Saturday, December 16, 2017

Harvesting olives on the frontline of occupation


By Matt Matthews - November 05, 2016
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation] [Features]
Tags: [Occupation] [Olive Trees] [settler violence] [Hebron]

Olive farmers in Hebron and across the West Bank have been harvesting their crop, facing up once more to annual harassment by Israeli soldiers and illegal settlers.

Wajlan Omtamr is a widow and a mother of four.  “I’m not afraid of them,” she said with a cool, level stare as she stood in the shade of a spreading olive tree. “I was raised here in this area.”
 
But “this area” is Tel Rumeida, the hill at the heart of Hebron’s heavily-occupied H2 district. Since illegal settlers began to muscle into the area in the 1980s, the life has been choked from once-bustling souqs and streets by curfews, road closures and the obliteration of thousands of local businesses.
 
Admot Yishai settlement was granted Israeli (though not international) approval in the late 90s, since when the use of napalm to blight Palestinian fields, lethal shootings and the stoning of Palestinian school-children have all occurred around the hill. A spate of violence late last year, which saw 18 residents of the city killed by Israeli soldiers in the space of a month following stabbing and ramming attacks, had Tel Rumeida as its core.
 

Khalifa's land is overlooked by the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba
 
The modest grove of nine trees which Wajlan tends is hemmed in by these notoriously aggressive settlers, who are backed by the presence in H2 of an entire company of Israeli Forces soldiers. Theoretically present to provide protection, these soldiers allow settler violence against locals to proceed unchecked while indulging in extrajudicial killings of Palestinians.
 
In return for a fifty-fifty split of the crop, Wajlan has spent the last couple of years looking after the orchard on behalf of an absentee owner unable to secure a H2 permit. But her attempts to harvest early-flourishing fruit were frustrated by the occupying forces.
 
“Two weeks ago, a settler came and tried to steal my bag of olives from below the tree I was working on,” she told the Palestine Monitor on October 22. “Then he called three soldiers. They were shouting at me to shut up, trying to make me leave the area, but I insisted that I would not go.” Eventually, she was forced from the tree, by a soldier she identifies as the child of prominent local settlers.
 
The members of the Israeli Forces soon left the immediate area, their invasion seemingly nothing more than a mere show of force. Wajlan said she wasn’t scared of the soldiers, but that they made her live “a life full of problems, since [she] was a little child.”
 
“My two brothers were killed in the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre,” she continued, referring to the shooting attack by a far-right Israeli extremist that left 29 Palestinians dead and the floor of the sacred tomb running with blood.
 
“And my husband is also dead, so I have to follow the soldiers from place to place to defend my house and my children. I have become helpless,” she added.
 
On Wajlan’s land, the olive harvest proper was supposed to start on Monday 24 October, when a mixed group of Palestinian, Italian and Catalan activists arrived to provide some cover from the aggression of the settlers.
 
The presence of Westerners has often sheltered local farmers from the worst excesses of the occupation. As one activist told me, “they do sometimes still attack us, but it’s much more safe for the Palestinians.”
 

Palestinians and international volonteers work together on the harvest
 
But Monday’s action was soon halted. The activists speak on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals or ten-year travel bans from the Israeli authorities, and preferring in any case to speak as a collective. Sporting keffiyehs, buzz-cuts and pro-Palestinian t-shirts, they rapidly pick up the thread of one another’s stories and jokes as they describe a month-long solidarity tour around the West Bank’s olive-picking flashpoints.
 
As they tell it, a settler first defecated at the base of an olive tree in Tel Rumeida’s Islamic cemetery before summoning soldiers to shut down the harvest. “These stupid things can become tragedies,” said one.
 
“It’s important from the point of view of household economics, but the olive tree also represents their resistance,” added another international sympathizer. “The occupiers want their home, their land, their trees.” And when Tel Rumeida orchards are levelled by bulldozers to make way for settlement expansion, this symbolism rapidly breaks into reality.
 
The abortive harvest restarted on 25 October, and though nervous Israeli soldiers toting M-16s continued to stalk Tel Rumeida, this time it was allowed to continue. As Palestinians and Europeans shared a crème caramel below a stripped-bare tree, soldiers toting M-16s kept their distance at the foot of the hill.
 
According to the World Bank, 100,000 Palestinian families rely on their olive trees to survive, while nearly half of all agricultural land in the occupied West Bank is given over to the fruit.
 
Balancing on a battered tea-tray, 65-year-old Khalifa reached to pluck the last few olives from the uppermost branch of a tree. A farmer whose land lies on the outskirts of Hebron, Khalifa is one of those whose livelihood is dependent on his orchard.
 
But his field is also adjacent to Kiryat Arba settlement, a hotbed of violence against Palestinians. It’s the birthplace of the Ibrahimi Mosque murderer, Baruch Goldstein, and his grave there is preserved as a monument.
 
“The settlers always come at this time [of year],” he said, glancing nervously up the hill towards Kiryat Arba. “They steal the olives, they throw stones. They make it really hard.”
 
Year on year, the residents of the illegal settlement have forcibly seized olives from land tended by Palestinian farmers. According to the Jerusalem Post, between 2001 and 2008 local farmers were only once able to collect their own harvest.  But for now, and with international volunteers around him, Khalifa was able to proceed unmolested.
 
This pattern is replicated across the West Bank, often with more serious consequences. Fields containing thousands of trees have been scorched into ash by settlers. The harvest is a particular flashpoint for direct violence against Palestinian farmers, as well as non-Palestinian activists: Last year, a member of the Israeli organisation Rabbis For Human Rights was beaten at knifepoint by a settler, while olive-pickers around Kiryat Arba have been battered with rifle butts and batons.
 
“When a settler comes, he commands me to leave the area as if it’s his home,” said Wajtan, speaking with the weariness of a lifetime spent under occupation. “But I will never leave. I will stay to the last breath defending our land.”
 

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