Bitter harvest in West Bank's olive groves
John M Cox
coxj at email.unc.edu
Fri Nov 14 04:56:39 MST 2003
Bitter harvest in West Bank's olive groves
Jewish settlers wreck fruit of centuries of toil to force out Palestinian
Chris McGreal in Sawiya
Friday November 14, 2003
Abdula Yusuf is too afraid to climb the rocky terraces beyond his village and
see the damage for himself. "They'll kill me," he said, waving a hand at the
container homes on the top of a neighbouring hill. "If they can do that thing
to trees as old as the Roman times, they will not hesitate to do it to me."
The annual olive harvest in the occupied territories has once again been
rocked by Jewish settlers and their now routine assaults on Palestinian
pickers to plunder their crop. This year, the settlers have gone to new
lengths which have brought unusual denunciations from the prime minister,
Ariel Sharon, and even criticism from the settlers' own leaders.
Armed Israelis are systematically wrecking trees that have stood for hundreds
of years and frequently provide the only livelihood for Palestinian families.
Rights groups estimate that more than 1,000 trees have been damaged or
destroyed in recent weeks, some planted in the Roman era. Among the victims
are Mr Yusuf and his neighbours in Sawiya village, south of Nablus. "We used
to think they just wanted our olives, but it's about land," he said. "They
want to expand their settlement: by cutting the trees, they can say the land
is neglected and no one is taking care of it. And it's their excuse for
getting their hands on it."
The assault on Mr Yusuf's trees came from an outpost of the Jewish settlement
of Eli. "It was the first day of picking and we worked for three or four
hours," said Mr Yusuf, the head of Sawiya's council. "I myself had picked five
sacks when the settlers came down the hill with knives and guns. They slashed
open our sacks and emptied the olives on to the ground. They put guns against
our heads and made us stand there while they did it.
"The settlers have built a road near the bottom of the hill. They told us that
we are not allowed to cross the road any more and that all the land the other
side, all our olive trees up the hill, are now theirs."
The people of Sawiya met that night. The village had already lost large chunks
of land snatched to build the settlements, and people were reluctant to
surrender more. But they knew from bitter experience that, if there was
violence, it would not matter who was responsible; it would be the
Palestinians who would be punished with curfews or worse.
They sought protection in numbers, and returned next day with a larger group
of pickers from surrounding villages. The settlers stayed away, but came down
that night. Over two hillsides, they sawed and hacked trees, tearing off
branches and slicing through trunks with power saws. Some larger branches were
tossed to the ground still bristling with fruits. The higher the hill rose
toward the settlement, the greater the destruction - mostly of the fertile
branches which will take a decade to grow back and start producing again.
"Next morning we stopped an Israeli police patrol," Mr Yusuf said. "The jeep
went up to the settlement and told them not to do it again. Next night they
were back, and the police didn't do anything."
The people of Sawiya estimate that 250 trees, the livelihood for 10 extended
families, were badly damaged or destroyed. But, as it is too dangerous to
climb near the settlement, they cannot count precisely.
Settlers at Eli declined to be interviewed, but other Jewish communities in
the area have justified driving Palestinians from their land by saying they
threaten security. The settlers' fears are often real. Eli and nearby Yitzhar
have been attacked over the past three years, and families have been murdered
in attacks on other small settlements close by.
But, as Yitzhar's spokesman, Yossi Peli, readily admits, the settlers' intent
goes beyond security. "The trees grow back and ultimately we hope to harvest
them in the place of the unwanted inhabitants of the area," he said. Yitzhar
and its outposts have been responsible for some of the worst destruction of
recent weeks, with attacks on the groves of the village of Einabus, five miles
north of Sawiya.
Men from Yitzhar, a religiously militant settlement with a history of violence
against Palestinians, have terrorised olive pickers from their land with guns
and clubs, and destroyed hundreds of trees. In one incident, the settlers beat
a 70-year-old man, stripped him, and forced him to walk back to his village
The destruction of trees has drawn fire from Mr Sharon and the settlers'
council. But the Yesha council qualified its criticism by saying that, while
wrecking trees is wrong, it is acceptable for settlers to loot the olive crop
- because Jews are entitled to harvest the produce of non-Jews in what the
council defines as the "Land of Israel", which includes the West Bank.
One leftwing Israeli member of parliament, Ephraim Sneh, visited the scene,
and blamed the government. "Who did this? The residents of Hilltop 725," he
said. "That is a settlement outpost the government of Israel undertook to
remove, but didn't; now the army is forced to guard it. We're talking about a
group who live at the state's expense, with the state's protection, and do
things no Jew can accept."
Other Israeli critics warn that lawless attacks on Palestinians and their
property will backfire. "The conclusion is that the fight against terror
should not only be aimed at the Hamas and Islamic Jihad," said a respected
military analyst, Ze'ev Schiff. "Just as the Tanzim [armed wing of Yasser
Arafat's Fatah] gangs must be fought, so should the gangs of olive-tree
cutters. They are dangerous because they and their kind will never allow any
calm with the Palestinians - and that makes them another terrorist
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