Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Vera Reider - No Peace Under the Olive Branches

Vera Reider is the Russian language editor of the website for The Women's Coalition for Peace. She is a member of Taayush This article was first published in Kibush, Occupation Magazine.

The loud virtual battle over the so-called "Disengagement Plan" muffles, for most Israelis, the sounds of another very real war that is taking place near our towns and villages. Three years have passed since the olive groves behind the Green Line became battlefields during the autumn olive-picking season. It is a quiet war, although the quiet is disrupted now and then by gunshots. But war it is, for life and death.

Some history
The Olive Wars (thus named by the Israeli media) started in 2002. After Operation Defensive Shield, Palestinian farmers encountered for the first time massive losses inflicted by settlers, with the army standing by. Open theft of olives took place - both harvested ones, and directly from the trees. With the beginning of the construction of the separation fence, ancient fertile olive trees, sources of livelihood of whole Palestinian families, found their way to ornamental gardens of villas of rich Israelis, in the capacity of exotic plants. At that time those events still constituted news, and copious condemnations of the settlers and the "hear no evil - see no evil" military appeared in the media. The knowledgeable military correspondent of Haaretz, Zeev Schiff, wrote: "The private army of the settlers took the law into their own hands, in contempt of the IDF." ("The army should stop the robbers", Haaretz Oct. 30, 2002). Yedioth Aharonot devoted an entire supplement to this topic after sending one of its correspondents posing as a day labourer picking olives for settlements. He described the whole process in detail: how farmers are denied access to their plots and how the settlers do the picking themselves, using for that purpose Israeli and Thai labourers; how oil is extracted from the stolen olives and sold in Israel; how Palestinian trees are burnt or cut down in the vicinity of the settlements. Another journalist investigated the route of olive trees uprooted under the pretext of construction of the separation fence: enterprising owners of nurseries pointed to the trees they wanted (many of which were ancient trees) and left with the "merchandise" to be sold to clients. It may not be an exaggeration to say that these reports shocked Israeli readers more than the reports of killing or wounding, or of the suffering inflicted by the fence. In the minds of ordinary citizens, everything associated with military activities and the separation fence falls into the category of "State Security", which is not open to criticism. But when people are robbed of the fruits of their labours under cover of night - robbed, essentially, of their food; when innocent trees are mangled; when four-hundred-years old grandfather olive-trees are uprooted beside lamenting farmers whose livelihood of many generations is thus destroyed - that is hard to justify for "security reasons". These images can only elicit disgust and anger.

In time, everything is forgotten; that shock was forgotten, too. From one harvest to another a year passed; other events and sensations replaced the "Olive Wars" in the minds of those who had not participated in them. During the fall seasons of 2003 and 2004, only apathetic messages could be found in the media on the olive harvests in the "Territories". The 2002 media campaign did not change anything, and not only has the situation not improved, it has become even more difficult and messy.

Allies and enemies: enemies
For a farmer in our Mediterranean country the culture of olive growing is a basis of life. For ages, whole families derived sustenance for themselves and others from their olive plots. Olive picking was a month-and-a-half-long festival: a family would practically move to their plot for this period; children would run there after school; otherwise-employed adults would go there after work. A good olive harvest heralded a year of plenty and supplied whole industries: olives were salted and pickled, or pressed for oil. The oil was used further for preparation of cosmetics, soap, and foodstuffs. The wood obtained from pruning was also put to good use: religious objects from olive wood, grown in the Holy Land, are considered symbolic, and are highly prized by Christians far away from Palestine. Rich families, often owning hundreds of dunams of olive groves, hired labourers to do the picking, and the landless village poor and the refugees awaited the season to earn some money. One could also get an olive-picking job on the other side of the Green Line, from Israeli Arabs and from Jewish moshavim and kibbutzim. Olive picking has acquired both practical and symbolic meaning in the Palestinian national conscience. The brutal interference with the rhythm and meaning of life and disruption of life's order established for generations is seen as a national catastrophe, as death of the culture. Palestinian farmers found themselves deprived of a large fraction of their income and pleasures of life.

