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Olive Harvest Campaign 2006 Gets Underway!

by ISM Nablus

The olive harvest of 2006 in Nablus has officially begun! Although not an ideal starting-date, an olive farmer from the Palestinian village of Azmut and his family who own 150 dunums of land partitioned by an Apartheid settler-only road, decided to start harvesting a few days ago. They fear that the Israeli colonists of nearby Elon Moreh will otherwise steal the olives from the trees closest to them.

This is an annual occurrence that further decreases the family’s harvest, already decimated by the limited amount of harvest-time permitted by the DCO (District Coordination Office – the civil administration wing of the Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank). The colonists generally send one or two young girls to pick the olives, making it extremely difficult for the landowner to protest as anything he might say or do to the girls would be blown out of proportion and used against him by the colonists and their allies in the Israeli military and police forces. Thus, he has remained silent so far.

Previous olive harvests in the Nablus region have also been characterised by a substantial degree of violence on the part of both Israeli colonists and soldiers. In this village in 2004, two Palestinian olive pickers were shot by colonists, killing one. Israeli gunmen have without fail turned up to chase the family off their land and the Israeli army’s sole contribution has been to advise the farmer not to return as “the settlers are crazy and they will kill you”. Apart from physical violence, Israeli colonists also cut down about 300 trees belonging to this family in 2000, and burnt an additional area of land in 2004.

This year the family decided to brave the hot sun in the middle of Ramadan to tend to their fields, without DCO permission and armed only with the deed to their land. On Tuesday 26th September 2006, the elderly farmer, his wife, five of his daughters and nieces, and four international observers picked olives from trees adjacent to the Apartheid settler bypass road. These trees had not been picked by their rightful Palestinian owners for more than 10 years due to colonist theft and constant threats.

The first day progressed smoothly, with no interruptions from colonists or military. The mood was cheerful, almost festive, as branch after branch was picked clean. Certain trees grow only 5 metres away from the settler-only road and each vehicle that passed by momentarily caused conversations to cease and breathing to quicken. Yet the work was soothing and spirits were high despite the heat. When the internationals commented on how meditative picking olives could be, a couple of the women joked about organising working holidays for rich westerners looking for an exclusive getaway. We imagined the brochure – “experience the thrill of a lifetime! Come pick olives in beautiful landscapes. Adrenaline rush guaranteed!”

The promised adrenaline rush was delivered the day after. As we proceeded to pick olives on the other side of the Apartheid road, only 100 meters away from Elon Moreh settlement, two colonist gunmen in a jeep pulled up and got out, carrying their machine guns. They did not approach or shout to us but stood at the top of the hill looking down with binoculars as we worked, talking into their radios and driving back and forth at times. There are cameras set up along the entire breadth of the hillside and so they probably saw us coming on their screens, or were told by someone passing by on the road below us. After about half an hour, five soldiers arrived and told us to stop picking.

After some negotiation, we continued picking and the soldiers retreated further down the hill. After another half hour, a DCO representative drove up and spoke to the farmer. Despite not having gained DCO permission prior to going to his field, the farmer successfully talked the DCO officer into leaving us alone. Before leaving, the officer ordered the soldiers to guard us as we worked, once again emphasising that the colonists of Elon Moreh are violent and not to be trusted. We continued working as the soldiers sat in the shade playing with their mobile phones and muttering something about “Palestinians planting bombs in the groves.” We continued picking until the time of day that we had decided at the outset, packed our harvest onto the donkey and left, light-headed and filthy, yet triumphant. The soldiers followed, slipping and sliding among the rocks with their heavy armour.

The family still has many dunums left to pick but have decided to postpone this until after the end of Ramadan due to the extreme heat. They urge internationals to come with them as they continue harvesting after Eid ul-Fitr (the Muslim festival that marks the end of Ramadan), because “if you were not here today, there would be no talk, only guns and threats. We thank you for coming and hope we will meet again someday under happier circumstances.”

This experience shows the importance of international accompaniment for the Palestinian olive harvest. We urge all internationals seeking to build links of solidarity with the Palestinian people fighting occupation to come to Palestine, come to the fields and help ensure that every last olive is harvested.