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Israeli-Palestinian clashes over olive groves feed distrust

With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in limbo, a feud is escalating between Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers over olive trees – and the land in which they're rooted.

By Correspondent / November 15, 2010

Jewish settlers (c.) carry rifles as they walk around a field of olive trees during Palestinian olive harvest time near the Jewish settlement of Elone Moreh east of Nablus in the West Bank village of Azmut, Oct. 15.

Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters

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Farata, West Bank

When the olive harvest began in the West Bank this fall, Ibrahim Salah found his 200 trees already stripped of their fruit by someone else. Days later, about one-fourth of the trees were set ablaze.

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Mr. Salah and other residents of the tiny Palestinian farming village of Farata say those responsible came from Havat Gilad, an unauthorized Israeli settler outpost whose mobile homes are located close by to the olive trees. A spokesman from Havat Gilad, a collection of mobile homes scattered across several hilltops near the northern West Bank city of Nablus, denied the charges of arson, but said settlers there would harvest trees to which they claim ownership.

"[The settlers] want us to despair and abandon the land,'' Salah says. "Then they will take it. But until I die, I will go there.''

With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in limbo since late September, the vacuum is being filled by an escalating land feud between Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers over trees. The olive confrontations come amid growing allegations of a vigilante campaign by extremist settlers against other Palestinian targets. At stake are the livelihood of West Bank villagers and overall Palestinian confidence in the peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's appears set to approve a three-month settlement freeze aimed at generating fresh momentum for the peace process. But the move is strongly opposed by right-wing settlers, who see a freeze as a prelude to permanent withdrawal.

A symbol of peace uprooted

In the West Bank, where terraced hillsides are brushed with low-lying, gnarled olive trees, olives are a staple crop for rural villagers – keeping food on the table of the impoverished and providing extra cash for the better off.

Olives have been known as a symbol of peace and good will from antiquity. The harvest once was an anticipated time of festivity for villagers, But over the past decade it has become a source of strife and fear.

After the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, Israel's army began restricting access to olive groves by declaring security zones around settlements. The separation barrier snaking through the West Bank to block potential bombers from reaching Israeli cities made reaching groves harder still. Palestinians accused settlers of picking fights with them.

Despite a 2006 Israeli High Court decision ordering the army to guard Palestinian farmers during the harvest and a recent relaxation in movement restrictions, Palestinians reported new incidents last month in which trees have been cut down or burned, as well as settler intimidation.

Salah says that when the fire broke out that damaged his trees and 600 others, Israeli soldiers prevented Palestinian firefighters from dousing the fire for at least an hour. "We were going crazy,'' he says. "We couldn't do anything.''

Army asserts 'round-the-clock' security

The burnt-out grove of trees is visible in the distance from a hilltop at the outskirts of the village. Villagers don't dare get closer for fear of confrontation.
Israel's army said it prevented the villagers from reaching the trees because they were in a security zone that required coordination with its civil authority for Palestinian entry, but insisted that it didn't stop Palestinian firefighters.

An Israeli statement said Palestinians have been provided "round-the-clock security'' and that the army considers the mission "to be of high importance and value, particularly in light of the cultural and economic significance to the Palestinian residents of the region.''

Despite that, the human rights group B'tselem compiled 33 reports of alleged settler violence in the first three weeks of October, higher than previous years.

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