Why does it happen, and who profits?
Apart from military occupation, the Palestinian farmer has two enemies: the separation fence (and the secondary barriers and fences) and Israeli settlers. Seen from afar, the separation fence looks like a fairly harmless object that can be easily moved or removed as needed. According to the IDF, this is a temporary arrangement, which can be removed following the renewal of the peace process. However, the Fence does not follow the Green Line but is constructed on Palestinian land, removed 5-10 km, and sometimes as much as 25 km from the Green Line (This is on the west side of the West Bank. The Israeli government never issued an official map of the eastern fence; however, according to media sources and sites of land confiscation orders, the eastern fence will not even come close to the Jordanian border). The agricultural plots destroyed as a result of the fence construction cannot easily be resurrected. This is particularly true for tree groves, especially olive trees, many of which were planted hundreds of years ago.

Why are these trees uprooted?
The point is that the Fence does not simply constitute a row of poles spanned by a wire mesh. Along the Fence, on both sides, an asphalt road is constructed for the army, and a security sand strip is established beyond the road. The total width amounts to sixty meters. Sixty meters of "ironed" land, from which all vegetation has been removed - it amounts to tens of uprooted trees per kilometer. But this is not all. The protection of the fence itself provides the army with a pretext to uproot still more trees in the surrounding area "for security reasons". It should be noted that the army does not burn or cut the trees on the fence route; after being carefully uprooted, the trees end up in Israeli nurseries, whose owners sell them at a succulent profit (Yediot Aharonot). An old olive tree, confiscated from a Palestinian farmer "for security reasons", brings tens or even hundreds of thousands of shekels on the Israeli market. And during the last three years 300,000 trees have been uprooted.

Fence-related damage extends still further. An equally serious problem is the fact that the fence, which cuts deep into the Occupied Territories, does not separate Israelis from Palestinians (as Israeli supporters of the fence would like to think); rather, it separates Palestinians from their property and source of income - their land. Often families that find themselves on the eastern side of the fence own land on the western side or vice versa. In order to reach his land, a farmer has to obtain a permit from the army (and such a permit is by no means assured). Then the farmer must coordinate with the army the length of his stay on his own land, and often take a lengthy roundabout route, which may be tens of kilometers long, to pass the checkpoint or the so-called "agricultural gate". In the evening this route must be retraced to return home. The army does not allow overnight stays on the plot; and often the army prohibits the use of vehicles such as cars, or tractors to bring home the picked olives. One has to risk leaving the harvest in the field until it can be removed. Under the cover of night and in the absence of the owners, the olive sacks are easy pickings for the settlers, who, in contrast to Palestinians, are not deprived of freedom of movement in the "Territories".

Settlers are the chief enemy of Palestinians in general and of Palestinian farmers in particular. One has to marvel at the settlers' stamina and the amount of time they devote to harassing Palestinian farmers. It is clear that their interest is not only in immediate gain from the sale of stolen property. They also inflict wanton damage: they cut off branches, burn trees, etc. Thus, a year ago, 6000 trees were destroyed in the Huwarra village south of Nablus. On September 29 of this year, 400 dunams of olive groves in the Beit Furik area were burnt. The fire raged for two nights in a row. Other settler tactics include spreading sharp objects on the ground to puncture wheels of Palestinian cars and tractors. Or settler thugs simply attack olive pickers and Israeli and international activists who come to help. Stone throwing, beatings, and sometimes gunshots are inflicted on people, who (in the settlers' judgment) approach too close to the settlements, "their" roads, or their persons. Palestinians get bullets in their backs when harvesting their own olives! The army, as a rule, remains passive or arrives too late to help. And a result of that arrival is often a collective punishment - NOT of the settler thugs, but of the Palestinians. Here is the amazing army logic: "If you are on the path of grief, we better lock you up in your homes, for your own safety".

Some time ago the press reported that the army "reached an agreement" with Palestinians concerning days when olives could be picked under military protection. Great, you might think. But the media "forgot" to mention that only three (!) days were assigned to olive picking in the so called "friction zones". Thus, in Beit Furik village (10,000 inhabitants), 3 days (Oct. 10, 17 and 19) were designated for the harvest of 11,000 dunams of groves in the "friction zone", which the villagers cannot approach without army permission, and which is dangerous to approach without army cover.

