the green line, the olive harvest, like that of the figs and grapes at other times of the year, is a hazardous business. Mrs Nemiah's relative, Ibrahim Shaibani, who runs a mini-market in the village, says that their ability to harvest can come down to the mood of the soldiers in the area; sometimes they take the line of least resistance by ordering the villagers off the land, but at other times they protect them from settlers, whose final goal, he says, is "to terrorise us and drive us off the land".

The Shaibanis' neighbour, Abdul Jabar Jamil, says: "For seven months I kept off my land. We ploughed it in March and now it is November." The reason he gives is the constant fear of being shot at by settlers from the ridge where the police cars are stationed today. "The settlers threaten us with weapons. The year before last one came and told me: 'If you don't leave I'll bring bulldozers and destroy all your trees." He cannot, he says, risk planting 50 acres adjacent to the olive grove with wheat and barley, as he used to. "Not a human being, not a sheep can go in there," he says. "If we go in there they shoot at us immediately. If a donkey goes in there I dare not go and fetch him back for fear they will shoot at me."

Remarkably, it is partly thanks to a Jewish rabbi that Mr Jamil, a devout Muslim, is able to unfold his mat and pray on his own land - in between climbing the trees to pick his olives - for the first time since the spring. One reason why the villagers can harvest their crop in relative safety today under police protection is that they have been joined by Jewish volunteers summoned by Arik Ascherman, the energetic Harvard-educated executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, which for the past two years has been vigorously agitating, including through the Israeli courts, for olive farmers to be allowed to harvest their crop in safety.

Having won the confidence of Palestinian farmers by rising at dawn day after day to pick olives side by side with them, Rabbi Ascherman provides a rare example of grassroots Jewish-Arab dialogue. He tells of how, to their mutual astonishment, he recently found himself picking olives in the West Bank village of Beit Furik alongside a member of Yasser Arafat's presidential guard. Rabbi Ascherman isn't starry-eyed about the contact: "I don't know what he will do when he is next confronted with an ethical choice," he says. "But I do now that after such an encounter there is more chance he will choose non-violence over violence."

In anything like peaceful times, olives are a staple of the struggling Palestinian economy, the oil alone accounting for nearly 20 per cent of agricultural output. Olives are harvested every year but the peak of the cycle is reached in even numbered years. In villages such as Jama'in, near Nablus, where a noisy Italian-built press is turning farmer Adnan Mazen's olives into virgin olive oil, you can get a glimpse of what a prosperous peace-time Palestinian agricultural economy might look like.

Mr Mazen has had his own problems; early in October, he says: "My daughter her husband and I were harvesting the olives when five settlers carrying weapons started throwing stones at us, so we ran away. " He was lucky that the olives weren't stolen. He is, however, more worried about the depression in the oil price because the road closures and checkpoints across the West Bank mean it can only be sold in local markets, fetching just half the price it would make outside the area.

And the Jama'in press is one of the busier ones; 62 of the total of 277 across the occupied territories have shut down because of the economic decline. In 2002, moreover, according to UN figures, there were 190 reported instances of settler violence and tree destruction in the West Bank and Gaza during the olive harvest. And that is without the additional problem of the one million trees (ten per cent of the total) totally or regularly inaccessible to their owners because of the separation barrier that cuts deep into the West Bank.

This year too there has been a spate of incidents, although Rabbi Ascherman reports a reduction since the first two weeks of the harvest. But in the village of Orif at the end of October Salman Safeidi, 17, was killed by gunfire from the settlement of Yitzhar. The settler arrested afterwards has told police he shot in self-defence while under attack; the boys' relatives that he was murdered as he went to check whether his grandfather's olive grove could be harvested in safety.

The rabbis' group and the Association of Civil Rights in Israel last month scored an important success in the Israeli High Court when the army and police reaffirmed their duty in principle to protect the right of olive-pickers to harvest. The plaintiffs argued that they have always been obliged to do so under the fourth Geneva Convention's definition of the duties of an occupying power. Now Jewish activists are pushing to have this principle put into practice. Although the results have been patchy, to say the least, there have been some successes, especially in the areas round the West Bank cities of Nablus and Qalkilya.

On Tuesday, farmers from the West Bank village of Awarta were prevented once again by stone-throwing settlers from entering the area between the outer and inner perimeter fences of the settlement of Itamar, where several thousand of their trees grow. But yesterday the Awarta farmers were allowed to enter their own land, in many cases for the first time in three years. Some 70 settlers again threw stones, but this time they had about 150 troops and police to contend with; 15 settlers were detained. David Nir, a retired physicist who was one of the Jewish activists helping with the harvest, said the victory was only symbolic, but it was an important symbol. "About 70 or 80 per cent of the olives had been stolen by the settlers, all except the ones at the top of the trees which they were too lazy to reach."

Mr Nir said there had been a definite improvement since the court case in army and police protection, although only in certain areas; around Hebron, for example, he says, the security forces are taking a "negative" attitude to their legal duty to protect the farmers. Nor, given the "bigger picture" of a political climate and a government that has so far done nothing to challenge the right of most settlers in the West Bank - as opposed to Gaza - to stay put, is he optimistic that the protection will be available in the less high-profile times of the year when the farmers need to cultivate and plough their land.

Yet it is a safe bet that Mr Nir and his Jewish co-volunteers will be back next year. Rabbi Ascherman explains the reasons why he devotes so much time and energy to helping the Palestinian olive farmers. The first is that he - like Mr Nir - believes passionately in their right to farm their groves in security. Secondly, he believes that the mere fact of Jews working alongside Arabs, however difficult the circumstances, can also serve a wider cause.

Even if there were to be a negotiated peace settlement for the conflict, it would not hold unless the hatred of the two peoples also started to dissipate, he said. "Breaking down stereotypes is in our long-term self-interest." He adds: "This is the just and right and Jewish thing to do, but it is also the hard-headed realpolitik thing to do."

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