Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 17:30 pm (KSA) 14:30 pm (GMT)

Olive groves on frontlines of W Bank conflict

A rifle-toting Israeli soldier pointed to a dozen Palestinian farmers and their two donkeys. "They are a security risk," he said, ordering the villagers off a hillside just outside a Jewish settlement as they headed to their olive grove.

Pushing and shoving ensued as the villagers from nearby Kafr Qaddum village were forced off the land they say is theirs, alongside a few dozen Palestinian and foreign activists, as a handful of Israeli settlers watched on with evident delight.

The presence of the activists just meters from the Qedumim settlement in the northern West Bank angered the settlers who branded it a provocation, while the soldiers feared it would lead to confrontation.

Israeli volunteers

For a number of years, volunteers have joined Palestinian farmers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank to help pick olives and provide some form of protection against increasingly violent attacks by settlers.

"We do this because we want to defend Palestinians' rights to their land," said Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, of the Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights which organizes volunteer teams to work in olive groves where Palestinian farmers are under potential threat.

Around him, half a dozen volunteers, most of them Israelis, plucked olives -- some with their fingers, others using small plastic rakes -- which they dropped onto tarpaulins laid out on the rocky ground.

That day's harvest, also just outside Qedumim, went smoothly until it was halted by a heavy downpour. In several cases it is settler attacks that prevent farmers and volunteers from picking olives in the West Bank.

This year's harvest is expected to contribute 123 million dollars to the Palestinian economy, or 18 percent of the territories' total agricultural production.

The United Nations says up to 100,000 families depend on the olive harvest to some extent for their livelihood.

But many farmers are cut off from their olive groves by the Israeli separation barrier and Jewish settlements, and need special permits to access their fields through barriers that only open at set times.

'All we want is peace and our land'

In addition, farmers working in proximity to settlements risk attacks by firebrand settlers who believe they have a God-given right to the Holy Land.

As the army pushed the group away, Kafr Qaddum Mayor Mohammed Abu Nimer led villagers and Palestinian activists in chanting "This land is our land, the settlers are thieves. All we want is peace and our land."

Settler Esther Karach glared at the Palestinians. "They don't want peace, they want trouble," she said.

One of the soldiers, who declined to give his name, felt much the same way. "Today you allow them to pick olives, tomorrow they fire rockets at you."

A few kilometers away, the volunteers with Rabbis for Human Rights exchanged smiles that overcame the language barrier with Palestinian farmers over a lunch of humus and pita liberally sprinkled with thick, aromatic olive oil.

Israeli volunteer Jonah Ben Tal picked olives with an energy that belied his 75 years of age.

He has been taking part in the harvest twice a week for the past six seasons. He says it helps him counter the shame he feels for the way his country treats Palestinians.

'Settler terrorism'

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad recently condemned what he called "settler terrorism", and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak lashed out at "the thugs who interfere with the olive harvest."

Earlier this month, an Israeli soldier was injured when troops intervened as bat-wielding, masked settlers attacked Palestinian farmers near the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron.

But activists claim soldiers, some of them settlers themselves, often turn a blind eye to the attacks.

The Israeli High Court has ruled the armed forces must protect farmers during the olive harvest in the Palestinian territories, and the United Nations has stressed they have a duty to do so as an occupying force.

The Israeli military insists it is doing its best to ensure a smooth harvest, but that it cannot deploy troops in every West Bank olive grove.

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