Volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights pick olives.

Middle East
West Bank: Palestinians harvest olives under rabbi protection

Almost every year, during olive harvest season, Palestinian farmers are at risk from settler-related violence. Israeli human rights organisations like Rabbis for Human Rights help with their presence. Tania Kraemer reports

On a sunny autumn day, Palestinian Bashar Sharab is busy pouring freshly brewed coffee in small paper cups for Israeli and Palestinian volunteers who are helping him pick olives near the village of Awarta, near the West Bank town of Nablus. Pickers are perched on ladders to reach the small fruits, while others lay plastic sheets underneath the trees to collect the falling olives. 

The Israeli volunteers are part of the nongovernmental organisation Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR). Founded in 1988, it describes its mission "as a vision of justice rooted in Jewish tradition", and includes secular volunteers next to orthodox rabbis.  

Today, they spend a couple of hours to help Palestinians harvest their olives in the occupied West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967.

"Today is like a feast for us because they [RHR] are with us and we can work safely. It is not important that they work, but just to come and sit with us, we feel a sense of safety, because there is no safety at all," says Sharab, who comes from the nearby village of Awarta. On this day, they're joined by U.S. diplomats who've come to talk to the villagers about the situation and help pick some olives.

Increase in settler violence

 

The olive harvest began in mid-October after the first slight rainfall. Picking olives is hard work at the best of times. But in this area, it can be unpredictable and, at times, even dangerous. Violent incidents between villagers and Israeli settlers spike during the olive harvest season, according to local human rights organisations.

Palestinian woman harvesting olives (photo: Tania Kraemer/DW)
A Palestinian woman harvesting olives: for Palestinians, olive groves symbolise the close bond with their land. At the same time, they are also an important economic resource. Nearly half of the West Bank's agricultural land is planted with olive trees. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), over 80,000 families in the West Bank rely on olive oil as their primary or secondary source of income. Most families also use it for their own consumption – until the next harvest

"From year to year, it is getting worse from the settler side; they harass the local residents," says volunteer Rachel Yagil from Tel Aviv. The 77-year old has been harvesting olives alongside Palestinians for many years. "I think it is important to show presence, to help with the harvest and to show that not all Israelis are violent."

Gazing at the hilltop settlement of Itamar, Sharab says that the Israeli army sometimes tells him that he can't be on one side of the fields without prior coordination. "It is not permitted because it is close to Itamar. Look how far we are from Itamar," he says.

Since the beginning of the harvest, the Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din has documented at least 41 incidents against Palestinians. They include stone-throwing, physical assault and stealing the olive harvest. Additionally, at least 400 olive trees were reportedly cut down or set on fire in this period alone.

The damage is a great loss to Palestinians as olive groves carry deep symbolic and economic meaning to them. Nearly half of the West Bank's agricultural land is planted with olive trees, which resemble their ties to their land. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), over 80,000 families in the West Bank rely on olive oil as their primary or secondary source of income. Most families also use it for their own consumption until the next harvest.

Avi Dabush, director of RHR, describes how the organisation "tries to combine our Jewish values and human rights issues. The main issue for us is the[Israeli] occupation, and in this case, the rights of Palestinian farmers," Dabush adds "We try to stay optimistic and be practical and do what we can." By being present during the harvest, RHR won't end the occupation, he says, but "we want to believe that during these days there is less violence than usual."

Avi Dabush, director of the non-governmental organisation Rabbis for Human Rights (left) (photo: Tania Kraemer/DW)
Avi Dabush, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, left, in conversation: "As Rabbis for Human Rights, we try to combine our Jewish values with human rights issues," says Dabush. "The main issue for us is the[Israeli] occupation, and in this case, the rights of Palestinian farmers. We try to stay optimistic and be practical and do what we can." By being present during the harvest, the volunteers won't end the occupation, he says, but "we want to believe that during these days there is less violence than usual"

"Safeguard" for Palestinian farmers

 

Young settlers from illegal settlement outposts are mostly behind the violence. On Thursday, an emergency meeting was called by Benny Gantz, Israel's defense minister, to discuss the rise in incidents, Haaretz newspaper reported. "The impotence in dealing with the violence is systematic," wrote journalist Amos Harel. "And little has been done to rectify the situation though it has been going on for many years." 

Out in the field, Avi Dabush from Rabbis for Human Rights explains that "we are in contact with the army. The IDF [Israeli Defence Force] knows that these are dangerous places for the farmers. And we are trying to be some kind of safeguard for the farmers against this violence and to watch over them."

Late last month, settlers were caught on video verbally abusing and pepper spraying Israeli volunteers and Palestinians working in the fields. A soldier was seen standing between the parties. Samir Awad a Palestinian coordinator for RHR, recalls the incident. "We reached the area where we were permitted to enter and work in," says Awad. "The settlers there attacked us in front of the army without them doing much."

In a statement, the Israeli army said "as seen in the video, IDF troops operated immediately. The perpetrators' details and case were transferred to the Israeli police for further handling." The Israeli army, which exercises military control over the West Bank, further added that it "invests a great deal of effort to prevent violent incidents in the Judea and Samaria region."

The need for Palestinians to co-ordinate access to certain areas adds to the difficulties to spend the needed time to cultivate and harvest their land. Fields located within a certain proximity to settlements need prior co-ordination with Israel's office of the Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). Sometimes permits are given only for a few days or an area suddenly becomes restricted and requires a permit, villagers complain. 

"These are trees that need attention just like a little child," says Samir Awad. "You need to take care of a tree, to prune it, and to saw off [overgrown or dry branches]. You need to take care of the soil, to turn it and fertilise it." Such work cannot be limited to certain days of the year.

Tania Kraemer

© Deutsche Welle 2021

 

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