Bitter Harvest

Gideon Levy

For years, settlers would chop down Palestinians' olive trees or prevent them from working their land. Now a new trend has emerged: the theft of olives


11 October 2002

Mahmoud Fatah (left) with Mahmoud Azzam (center) and Ahmed Fatah: "It is not worth dying for a few sacks of olives."
(Photo: Photos by Miki Krats)


   Mohammed Obeid couldn't believe his eyes. Standing in his olive grove, between the dozens of trees he had planted on the sloping land, trees he had tended and watered after clearing the land of rocks and plowing the soil, was a group of people - about 10 armed men, a woman and a dog. They were picking the olives. He rubbed his eyes in astonishment. Who were these people who were on his land, taking his olives? Very soon, though, he recognized the uninvited guests. They were residents of the old settlement of Tapuah and of the new settlement of Tapuah, among the most extreme and violent of the settlers in the West Bank. There they were, standing in his grove, shaking the trees powerfully and beating them with sticks in order to dislodge the olives, which they then collected. Outraged, Obeid tried to summon everyone he could think of to come and help him drive off the intruders and save his crop. But no one came: not the police, not the army and not the Civil Administration. Not even the British consul-general was able to help. For three days the settlers helped themselves to Obeid's crop with no interference from anyone, from morning to evening, unprofessionally and prematurely harvesting the crop that was Obeid's last source of livelihood. He watched, brokenhearted. 

We sat on the balcony of Mohammed Azzam, who has the plot next to Obeid's in the village of Kafr Yasuf. On his knees Azzam held a baby girl with cropped hair and golden earrings. She is a year and a half old, he is 80. The two looked like great-grandfather and great-granddaughter, but Suha, as the baby is called, is Azzam's daughter. The aged father looked contemplatively at the lush valley below. The orange security lights of New Tapuah, an illegal outpost that is being built on the ridge across from his home, are visible from afar, 24 hours a day. The secret of long life, he says, is to work the land and eat natural foods - the peppers, grapes and basil that he grows in the yard of his house, and the olives that he harvests in his grove. 

This year, though, Azzam, like his neighbor, will not have a crop. The settlers of New Tapuah took his olives away before his very eyes. He, too, plowed and sowed and watered and tended with his own hands - he still works the land, even at his advanced age - and they harvested. After years during which settlers put the ax to olive trees in the West Bank or prevented Palestinians from getting to their groves, a new trend has emerged this year: theft of olives. 

This week, some settlers went beyond threats. Hani Beni Maniyeh, 24, was killed and two Palestinians were wounded when settlers opened fire at them as they worked their olive grove in the West Bank village of Akrabeh, near the settlement of Itamar. Another olive harvester was wounded near the settlement of Ali. And it all happened as we sat on Mohammed Azzam's balcony in Yasuf and looked at his bare grove. 

"Kahane lives," declares the graffiti on the bus stop of Tapuah, referring to the slain ultranationalist Meir Kahane. On the concrete cube that imprisons the residents of Yasuf - part of the Israeli army's network of barriers across the West Bank - a phone number is scrawled. It's the number of the local taxi driver, in the event of an emergency. The destination would be Salfit, a godforsaken place that experienced a revival of sorts - it became a district town because Ramallah and Nablus were besieged and inaccessible. From the sealed barrier, Tapuah looks like a peaceful village, its roofs of red tiles and its lawns verdant, an evocation of Switzerland. On the ridge opposite is New Tapuah: mobile homes, a water tower, electricity cables, constantly burning security lights. 

Kafr Yasuf is ancient and neglected, though the spring in its lower section is still one of the most beautiful spots in the West Bank, a small Eden in the guts of hell. Date palms and lemon trees rub up against one another and the water of the spring burbles against a backdrop of glowing green. The village's 1,750 residents, prisoners in their own homes, own 5,565 dunams (1,392 acres) of land, though they now have access to only about half their fields and groves. The land around the spring was divided equally among all the families in the village and the young people work it. Yasuf is so far a village without shaheeds (martyrs for the cause) and without detainees. 

Early last Sunday morning, a youngster named Raja al-Fatah saw people looting olives. He hurried to Obeid, a neighbor, who tried to summon help by contacting the Palestinian District Coordinating Office in Salfit and the Civil Administration and police in the urban settlement of Ariel. No one lifted a finger to stop the theft, he says. 