What is a "friction zone"? It is a new euphemism invented by the army during the harvest season to designate regions settler attacks are likely. In addition to "friction zones" there are "security zones" around settlements. Before, Palestinians were not allowed to approach within 250 metres of settlements; often at this distance a fence has been constructed. Now the forbidden zone has been increased to 400 meters, and new fences are being established at its borders. Palestinian trees within the enlarged forbidden (practically annexed) zone are no longer within the reach of Palestinian owners. Thus after the forbidden zone was enlarged around the Israeli settlement of Hermesh, it "swallowed" 800 trees belonging to the Arab village of Kaffin. Most of them are ancient olive trees. And the Hanani family of Beit Furik, for example, owned 10,000 trees on terraces, which yielded yearly 23,000 to 30,000 litres of oil (today, a litre of olive oil brings 8-12 NIS /$2-3 on the market, so the reader can estimate the damage). That was the main livelihood of a clan consisting of 35 people. Now, nearly all these olives are included in the "security zone" of settlement of Itamar, and the family has been deprived of income. But the "friction zone" can be significantly larger than the enlarged "security zone". The settlements are being continuously expanded. New "outposts" are being established, with their own "security zones" and "friction zones", and the living space of Palestinian farmers shrinks continuously.

Two objectives are thus pursued by the settlers. The first is ideological, or, if you wish, "demographic": to ruin Palestinians' lives as much as possible, in the hope that they will give up and leave. In the routine language of Israeli politics this is called "voluntary transfer": People are not, God forbid, put on trucks and unloaded at the border; they are leaving "of their own free will". In 2002 the village of Yanun was thus vacated. This village, isolated but spread over quite an extensive area, had been terrorized by settlers for many months. The settlers carried out night raids on all-terrain vehicles, shooting into the air and into the water tanks and trampled on roofs above terrified residents. The settlers damaged crops, attacked the villagers, urinated in full view of all into the village well and burnt the generator, leaving the village without electricity. On Saturdays groups of settlers toured the village streets fully armed, forcing terrified villagers indoors. The children of Yanun did not sleep any more; even on quiet nights they suffered from nightmares. Gradually, family after family left - not abroad, where nobody was expecting them, but to the nearest large village, Aqabe. Only as a result of the efforts of the Israeli Arab-Jewish partnership organization Taayush and the International Solidarity Movement was the creeping transfer halted. The activists moved into the village in two night shifts, and under this "cover", the inhabitants started returning home. Today the village is inhabited again, but for "their own safety" many villagers are forbidden to harvest at a distance beyond one kilometre from their homes.

While denying Palestinians access to their land, the settlers pursue a second very practical goal of acquiring real estate. An old Ottoman law applies in Israel: land not farmed for 3 years ("miri"), becomes "no man's land", and thus state property. And the authorities gladly grant this land to settlers - what else can be done with land lots outside "Israel proper". Thus, acquisition of new land is easy - all you have to do is to "disappear" its owners for 3 years, and the real estate is yours!

These two objectives - acquisition of land and expulsion of its rightful owners as "undesirables" solely because they had bad luck to be born Arab, were expressed openly by the media officer of the settlement Itzhar, Yossi Peli. In an interview to the British "Guardian" he admitted willingly that not only fear of Palestinians (which is not baseless) motivates settlers to deny Palestinians access to settlement borders and to inflict damage on trees of the neighboring village Einabus. "The branches will grow again", he said, "and we hope that in time we shall be harvesting them instead of the `undesirable` inhabitants of these villages".

It is easy to understand why the army is in no hurry to protect Palestinians. The military chain of command is carrying out the will of the government, and the present government has never resisted a temptation to appropriate Arab land. Contrary to the settlers' demagogic complaints about oppression by the military, the government and the settlers act in unison. They have the same agenda.

Enemies and allies: allies
If the army actually worried about the safety of Palestinians and about their ability to harvest on time (and according to the Geneva Convention this is a duty of an occupying army), the least it could do would be not to interfere with the efforts of human rights organizations willing to help Palestinian farmers and trying to protect them from "contact" with settlers. But one should not forget that the army, as well as the police, were assigned to carry out another major principle of Israeli politics: segregation, and prevention of joint activities of Jews and Arabs. In the Supreme Court, the army declared that they do not have sufficient manpower and resources to protect the farmers. They have, however, sufficient resources to set "closed military zones" and checkpoints on the routes of the activists on their way to Palestinian groves. And there is sufficient military "manpower" to visit the villagers and warn them off from contacts with left wing Israeli friends. "It will only bring trouble, we know them all and we know all the phone numbers too".

