by ISM Nablus
Urif, 9th November
There is chaos in the air. A couple of the young boys have climbed up to one of the upper ridges of the hillside and are scorching the earth with a small blowtorch — an ancient agricultural technique designed to improve the quality of the soil. “Come down immediately! The settlers will shoot you!” the other villagers shout. But their father, the mayor, is back in the Palestinian village and they will not listen to reason. Everyone has stopped picking now and is gazing warily up toward the Israeli settlement of Yitzhar, straining their eyes to see if there is anyone peering out from under one of the red-tiled roofs, gun in hand. Finally, the boys relent to the ever louder protests coming from the valley and saunter down the hill to join their family and neighbors.
The villagers of Urif have been unable to harvest their olives from the groves near Yitzhar for almost six years. Three years ago, one young man in his early twenties was shot dead by Yitzhar colonists, while three other men were badly injured. The trauma imprinted into the hearts of the people here is readily apparent, despite the rather heavy military and police presence around the groves. Israeli soldiers are stationed at regular intervals along the mountain ridges and police come down to check IDs and expel any non-Palestinian from the area. Unfortunately this also includes international solidarity workers, who are relegated to an area further down the valley.
The Israeli military forces seem largely unaware of the threat they pose to Palestinian villagers, even when their presence serves to deter settler attacks. The valley of olives opens up into a circle of land closed in by a settler by-pass road and several settler outposts. The villagers of Urif seem much more willing to enter this area when soldiers are not present. The days pass as one long series of nervous advances and retreats. As the police jeep drives off, people hastily haul their tarpaulin sheets and buckets off the tractor, picking at the nearest tree and stuffing their olives into anything that will hold them — pockets, plastic bags and headscarves.
A grandmother, stunning in a leopard print pinafore and black eyeliner, stays behind in the valley, touching her heart as she speaks of her children and her fears for their safety. Some of her grandchildren and their friends gather around her, their faces grubby and sweaty from work. Yet they do not pick much these days, able only to gather the confidence and calm needed to concentrate on the harvest for a few minutes at a time. Most of their energy is spent on looking out for settlers and soldiers, talking about what they will do if they do come, making sure that someone stays behind to make sure that their trees are not burned down in retaliation for a successful harvest.
Yesterday afternoon, when the police had left for the day, several Yitzhar settlers ventured into the valley. One was on horseback and rode all around the valley, occasionally stopping to peer down the slope at the Palestinian harvesters, silently slumped in his saddle. Five others were play fighting with each other, kicking and jostling along the roadside. All six of them finally retreated to a tin shack that Yitzhar inhabitants set up only a few days ago, jumping their horse over a fence over and over again and whooping with laughter. The villagers of Urif watched from the other side of the valley, now cold in the shadow cast by the mountain opposite, the smug profile of Yitzhar taunting them as it shone in the afternoon sun.
A row of identical white houses on the rim of a valley. This is the challenge that drives the villagers of Urif to get out of their beds in the morning and face the fear that otherwise would consume them. It’s tiring, as witnessed on the face of mayor Abu Ammar. But, as he says “it is the only way to live. We must go on, or give up and be shamed in front of our children.”
Asira Al-Qibliye, Saturday 11th November
“No, no, I’m not going up there”, our driver says, shaking his head and stepping down from the military-made roadblock. “It is too dangerous. I am sorry, you will have to go on your own.” We look down at the fork in the settler by-pass road. A large sign saying “Yitzhar” points up the hill. On the West side of the road leading up to the Yitzhar colony is a large olive grove with trees in tidy rows, but in order to get there the Palestinian owners of the land, from the village of Asira Al-Qibliye, have to cross one major settler thoroughfare and then trek up along another.
Six years ago, the elderly mother of one of the farmers was shot in the stomach by settlers from Yitzhar and had to undergo extensive surgery. The settlers had come down to physically assault the olive harvesters. Since then, the farmers have been reluctant to go to their land for fear of further settler harassment. The land is overgrown with thorns and untended, yet the branches of the trees still weigh down heavily with big juicy olives.
About twenty women and two men from several different families harvested their olives today, in a big rush to finish before the settlers would detect them. Working quickly and efficiently, and yet still finding the time and composure to sing one or two songs in honour of the beautiful sunny day, they were able to finish without any Israeli interference.