Help came in the person of Angie Zeltser, a veteran peace and environmental activist from Britain and a campaigner against nuclear proliferation who has been in jail more than once and helped found an organization that was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize. For the past few months she has lived in the nearby village of Khares, midway between Ramallah and Nablus, along with an Austrian friend named Karen; the two of them have responded to every Palestinian call of distress. (Zeltser, whose husband is Jewish, grew up in East Renton, a small fishing village - even smaller than Kafr Yasuf - in Norfolk, in the east of England. She became active in the territories in the wake of a romance her son had with an Israeli woman. Her son is now working for his doctoral degree in biochemistry at Hebrew University and living in Kibbutz Harel.) 

Last Tuesday, Zeltser, accompanied by about 10 of the village old-timers, set out on a rescue mission to the groves where settlers were harvesting Palestinian olives. Their hope was that the settlers would not dare to attack a woman and the elderly men. No one else in the village dared approach the settlers. Obeid relates that Angie called Britain's consul-general, and that he called B'Tselem and Ta'ayush, two Israeli human rights organizations, and asked them to try to organize a group of men to harvest the olives. However, the settlers threw stones and opened fire at Angie's group, which had no choice but to retreat. 

Obeid: "On Thursday, [Arik, from B'Tselem] brought men and a woman, and we went together to pick olives. We found about six soldiers waiting for us. Then settlers started to show up. Where they suddenly came from with their firearms I don't know. We picked everything that was mine and then came a clerk from the police and a clerk from Tzahal [the IDF] and said, `You would be better off going home. You can see that there are a lot of settlers.' I said: This is my land and you have to protect me. The settlers shouted, `This is our land,' and started cursing us. The Tzahalim told us: `If you don't go, we will start shooting.' I said: We should go home. It is not worth dying for a few sacks of olives. 

"I started to tell the people that we should go home. Angie sat on the ground with six people and they said: This is Palestinian land. I told them that I don't want trouble with the police. I pulled them by the hand and we went back home. Since then I have been watching, and no one has gone down to the olives. Maybe they went from the other side of the hill - you can't see from here. I can't go there. It's dangerous. I can't go on the road because it is blocked and I can't go on the mule because they are in my way. Last year there weren't so many olives... But this year there are a lot of olives and I don't know how I will get there. I am afraid for my family and I am afraid for whoever will come to help. 

"They [the settlers] do not pick all the olives. Every other tree. They pick the big and white but not the black. I saw. They don't work with their hands. Only with sticks. They don't climb the tree. They have no ladders. They pick what they can reach." 

Three of the village elders - their total age comes to 235 years - are listening raptly to the conversation. Bespectacled, they wear gray galabias and white kaffiyehs and hold brown walking sticks: Ahmed Fatah, 80, Mohammed Fatah, 75, and Azzam, 80. They are part of Angie's force, the ones who tried to get to the plundered groves. Another member of the group, Rashid Salah, was struck in the shoulder by a stone and lightly injured. Ahmed Fatah: "The settlers were picking. They left me nothing. Fifty trees. From 50 trees I made 10 tins of olive oil. Every tin is 55 [Jordanian] dinars. I have another plot. Eighty trees. I haven't yet been there to see. The time of the olives has not yet come. We hoped that next Saturday, with Allah's help, we would go there to pick." 

Ahmed Fatah attests to what happened on Tuesday when they went to the hill: the settlers shot at them. Zeltser, too, says that they came under fire. No one was hurt. She was attacked by the settlers, she says, and her camera, purse, money and passport were taken by force. The settlers returned the money and the passport, but not the digital video camera with which she had documented their looting. She filed a complaint for assault and robbery with the Ariel police; the police showed her snapshots of settlers but she didn't identify her attackers among them. Two days later, though, last Thursday, when Peace Now and Ta'ayush activists arrived, escorted by the police, she saw the assailants waving at her arrogantly, she relates. In great excitement she told the police, but they ignored her and didn't detain anyone, she says. She also says that her friend heard one of the policemen say, "This is Israeli land, not Palestinian." One of the settlers, who had a British accent and a dog, told her, "This land belongs to me." 

"Where were you born?" she retorted. 

The spokesman of the Shai (Samaria and Judea) Police said in response: "There was no occasion on which the lady pointed out her attackers and the police ignored it. I examined this in depth. She filed a complaint and during her questioning she indicated a general direction. But there was no occasion in which she pointed to suspects. We are continuing, of course, to carry out the investigation very thoroughly. I hope that together we will succeed in putting our hand on those troublemakers in the near future."





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