The result of these intimidation tactics was the famous "3-day agreement". To pick as many olives as possible during such short period, much help was required. However on Saturday October 16, the army denied access to a buses of Israeli volunteers near the Oranit checkpoint! The leaders who left the buses to negotiate were immediately arrested, and the buses were turned back. The incident reached the media, and concurrently, an appeal was submitted to the High Court of Justice concerning the impossibility of completing the harvest in "friction zones" during the mere 3 days allotted. As a result, joint harvesting was carried out during the ensuing Saturdays.

Human rights organizations and the so-called "radical left" organizations had initiated a campaign of support for the Palestinian olive harvest already in 2002. That year they organized the "Olive Harvest Coalition", with the aim of dividing efforts more efficiently. The members include such organizations and movements as "Taayush", "Gush-Shalom", "Rabbis for Human Rights", "Coalition of Women for a Just Peace", and others. Later, Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) joined the olive picking.

To prepare and execute a joint activity such as mass joint olive picking with Palestinians is a challenging enterprise. The organizers have to take into account all the nuances and complexities, otherwise one can easily do more harm than good. For example, there is the problematic issue of requesting permits from the army. Some think that these requests are quite legitimate: in army-approved zones one can harvest faster and more effectively. But it is not that simple. Palestinians prefer help in places to which they are denied access by the army. Finally, excessively close contacts with the army might leave an aftertaste of collaboration with the occupation forces and of "laundering" the occupation in the eyes of public opinion. Another problem: the landless Arab day labourers need employment, and volunteers should not deprive them of their livelihood.

"We should avoid creating the impression that the occupation and denial of freedom of movement is not that bad, because, in the end, the lefties will do the work for the Palestinians", say Taayush activists. "It is in fact an abnormal situation. Humans are entitled to work and to enjoy fruits of their labours; there should not be fences and soldiers separating farmers from their land. Therefore, we consider our activities not only as humanitarian help, but also as acts of protest against the occupation. We try to work in the area of the separation fence, but it does not mean in any way that the fence problem is solved. We protest against the fence and against colonial policies under which a farmer is not a master of his time and property."

And in fact the activists could not possibly carry out "all the work" on behalf of Palestinian farmers even if they wanted to. The number of volunteers is insufficient, as are their skills in agricultural work. And they simply do not have time - these are working people, most of whom can participate in harvesting activities only on weekends. Rabbis for Human Rights, who cannot work on Saturdays because of religious constraints, organize groups of volunteers for weekday harvesting. They split into small groups and accompany farmers to groves in "friction zones", trying to cover maximal areas. But due to their small numbers these groups are particularly vulnerable to attacks by settlers. The army and police are usually present in the "friction zones", or at least show up from time to time. Sometimes they manage to prevent friction or drive away settlers attacking the farmers and their helpers. But one gets a clear impression that the level of the army and police support depends mostly on the good will of individual soldiers and commanders and is not a result of instructions "from above".

The achievements of Rabbis for Human Rights are often nullified by the laxity of the army and the police. Here is one recent example: On Monday November 8, a group of volunteers accompanied Fargata farmers to their groves, near which the new settlement of Havat Gilead settlement had been established. As a result, the farmers have not been able to tend their groves for nearly three years. Despite the fact that a large number of the trees were damaged, people were grateful finally to have the opportunity to harvest their olives. However, the entire harvest of that day was stolen during the night. On Tuesday settlers wielding iron poles interfered with the picking. Luckily, soldiers who happened to be driving nearby prevented an escalation. On Wednesday, Havat Gilead settlers attacked one of the farmers. The police intervened and arrested the farmer and the two settlers. The settlers were questioned and released, but the farmer spent 8 hours under arrest, on suspicion of "pushing the settler first", according to the testimony of the latter. One of the volunteer pickers was also arrested.

