In the Field with the Israeli Rabbis Protecting Palestinian Olive Farmers
Because most Palestinian farmland in the West Bank is in areas that are controlled by the Israeli army, farmers are routinely prevented from accessing their own land because of "security reasons."
After the first rains of the season wash the summer dust from the olive trees that blanket the Nablus Governate in the West Bank, Ahmad Najjar and his family head out to harvest their olive groves.
As always at this time of year, Najjar, a 37-year-old farmer and construction worker who lives with his wife and six children in the village of Burin, is nervous about trouble from Israeli soldiers, as well as the right-wing settlers who live just up the hill from his olive groves. This year—with Israel and the Palestinian territories experiencing the worst violence they've seen in years—Najjar is especially worried.
"In the past, soldiers have forced us off our land, and settlers have attacked us," he says, glancing up the hill toward the nearby settlement of Yitzhar, considered one of the most extreme in the West Bank. In recent years, Yitzhar residents have been accused of attacking army outposts and staging dozens of "price tag" attacks—violent acts intended as retribution for the Israeli government's demolition of illegal settlements—on Palestinian civilians. Last Wednesday, a group of gun-wielding settlers in face masks, believed to be from Yitzhar, assaulted a group of Palestinians and international volunteers, torched an olive grove, and smashed a farmer's car not far from Najjar's land.
Recently, violence between settlers and Palestinians has spilled over the Green Line and into Israel, sparking fears of a Third Intifada. Since October 1, ten Israelis have been killed and over 100 wounded during terror attacks by Palestinians, according to the Israeli Ministry Of Foreign Affairs. During that same period, according to the Palestinian Center For Human Rights and local media reports, 24 Palestinians have been killed while carrying out alleged terror attacks, and another 21 have been killed by Israeli soldiers during protests. The Israeli government has responded by sealing off Arab neighborhoods, while Israeli politicians have urged citizens to carry guns to protect themselves.
Third Intifada or not, the Najjars's work must go on. At 7 AM on Friday morning, Najjar, his wife Amna, and their children Baher and Orayb, both 13, spread black tarps beneath a few small olive trees on a rocky slope about 100 yards from the northern border of Yitzhar. Using their hands or the occasional plastic comb, the family scrapes the olives from the branches, letting them fall to the tarps below. Later, they will be collected and sent to a local factory to be pressed into oil.
Today, the Najjars have help with the work. A group of 16 volunteers—11 of whom are Israeli and five of whom are foreigners—have driven here from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to provide an "observer force" that discourages settler attacks and trouble from Israeli soldiers. The volunteer group has been organized by Rabbis For Human Rights (RHR), an Israeli organization whose mission is "to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations," and to pressure the Israeli government "to redress these injustices." During the roughly six-week long olive harvest, the group travels with different families to the West Bank every day except the Sabbath. According to RHR president Rabbi Arik Ascherman, they choose the families based on a number of factors.
"We're in touch with family members we've known for a long time," Ascherman tells VICE. "We have people we consult with in each village, and we talk to the army and the police."
To pass the time, the volunteers help the Najjars pick olives. The atmosphere is tense. "Because this is such a dicey area, make sure you do whatever I tell you to do without asking questions," Ascherman tells me.
Gunfire crackles in the distance, but from where exactly, no one knows. At least one volunteer, Yoram Rozenberg, seems nervous. "This is a dangerous area," the 56-year-old Israeli resident says. "The settlers will definitely come today."
Rozenberg, who tells me he has participated in the Palestinian olive harvest over 50 times in the past nine years, has reason to be nervous. Throughout the West Bank, attacks by militant settlers on Palestinian civilians and their olive groves are rife. Between 2006 and the summer of 2013, according to the United Nations Office Of The High Commissioner For Human Rights (UN OHCHR), ten Palestinians have been killed and 1,040 injured in such attacks. Settler vandalism of Palestinian property has also damaged nearly 40,000 trees in the area, the majority of which are olive trees, the UN says.
The pendulum swings the other way, too: Palestinians in the West Bank have murdered Jewish settlers, in axe and sniper attacks, as well as drive-by shootings. Between 2006 and the summer of 2013, according to those same UN OHCHR statistics, 29 Israelis were killed by Palestinians in the West Bank and another 368 were wounded, some grievously. Just this morning a 15-year-old Palestinian girl was caught and shot by police while allegedly sneaking into Yitzhar with a pair of knives in her bag.
Palestinian terror attacks on Jewish settlers in the West Bank have become even more common lately, says Ari Briggs, a spokesman for the pro-settlement group Regavim. Briggs points out that Makor Rishon, a Hebrew-language Israeli newspaper, reported last week that there have been 164 firebomb attacks and 29 shooting attacks by Palestinians against Jewish settlers in the West Bank in the past month alone.
