Bitter Harvest in West Bank's Olive Groves

Chris McGreal

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.”

A Palestinian villager walks by the burned and cut remnants of his olive trees, on a hillside in the village of Einabus, in the West Bank

A Palestinian villager walks by the burned and cut remnants of his olive trees, on a hillside in the village of Einabus, in the West Bank

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.”

A Palestinian woman picks olives from the ground near her trees. Olive harvests are frequently marred or destroyed by theft, and the intimidation tactics of militant illegal settlers.

A Palestinian woman picks olives from the ground near her trees. Olive harvests are frequently marred or destroyed by theft, and the intimidation tactics of militant illegal settlers.

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 naked.

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.


Published Friday, November 14th, 2003 - 03:35pm GMT

Edited article courtesy of The Guardian

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Chris McGreal



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