How Israeli Jewish settlers, backed by Netanyahu, turn the life of the Palestinian farmers who are involved in the season of olive harvest to hell.
“They scream at us, ‘This is our land!’ and they run at us with rocks,” said Atayni, nodding his chin toward the nearby ridge where a trailer marked the expanding edge of illegal Jewish settlements erected on Palestinian farmland in the West Bank.
These steep, rocky groves have long been a friction point between the illegal Israeli Jewish settlers deepening their hold on swaths of the Palestinian West Bank occupied by Israel and farmers who have worked the land for generations. Autumn is the time when the extreme Israeli Jewish settlers launch harvest harassment campaigns.
At Atayni’s olive grove, the picking continued with family members posted uphill as lookouts. With Atayni’s children and a group of volunteers finishing lunch, Yehuda Schwartz of Rabbis for Human Rights, a liberal advocacy group, was on the phone with other volunteers working nearby. An Israeli army patrol had appeared, asking the group of farmers and activists to clear out before trouble with settlers started.
“It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse,” he said, hanging up, as the workers around him stood up to remount their ladders.
A week before, a band of young settlers had rushed a group of Palestinian farmers and Jewish volunteer pickers near the neighbouring settlement of Yitzhar, according to Israeli army reports. With faces covered by scarves, they shouted and swung iron bars, breaking the arm of an 80-year-old Jewish human rights activist.
Just the first attack
It was one of several attacks on olive pickers in the first months of the harvest, according to United Nations monitors, who have documented two injured farmers, more than 1,000 trees damaged and several tons of stolen fruit. The attacks are occurring at an accelerating rate, continuing the spike in vandalism and violence over the last three seasons.
The Israeli legal advocacy group Yesh Din said farmers have reported 45 harvest-related run-ins with settlers since the harvest began, ranging from graffiti painted on cars to attacks with sticks and rocks.
Most of the attacks go uninvestigated by the Israeli army, which is deployed across the West Bank. And most go largely unremarked by Israelis, who are deeply split over the presence of more than 125 settlements in the Palestinian territories. All of the attacks go unpunished.
That indifference evaporated briefly after the Yitzhar attacks, when some of the settlers turned their ire on Israeli army patrols sent in response. In several incidents over two days, settlers cut the tires of army vehicles, threw rocks at the patrols and pulled open the door of a jeep to berate an officer for their presence. When soldiers later took a young settler involved into custody, settlers disparaged the military for arresting him during the Sabbath.
The public backlash was swift in Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately condemned the detention of the Jewish settler, as did his political rival, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz.
Backed by Netanyahu
One Yitzhar leader apologised to the military and blamed the violence on “out-of-control” teenagers living outside the village. Like others, he said the attacks are mostly carried out by groups of itinerant, semi-homeless teens known as the “Hilltop Youth.”
“What control do town leaders have over teenagers who drift?” asked David Ha’Ivri, a member of the regional settlement council that includes Yitzhar.
Settlers have enjoyed broad support from the right-wing government led by Netanyahu, whose recent pledge to annex parts of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, would formalise existing settlements and encourage new ones.
Permits for new construction have climbed in recent years. The European Union recently condemned Israel for advancing more than 8,300 building permits in 2019, the most since 2013.
That surge has come since the election of US President Trump, who has shrugged off long-standing bipartisan opposition in the United States to illegal Israeli settlement expansion.
In the Jordan Valley, settlement activity is industrial agriculture, with turkey farms and sprawling date palm plantations taking over the land and water that nearby Palestinian communities rely on.
“It’s the biggest colonial enterprise anyone can imagine,” Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said on a recent visit to Fasayel, a village surrounded by tanks full of water being diverted to surrounding Israeli agriculture.
Deeper in the West Bank, on the settlement frontier, settlers are often more zealous. Especially at harvest time.
Moshe Yehudai, a founding member of Rabbis for Human Rights, has been coming to pick the fruit for 20 years. He has seen rocks thrown and trees burned, but never anything like the screaming band of masked men who came running down the hills on that recent Friday.
“Everyone ran, but I couldn’t,” he said in an interview from his home near Tel Aviv. “I told them, ‘I’m 80 years old. I could be your grandfather.’”
One struck his head with an iron bar, Yehudai said. His arm took the next blow. The men ran, and he stumbled down the slope until the Palestinian farmer found him and called an ambulance.
For Yehudai, the harvest was over early. But he knows there will be another.
“I won’t go back this year,” he said. “But next, I will be there. And it will be the same.”
Palestine Post 24