On November 1, 2004, the Israel`s supreme court ordered the army to establish methods to protect Palestinians from settler attacks. It worked, partially: for example, the army stopped attempting to prevent Israeli peace organizations from helping Palestinian olive pickers. In several cases the army response time to requests for help was shorter. But the problems were by no means solved: for example, on the morning of December 9, 117 trees were uprooted by settlers in broad daylight. The owners requested help from the Civil Administration, but the help arrived `conveniently` late in the afternoon, too late to prevent irreversible damage.

"The Olive Wars" are not confined by the Green Line, and extend beyond lands "from the sea to the Jordan River". Volunteers to help Palestinians in the olive harvest are organized both by solidarity organizations and by Christian groups. These volunteers usually live in Palestinian villages and either join the Israeli activists or act independently. They are also subject to harassment by the settlers, the army and the police. They convey their impressions far from the borders of our country.

Obviously, in the eyes of Israeli right wing and their allies, the international and Israeli helpers of Palestinians are considered enemies, interfering with the achievement of three main goals. By making Palestinian life a bit more bearable, they interfere with "voluntary transfer". By helping Palestinians reach their groves, they interfere with the land grab. And finally, cooperation of Israelis with Palestinians contradicts the segregation policy. All these are important achievements of the solidarity activists, but unfortunately they cannot stop the pauperization of Palestinian society.

This article focuses on olives, however similar things can be said about all other branches of Palestinian agriculture. Fruits and vegetables either perish unharvested, or rot in storage due to inability to sell the merchandise: sales in Israel are forbidden, and in the West Bank the purchasing power of the population is too limited and the number of checkpoints and fences too large to allow for effective internal trade.

Villages in regions adjacent to Israel, which were flourishing until recently, now present a sorry sight. Near handsome houses and garages with cars rusting from disuse, one sees empty hothouses and decaying poultry-pens. The inability to sell has resulted in drastic reduction of productivity. Several years ago, the population of these villages consisted of well-to-do homeowners who did not imagine they ever would have to live on handouts. They had enough income to hire labourers to release family members to seek employment in Israel, and to educate the young generation, which could then look for better jobs in towns on both sides of the Green Line. The policies of collective punishment and deprivation of freedom of movement brought unemployment. In Palestinian villages there have been always families living solely off agriculture, especially olive growing. Now for many more families the olives have become a main source of potential income, rather than a sideline. But additional hardships have been encountered: the fence, the checkpoints, and the settlers. It is estimated that, once the construction of the fence is completed, 1 million trees will be inaccessible or access to them will be restricted (OCHA). As a result, the farmers cannot support themselves. Village storerooms have been established: French lentils, German flour, American rice and sunflower oil are distributed via European organizations to the needy, who in return are obliged to carry out four hours of public works: e.g. sweeping streets or fixing fences. Others work for pennies wherever they can.

Who is interested in reducing Palestinian farmers from gainfully employed people minding their own business to destitute beggars living on handouts, without hope for the future? Settlers and their allies crazed with greed for land and visions of "voluntary transfer" do not take into consideration that this situation will necessarily bring hopelessness, hatred and violence to Palestinian society. And if the settlers think about it at all, they do not worry too much: after all, settlements are protected by the army, surrounded by fences and provided with segregated `sterile` settler roads. This cannot be said about the Jewish towns and villages inside Israel, which are much more vulnerable to terror. On the other hand the army needs pretexts for its actions against the Palestinian population, and is looking for justifications based on "security tensions" and the "fight against terrorists". The result is a closed circle of escalation of oppression and collective punishment that bring in turn hopelessness and violence. The olive branch, no longer a symbol of peace, became a symbol of injustice, deprivation and oppression.

Author's postscript:
While using the term "Jewish settlers", the author is aware of the fact that far from all inhabitants of the settlements participate in these kinds of violent activities. She is aware of the fact that Israeli governments, both right wing and so-called "left wing", bear most of the responsibility for the settlement policy and for the situation in the Israeli housing market, which brings many people to the settlements. However settlement inhabitants should understand with whom are they associated in Israel and abroad. Especially since, knowing the activities of some of their likes, they are silent. And silence, as we all know, is a sign of consent.


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