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Olive Harvest Reflections

by Jane Smith, December 10th

I have been back in Palestine for a week. Although the violence and tension is less than in the early years of the Intifada, the oppressive control of Palestinian life is worse than ever. People are losing hope.

Despite this, I feel so fortunate to be here during the olive harvest and have been welcomed with incredible generosity and open heartedness. I have climbed olive trees and experienced the beauty of harvesting; feeling ripe olives running through my fingers, and hearing them fall like huge drops of rain on the tarpaulin below. Resting in the shade of the olive groves I have shared much laughter and amazing picnics with Palestinian families, who despite hardship, danger and suffering retain their humanity and infectious sparkle.

The olive harvest is a crucial time of year and is part of the very fabric of Palestinian society. Many farmers have suffered huge land loss and with this, mounting poverty. Land has been confiscated to build the Apartheid Wall, to expand Israeli settlements (whose very existence is illegal under International Law) and to construct “settler only” roads. Many farmers have land which is virtually inaccessible, falling behind the Wall, and have to negotiate a punitive system of permits and locked agricultural gates. Internationals offer accompaniment to farmers who are in danger, from both the Israeli Army and armed Israeli settlers. We stand in solidarity in the struggle to preserve land and livelihood.

I have been working in the village of Aw Zawiya, in Salfit district, central West Bank . The Apartheid Wall is already complete on one side of the village, resulting in massive land loss. Over the coming months Az Zawiya will be imprisoned on a further two sides. Many Palestinian villages are being strangled by “Ariel finger” which cuts deep into the West Bank, forming a “land corridor” between Ariel settlement and Tel Aviv.

The village of Aw Zawiya will become isolated into an enclave, along with the villages of Rafat and Deir Ballut, inaccessible to currently neighbouring villages. The army can easily control the one road into the village – a tunnel running under a “settler only” road. Anyone who has any doubts about whether Apartheid is really happening need only take a look at the segregated road system.

The main problems the farmers from Aw Zawiya face are from Israeli settlers. Although the settlements in that area are not particularly radical, the gun is commonplace. Whilst accompanying one family we were forced to walk for 100 meters through a dark, claustrophobic drain which ran under the “settler only” road. Shortly after emerging from the drain we met the army, controlling a small break in the Wall. An elderly man, alone and trying to reach a hospital appointment, was turned away. He did not have the “right” ID. In fact he was trying to save time and money, taking a short cut along a route that would have been possible before the Wall was built. Internationals negotiated for 2 hours with the army to be able to join the Palestinian family we were accompanying, whose land was dangerously close to a settlement.

Another family we accompanied have land which now lies within an Israeli settlement. They had to pass through the agricultural gate at Mas’ha village in order to harvest their olives. Permits to reach this land are only given during limited periods during the year, and only to older people. The gate is opened and closed once a day, and does not allow for a full days work. Palestinians have no choice or control over when they go to their land.

We also harvested with a family from the village of Haris. Their land was overgrown and the trees had not been pruned, a result of the farmer being unable to safely access his fields. Revava settlement was built on their land, and their remaining trees (from the 500 which were cut down) are very close to the settlement. Revava is becoming increasingly radicalised, and there are growing numbers of attacks, intimidation and threats made towards Palestinian farmers. The first morning we were met by armed settlement “security”, who made veiled threats to shoot if we did not leave. They were joined by the Israeli army. Throughout the 2 days we had many more visits from both the army and “security”, but the harvesting continued. More than in other places we could feel our international presence making a difference. This, of course, is only possible because of deep seated racism.

In a village near Nablus, another group of Internationals accompanied a family to their land which now has an Israeli watchtower built on it. They had not stepped foot in these groves for 6 years, for fear of being shot. International accompaniment not only increases the feeling of safety for the farmers, but can make a concrete difference in negotiations with the army.

Recently I accompanied a family to their land in the village of Orif, near Nablus. The day before they had been stoned by settlers; one man needed medical treatment. In Occupied Palestine the parameters change. I feel relief that it was rocks and not bullets. There have been many times when Palestinians have been threatened by armed settlers, and occasions when this has resulted in serious injury or death.

The Israeli High Court of Justice ruled in June this year that Palestinians have a right to property, and a right to enter and work their land. The army and police are legally obligated to take action to protect Palestinian farmers and their property from attack. This ruling is a victory for the recognition of Palestinian rights. What remains to be seen is its effects on the ground. There have been several occasions this year when it has made a difference, when adequate army protection was given to farmers to protect them from settler attacks. There is still a long, long way to go before farmers have free and safe access to their land. In the meantime internationals continue to offer accompaniment, armed with our international privilege, our cameras, our phones and a copy of the High Court decision.

Buying Palestinian olive oil is a concrete act of solidarity www.zaytoun.org

To join the olive harvest next autumn go to www.iwps-pal.org, www.palsolidarity.org www.zaytoun.org, www.rhr.israel.net