As a result, here in the Nablus hills, an area that has seen near-perpetual violence for decades, soldiers are everywhere. While the Najjars and the RHR crew pick olives, two military jeeps drive up a nearby ridge and sit watching them.
Sitting in the top of one of the olive trees, Orayb Najjar watches them warily while sawing a small branch that she can't reach. Falling olives patter on the tarps. Farmers in this region have used the same methods to harvest olives since Biblical times. Today, 100,000 families in the Palestinian Territories rely on the olive industry to survive.
Though the olive tree is a symbol of peace—last year, then-Israeli president Shimon Peres planted an olive tree in a ceremony at the Vatican with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas—it's also been a linchpin of the Israel-Palestine conflict for decades. Vigilante Jewish militias attacked Arab olive groves here as far back as the 1930s.
Though it's well-known that the West Bank has long been inhabited by Palestinians, small communities of Jews have also lived here, some for millennia. Many Jewish settlers believe that God gave the West Bank to the people of Israel thousands of years ago, and that non-Jews therefore have no right to use the land for their farms.
That's why Ascherman, a 55-year-old rabbi originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, believes it's crucial to help protect local Arab farmers during the annual olive harvest, which runs from October to early November. "People say we're suicidal for coming out here, but this is the only way we can keep ourselves sane while the situation crumbles around us," he says.
RHR, which was founded in 1988, has been bringing Israeli volunteers to the Palestinian olive harvest every year since the Second Intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began during a deadly demonstration in Jerusalem in 2000 and claimed over 4,000 lives in the course of five bloody years.
Perhaps surprisingly for an organization whose policy states that volunteers are to act as human shields for Palestinian farmers in the event of an attack by settlers or soldiers, very few RHR volunteers have been injured. "Fewer than a dozen," according to Ascherman. "Four or five people have been seriously injured, one by a ricocheted bullet [fired by a settler] and two or three people have had their heads cracked open [by settlers]," he said. No one has been killed.
Because most Palestinian farmland in the West Bank is in areas that are controlled by the Israeli army, farmers are routinely prevented from accessing their own land because of "security reasons."Two hours after the Najjars begin their harvest, that's exactly what happens. A group of nine Israeli soldiers emerge from the two jeeps and approach the olive pickers. Two of the soldiers are wearing black face masks, despite the heat. The deputy commander of the battalion speaks to Ascherman and Najjar, ordering them to leave the area immediately, "for their own safety," he says. Their presence here, he believes, could provoke a confrontation with the settlers.
After ten minutes of arguing, the Najjars give in to the occupiers' orders. The family transfers the olives into plastic burlap sacks and begin the trek back to their home in Burin, which lies about a mile away, across a small highway that's shared by Palestinians and settlers alike.
The soldiers stand near their armored jeeps, smoking cigarettes and watching them retreat.
"My feeling is that the settlers asked the army to remove us," says Ascherman. Although the Israeli army often invokes "security concerns" to justify blocking Palestinians from their farmland, civil rights advocates have long claimed that the army is merely doing the bidding of Jewish settlers, who have outsize political influence in the Israeli government.
Israel's Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories, the government agency that's in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, later told me that "in order to prevent friction" with settlers, Palestinian farmers in this area had agreed to give the army advance notice about their olive picking activity. But "this particular incident was not coordinated," the spokesman said, which is why the Najjars were asked to leave.
Reached by phone later that day, Najjar acknowledges that he did not coordinate the trip with the army, saying, "Why should I have to ask their permission to use my own land?" He also tells me he tried to take the olives to a local factory to be pressed into oil, but was refused because he only had about 50 kilos—which workers at the factory said wasn't enough.
He expressed doubt that his family will be able to harvest their olives this year. "If we go back, they will only kick us out again," he says. "This happens all the time."
The spokesman for Israel's Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories said that "due to security concerns," a date had been chosen in two weeks when the Najjars would be allowed back on their land.
Throughout the West Bank, there are widening "no-go" zones where Palestinians aren't allowed to be. This is exactly what Ascherman is fighting against, and he believes that giving Palestinian farmers access to their land will also benefit Israel one day. "The anger and the economic impact that's caused when farmers aren't allowed to use their land eventually boomerangs on us, by creating more violence and hatred among Palestinians," he says. "And if a Third Intifada comes along, we'll continue helping Palestinian farmers make a living off their land, because not only is it the right thing to do, it's also in our self-interest to do it."
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