Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The Olive Harvest

My first week in Palestine has been spent in the trees. Every morning, I wake up at sunrise to walk with farmers to their olive groves, where we climb the ancient trees and fill our shirts with olives, taking occasional breaks to sip fresh sage tea and admire the scenery. It is fall, the time of the olive harvest, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinian olive trees burst with ripe purple olives, to be plucked and marinated or pressed for fresh olive oil.

For many generations, local Palestinian farmers have depended on the fall harvest as a major source of income to support their families. However, many farmers now say they are afraid to approach their trees alone. They have been traumatized by repeated harassment from soldiers and armed settlers from Israel, who for decades have been patrolling Palestinian land to ensure the protection and expansion of Jewish-only settlements.

Settlements are towns or communities built by Israel exclusively for Jews on internationally recognized Palestinian land. Israeli settlements are in violation of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own population to the occupied territory, in this case the West Bank, the Gaza Strip,[1] and East Jerusalem. In many languages, like French, the general word for “settlement” is the same as the word for “colony.” But in English and Hebrew, a more benign word is used: people living in Israeli settlements are referred to as “settlers,” not “colonizers.”

In spite of international law, Israel not only condones the illegal settlements, but actively supports their establishment and growth. For example, the Israeli government subsidizes housing, water, electricity, transportation, and many other services for settlers. By declaring settlements “national priority areas,” the illegal colonies are entitled to 65% more grants than local councils in Israel, and financial assistance to lease land at rates well below the actual value.[2] Israel also offers tax breaks, business incentives, free schooling, and mortgage grants up to 95% in the settlements[3] to attract new Jewish citizens to become part of the occupying presence. The larger the Israeli population in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, the stronger Israel’s claim to that land becomes.

On an Israeli road outside of Ariel settlement near our house, a Hebrew billboard announces to passersby, “Now is the time to move to Ariel. Join our community, and you will receive 100,000 New Israeli Shekels.” That’s more than US$20,000. Advertisements like this appeal not to well-off Israelis, but rather to poorer Israelis, like young families, recent immigrants, or Israelis of color. These might be people who couldn’t care less about the political or religious significance of the land itself. Maybe they are simply looking for a higher standard of living for themselves and their families.[4] In fact, most Israeli settlers move to the Palestinian Territories not because they think “This land is ours and nobody else’s,” but because in one way or another, their government is paying them to do so (with American tax-dollars).

A minority of settlers choose to live in the Palestinian Territories primarily for political or religious reasons. Many of these “ideological”—as opposed to “economic”—settlers frequently threaten or attack Palestinian farmers and families, because they believe the Palestinians are occupying land promised to the Jewish people by God. Due to the increasing danger of settler attacks, many farmers have started requesting accompaniment from Israeli peace groups and international organizations. The hope is that violent settlers or soldiers might exercise restraint in the presence of Israelis or internationals, either out of shame or because we might document the violence and transmit the news to Western media sources, where stories of Israeli settler or soldier violence often go untold.

One organization providing international accompaniment to Palestinian farmers is the International Women’s Peace Service (IWPS), where I am volunteering for the next 2 months. IWPS is a grassroots peace organization dedicated to documenting and nonviolently intervening in human rights abuses in the West Bank, and supporting Palestinian and Israeli nonviolent resistance to the Occupation. We are based in Haris, a small village in the West Bank’s rural Salfit region. When farmers from the neighboring village of Deir Istiya contacted us recently to request accompaniment, three IWPS women (myself included) and five Israeli activists volunteered to go.

Although the Deir Istiya farmers’ groves are not far from their homes, it was a long walk because Palestinians are not permitted to use the main road connecting their village with their land. That main road is a settler highway, built to connect nearby settlements with one another and with Israel proper. Most roads in the Occupied Territories are segregated, with older, sometimes dirt roads for Palestinians, and modern highways of up to four lanes for Israelis. The latter are built over demolished homes and olive groves of local Palestinian villages, but the road signs often give no indication of past or present Palestinian communities. Signs point the way to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and nearby Israeli settlements. The ones we passed on the way to Deir Istiya’s olive groves were printed in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, but the Arabic had been blacked out with spray-paint, we assumed by ideological settlers.

Our first days of harvesting with the farmers and Israeli activists were peaceful. I marveled at the technique of separating olives from leaves: everything is poured out of buckets from a high place, and the wind carries away the light leaves while the olives, heavy with oil, fall into a pile together. The atmosphere was pleasant, sorting olives, drinking tea, and chatting in the shade of the silvery trees. The Palestinians did their best in Hebrew and the Israelis and I tried to speak a little Arabic.

Today was less serene. As we moved west with the harvest, we came closer to the bulldozers plowing through Deir Istiya’s groves. The bulldozers are leveling olive groves for the expansion of nearby Revava settlement. My friends from Deir Istiya fear their land will be next. While we were harvesting, a Revava settler with an M16 semiautomatic weapon approached us and asked the Palestinians for their identification papers. The farmers obliged. The other three IWPS women and I approached the settler to observe him, trying to be conspicuous but not threatening. We knew the settler had no right to ask the farmer for his ID—it is a Palestinian grove—but our policy is not to take the lead, rather to support Palestinians in their tactics as long as they are nonviolent. The farmer asked us to stay back, and we did. The farmer knew it was easier and safer to comply rather than refuse and risk facing violence from settlers or soldiers.

After the settler left, I volunteered to keep an eye out for settlers or soldiers, and also to keep watch over the farmers’ donkeys. (I had heard of recent cases of settlers stealing donkeys.) Half an hour later, three armed soldiers approached us and one asked if we had seen anyone around. We told him we’d seen a man with a gun. Alarmed, the soldier asked us to describe the man. We described the settler we had just seen and he relaxed visibly: “Just a Jew? Oh, his gun is necessary—he has to defend himself.”

The soldiers asked how long we would be there and we said until sunset. When they were gone, we discussed the encounter and agreed that in the future we would translate questions into Arabic instead of answering them ourselves, even if the questions were simple. Our purpose is not to speak or fight for Palestinians, but to support their right both to be on their land and to resist the forces occupying it.

It was a long walk home after harvesting. In addition to taking a long detour around the settler road, we had to cart all of the olives from that day in one trip because there have apparently been recent incidents of settlers stealing olives in the area. When we arrived at our house in Haris, we learned that a farmer from a nearby village had been taken away by soldiers while he was picking olives with his family and three international volunteers who were accompanying them. Fortunately, several groups were notified and took action. Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), an Israeli peace organization that fights human rights violations in Israel and the Occupied Territories in the Jewish tradition of Tikkun olam, or social action, is already working on getting the farmer released. CNN reporters who happened to be in the neighborhood at the time will probably have a story, too. We are optimistic because of the international media coverage and sympathetic Israeli presence, and some of us will go to the village tomorrow to help finish the harvest that was interrupted.


When this book went to press, Israeli settlers had been evacuated from the Gaza Strip, although the territory remained under Israeli military siege. For a post-evacuation update and analysis, see “Sewage Tsunami & Strangulation in Gaza (p. ***—ALSO SPIEL OR CONCLUSION?).


Patrick Müller, “Occupation in Hebron,” Alternative Information Center: AIC (2004), p. 29.


Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs: PASSIA (2007 Diary), p. 313.


The situation bears a striking resemblance to the US military, which fills its enlisted ranks with underprivileged young men, often black or Latino, who fight not necessarily because they believe in the cause, but because they need the money and education that the army offers to them.