Demanding a Settler-Free Olive Harvest

By Joharah Baker – The West Bank

It is no wonder Jewish settlements are at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only do they usurp Palestinians from land and water and cut into their territory with Jewish-only bypass roads and checkpoints, they are filled with hostile settlers. Never is the clear dichotomy between these Jewish squatters and the Palestinians so pronounced than during the season of olive picking.

Every year in October, thousands of Palestinians take a few days off for the olive picking season. Given that Palestinian society is predominantly agriculture-based, this is not a small event. The Ministry of Education gives school students three days off and many people decide to use part of their annual vacation so they can lend a helping hand. It is communal work at its best. Men, women and children wake up at the crack of dawn to carry blankets, big burlap sacks and a picnic breakfast down to their family orchard to pick as many olives as possible before the sun sets.

While many areas of the West Bank begin and end the olive harvest peacefully, this is not true for others, namely those living adjacent to Jewish settlements. Each year, settlers come down from their hilltop homes, attack olive pickers and literally steal their olives before marching arrogantly back up to their fenced-off, security tight houses, which by the way, they know cannot be infiltrated by any Palestinian who plans to get out alive.

The idea, like so many other inconsistencies in this troubled area, is absurd. There is no justification under the sun for attacks on families out picking olives, many of whom depend on this season as a main source of income. Palestinian olive oil is world renowned for its rich color and sharp taste, and families across the West Bank depend on the amount of olives they press into jars of oil for sustenance throughout the coming year.

However, Palestinian olive pickers in the northern West Bank and those in the Hebron area are well aware of the risks they take each time they go to their olive groves. Two days ago, on October 20, approximately 100 Jewish settlers attacked and beat farmers and olive pickers just outside Kufr Qaddum in the Qalqilya area. The farmers, who had come with international volunteers apparently in anticipation of settler trouble, were blocked from reaching their harvests and were forced to back away after several were injured in the attacks. The settlers mainly came from Qedumim, a settlement which is built on land confiscated from Kufr Qaddum itself.

Earlier in the week, 63-year old Mustapha Al Khaleq was picking olives in his orchard near the Nablus-area village of Azmout when he was assaulted by Jewish settlers from Alon Moreh who threw stones at him, toppled him off his ladder and stole his mobile phone. Al Khaleq was taken to hospital after sustaining moderate wounds to the head and hands.

On October 15, settlers from Yitzhar near Nablus set loose a flock of sheep in nearby Palestinian orchards. The sheep proceeded to ruin olive and fig trees, causing irreparable damage to this year’s harvest.

The list goes on but the gist is more or less the same. Jewish settlers go on rampages into Palestinian olive orchards, attack the pickers, steal the olives and leave unpunished. There have been feeble attempts at times to "disperse" settlers by Israeli army forces but none have been arrested or otherwise punished for this blatant violation of basic rights. All of the settler attacks have been carried out in areas B and C, which according to the Oslo Accords, are under full Israeli security control. Hence, it goes without saying that Israel’s ever so meticulous security system (when it comes to Israelis that is) has failed miserably when it comes to safeguarding the Palestinians.

On second thought, no one should really be surprised. The entire Israeli establishment is based on the consolidation of the settlements in the West Bank. Whether or not the majority of the Israeli public supports the settlement enterprise, the fact remains that all Israeli governments, regardless of whether they are left or right, have supported its existence and have repeatedly turned a blind eye to settler violence against Palestinians. Even some Israelis are beginning to realize how unjust and how "undemocratic" Israel really is.

"As every year – fairly small groups [of settlers] manage to reach the olive groves, where they beat, steal and then return home safely. There’s no need to guess how the security forces would have dealt with Palestinians or peace activists who dared raise a hand against a settler; just visit the anti-fence protests in Bil’in or Na’alin", reads one editorial from the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Attacks on olive groves are not, unfortunately, limited to the olive picking season. Since Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank in 1967, tens of thousands of olive trees have been uprooted by Israeli occupation forces, usually as a form of collective punishment or to make way for – yes – more settlements. This policy, in addition to the constant harassment by Israeli settlers, has had dire consequences on the livelihood of many Palestinian families.

President Mahmoud Abbas, in a bid to somehow limit the ongoing damage to Palestine’s olive industry, is calling for the planting of seven million olive trees in response to settler attacks on Palestinian olive orchards. "One for each man, woman and child in the West Bank and Gaza," he said. Abbas also made a plea to international and Israeli groups to put a halt to settler attacks as well as calling on volunteers to head to orchards throughout the West Bank to help farmers continue their olive picking.

The gesture is a grand one, no doubt, and one that should be commended regardless of the outcome. President Abbas seems to have hit the nail on the head this time. If there is one thing the Palestinians are passionate about, it is their land and, therefore, it is also a surefire way of getting them to unite. If Palestinians pull together to defend their land and their olive groves against settler violence and then join together in planting more trees in place of those uprooted, this may prove to be the most effective means of setting their own differences aside.

There are so many reasons the settlements should go, besides the fact that they are prohibited by international law. The Palestinians are made to endure the yoke of the Israeli occupation in more ways than can be enumerated here. They should at least be allowed to harvest their own olives without the threat of attack by belligerent Jewish settlers who have no right to the land they are on much less the olives they steal. It is outrageous that such acts go unpunished year after year and that Israel does nothing to reign in its settlers, or better yet, get them out.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org.)

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