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.

Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

"It's so clear that these kinds of ideologically driven attacks are so damaging, not only because they hurt individual Palestinians' livelihood, but because it is reported widely in the world and the occupied territories,'' says B'tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli. "The ability to promote the political process is hurt – it's causing enormous anger among Palestinians, which breeds violence and dissatisfaction.''

Outraged Jewish leaders in the West Bank have called the accusations part of a "defamation'' campaign by foreign aid workers, the media and Palestinians.

Settler: The issue is land, not trees

Havat Gilad settlers deny the Palestinian charge that they were behind the arson of theft. Havat Gilad resident Yehuda Shimon said the fire was the work of Palestinians. He said the land where the outpost sits and the adjacent olive groves were bought by Jews nearly 30 years ago.

A lawyer and father of seven, Mr. Shimon said he tried to prove legal title to some of the farming land and obtained a court injunction order against Palestinians. He did not deny accusations that settlers from the outpost harvested the olives, but insisted that no one has proof of ownership of the trees.

The Israeli army, he charged, usually sides with the Palestinians on clashing ownership claims. Opening a Hebrew Bible to a reference to Farata, he said the issue is not about trees, but land.

"If somebody comes to your home and puts a tree in the floor, the tree is yours and the house is yours,'' he says. "That is the point of departure which every Jew needs to be aware of.''

A wave of arson attacks

The olive strife comes amid a string of arson attacks on West Bank mosques and in one instance a school which most Israelis – including many moderate settlers – assume were the work of a settler fringe that has made vigilantism a policy. Rights groups say Israeli law enforcement in the West Bank is lax.

A police spokesman said they have received at least 27 harvest-related complaints and have made 16 arrests. A handful of those arrested have already been indicted.

"The Israeli police are putting an emphasis on security measures in Judea and Samaria in order to prevent attacks against Palestinian property,'' says police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld.

Though the Israeli government has tried to distance itself from settler vigilantism, Palestinian and United Nations officials say it’s a form of "terrorism" that Jerusalem is ultimately responsible for.

"[Israel] is responsible according to international law to protect the civilians as an occupation force,'' said Prime Minister Salam Fayyad during a recent visit to a West Bank olive grove with UN envoy Robert Serry. "But surely, it has not done so. It is has not held anybody accountable for their terrorist attacks.''

Settlers retort that the charges are baseless because so far, legal authorities haven't made any convictions.

Back in the village of Farata, relatives of Mr. Salah are stripping branches of olives that rain down onto broad sheets of tarp. The family says they stay close to the village outskirts for fear of a clash with settlers, who, despite allegations of vigilantism, they consider to have a symbiotic relationship with the government.

"The government uses the settlers to not make peace and the settlers use the government to stay here,'' says Saleh Salah, a relative of Ibrahim. "Israel wants the whole of Palestine, and it's going step by step.''

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