For the past decade and a half, dozens of left-wing Israeli activists have come together to accompany Palestinians to their groves during the olive harvest. Despite recurring settler violence, the situation has improved over the years.
It had become like the opening ceremony of the olive harvest season: last Wednesday, Israeli settlers uprooted 40 olive trees in Turmusaya, a small Palestinian village north of Ramallah. Palestinian farmers face settler violence throughout the year, but it is during the olive harvest that the attacks increase dramatically.
For the past 16 years, a group of left-wing organizations have banded together to try and stop the attacks. The Harvest Coalition, made up of groups such as Ta’ayush, Rabbis for Human Rights, Coalition of Women for Peace, and Combatants for Peace, among others, has enlisted Israeli volunteers to join Palestinian farmers in areas that are more prone to violence. The very presence of Israeli activists can provide the farmers with the bare minimum of protection in the occupied territories.
The coalition was formed in 2002 by 82-year-old Yaakov Manor, a veteran Israeli human rights activist.
“I first heard about the problem of settlers attacking Palestinian farmers in the 90s,” says Manor. “I was in charge of Peace Now’s dialogue committee, and traveled to many villages. One time I received a phone call from friends in Nablus who said, ‘We have a big problem in Burin, they won’t let them harvest.’ So we decided to join them. I did not understand the severity of the issue at the time; none of us did, since in those years Palestinians did not speak much about these kinds of attacks. The joint harvest did not end up taking place, since the Islamic Movement was strong in the Nablus area, and they didn’t want Jews going into the villages.
“The real beginning of the joint harvests was during the Second Intifada, when I was already active with Ta’ayush. We received an urgent phone call from the village of Yasuf, next to Kfar Tapuach, which used be heavily Kahanist. I went there with Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights, we saw the settlers who invaded the village land, they attacked the Palestinians and tried to kick us out. The army always had an easier time dispersing the Palestinians and Israeli activists, so that’s what they did. Afterward we heard stories that [farmers] couldn’t harvest in all kinds of different places. We heard about agricultural land that had not been cultivated or harvested for years.”
“In 2002 we had a friend from the village Hares who worked in the Palestinian Authority’s District Coordination Office. We asked him to organize a tour of several villages to see what was happening. We were 15 people, mostly from Ta’ayush. We toured the Samaria region, went into many villages, sat with heads of local councils and farmers. Everywhere we went I wrote down the statistics — how many acres of land hadn’t been cultivated, what were the main problems, etc. I came home with my long list of villages, particularly ones located next to settlements. I counted something like 22,240 acres of land that had not been cultivated due to settler violence. In 2002, all the radical groups worked together to organize a large harvest. More than 200 people came, and we divided the volunteers into groups. Everywhere we went, soldiers tried to block our way. They really waited for us, but we were able to circumvent them. From that day, we decided to do it every year.”
Over the years, Manor, a retired banker, has become somewhat of an expert on the harvest. “The length of the harvest period changes from year to year,” he explains. “There is usually a good year followed by a worse year. Good harvests, in terms of weather and rainfall, can last for over two months.” Because of drought conditions and damage caused by pests, says Manor, there will be fewer olives to harvest, meaning the season will be relatively short.
Do you always go to the same villages?
“It changes from year to year. Over the past few years the situation has improved slightly. There are between 25-30 villages located to the more problematic settlements. Those are the ones we go to.”
Have you faced violence?
“Yes. I was personally attacked in Yasuf by a settler in an army uniform. There was severe violence next to Huwara, where settlers came down from nearby Yitzhar. We were a fairly large group, but they came with sticks and threw stones at us. One of our volunteers was taken to a hospital. We were able to quickly alert the army, not that they helped much, but the settlers retreated when they saw the soldiers. I was able to duck from a stone at the last moment. In the village of Yanoun, one of the settlers smashed the butt of his rifle into my friend’s face.”
Do you coordinate your visits with the army?
“Yes. During the first years we asked the security forces to put an end to the settler violence. The Defense Ministry told us that it was not the role of the army to do so, and that the army cannot station its soldiers in every olive grove. After the coalition’s activities gained more exposure, the army began coordinating with the PA in the run-up to the harvest, and Palestinians gained access to more of their groves.
“In the meantime, the High Court of Justice ruled that Palestinians should be able to enjoy the fruit of their labor, and that the army was obligated to ensure the harvest occurs every year. The army asked the court to ensure that the harvest take place in a way that prevents much of the friction. Thus, the agricultural land was split into three parts: the ‘green zone,’ which is open for harvesting every year, and where Israelis can harvest alongside Palestinians; the ‘blue zone,’ which is further away from the settlements but still in their range, where Palestinians can go but without the volunteers. According to the army, once the volunteers arrive, it is seen as a provocation against the settlers. The closer one gets to the more problematic settlements, the more our volunteers’ access is limited.
“The third area is the ‘red zone,’ which are very close to those settlements, where Palestinians can only enter in accordance with coordination between the army and the PA.
“We sit down with the Civil Administration every year for a meeting and coordinate the maps of the different zones. The problem is not with the orders. The various army units want to protect the harvest because they don’t want riots or bad press. But when we get there, many times the local commanders do whatever they want, and don’t always act according to orders. We file complaints, sometimes that helps. The struggle was successful because Palestinians are simply coming to harvest. Usually there is trouble during the first two weeks, after that things calm down.”
Alongside the convoluted division of agricultural land into zones, there is also the story of “trapped land,” which can be found between the separation barrier and the Green Line, and which most Palestinians cannot access. “We’re talking about no less than 197,000 acres from the Jenin area to Qalqilya,” Manor says. “The fence was built east of the Green Line, swallowing up agricultural land that Palestinians have a very hard time cultivating because of entry permit issues. Around 40 percent of the fruit and vegetable produce in the West Bank came from the trapped land. These are the most fertile areas with a great deal of Palestinian agriculture, including greenhouses, chicken coops, and more. Apart from a few areas, the fence has put an end to that.”
“There was a period in which the coalition split into two: Rabbis for Human Rights focused on the villages near the settlements on weekdays, while the seculars among us visited the trapped lands on the Sabbath. We mostly focused on the permit policy, which is also complex and makes it very difficult for Palestinian farmers. At first, they allowed only close family members of the landowners to enter, nowadays they allow a few workers here and there.
“Imagine a farmer whose plot is 50 meters from his home, but the gate to allow him through the fence is located five kilometers away. He needs to travel the five kilometers to reach the fence, and then another five kilometers until he reaches his land. He wastes two hours walking just to make it there. There are additional problems, such as how to bring the olives to the village. The best olive oil makes it to the press within four hours. Because of the permit policy, there are farmers who cannot finish harvesting themselves. We come and help them. In these cases we do not need the approval of the army, since as opposed to Palestinians, the trapped land is open to Israelis.
Why do you need volunteers? Why doesn’t the army play a bigger role in protecting the harvest?
“They claim that the army allocates a very large number of soldiers for the harvest. It makes sense: they cannot be at every village and every grove — that is why we go out. The army does not want the settlers’ provocations, but according to government policy soldiers cannot touch the settlers, which renders them helpless. Take issues such as vandalism, arson, uprooting trees, or massive theft of olives. The army, because of the political power of the settlers, does nothing. I do not know of a single case of theft that was brought to court.
Does one need to know how to harvest in order to participate?
You learn quick. There is a sense of a family event. You interact with the farmers’ family, you eat together and hear stories. We have family harvests where children are welcome.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.