October 09, 2006
Rabbi leads defence of Palestinian olive groves
From Ian MacKinnon in Huwara, West Bank
The olives are stunted, the trees in poor condition. At the top of a ladder, stripping fruit from high branches, the Palestinian farmer Omar Karni is in his element, working his way up a dusty olive grove that has been in his family for generations. For the first time in four years, the family has been able to harvest the crop. Last time Mr Karni tried, radical Jewish settlers set fire to the tinder-dry land and beat him as he fled. “I’m so happy to be here,” he said, stretching to reach a branch in the relentless sun. “This is my land and if I can’t come here to farm it I feel incomplete. I must do this to keep the land in my family.”
Mr Karni, 58, a Muslim, can go about his business without threat largely because of a rabbi who has co-ordinated with the Israeli Army and police to be on the spot to provide protection. Rabbi Arik Ascherman peers through binoculars towards the Har Berakha settlement near Nablus, in the West Bank, for signs of trouble. Heavily armed Israeli police patrol through the trees and an army Humvee squats across the dirt track to deter unwanted visitors. Rabbi Ascherman, co-director of Rabbis for Human Rights, will spend the six-week olive season rising at dawn with other volunteers to put his life on the line to protect Palestinian farmers from armed Jewish settlers.
Without the Jewish cleric, the farmers would be fired upon or beaten, their harvest stolen and ancient trees — some dating from Roman times — felled with chainsaws. “This whole issue of trying to prevent the olive harvest is the ongoing struggle to get Palestinians off the land,” the rabbi said. “But if we Jews are to survive in this land we must restore hope by being here to break down the stereotypes the Palestinians have of Israelis. This is the best single thing I can do to protect my two children.” The rabbi and his fellow volunteers — some Israeli, some foreign — will help to harvest and to police groves in 30 West Bank villages that sit cheek-by-jowl with Jewish settlements and have become flashpoints. Last year attacks rose sharply at harvest-time, with feelings running high over Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip. Thousands of olive trees were cut down, others damaged, crops stolen, and several Palestinian farmers suffered serious injury at the hands of settler mobs.
Gamilah Biso, an Arabic-speaking Jewish volunteer who was brought up in Damascus, realises that her presence and that of her colleagues is vital to ensure that the olives can be harvested from the West Bank’s ten million trees to produce the 36,000 tonnes of olive oil. That accounts for one fifth of Palestinian agriculture. “If we weren’t here the farmer and his family just wouldn’t be able to come,” Ms Biso said, deftly stripping the green olives from the branches. “It would be too easy for the settlers to shoot them.” Victory in a two-year court case brought by the rabbis and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel may help to ease tensions. It has guaranteed the farmers access to their land and obliged the army to protect that right.
The Army recently drove away settlers who had come to steal the olives from Mr Karni’s land — yet subsequently barred the family from their 12-acre grove because they had arrived before the agreed schedule. Mr Karni’s early appearance was driven by the desperation of current Palestinian circumstances. The harvest now offers a vital economic lifeline. “We came to raise money for the Ramadan celebrations,” he said. “No one has any stable work these days. So the harvest has become very, very important to survive. We await the harvest like we await the rain.”