Why rabbis are helping Palestinians defend their olive harvest

Rabbis for Human Rights has been caught in the crossfire as settlers attack Palestinians trying to harvest the crucial prized olive crop.

Nasser Ishtayeh/AP
A Palestinian woman inspects a severely damaged olive tree near the West Bank city of Nablus, Oct. 19, 2013.

On Sunday, four people were attacked by masked Israeli settlers wielding iron bars and stones as they picked olives in the West Bank village of Burin, resulting in light injuries – a common occurrence during the annual olive harvest in the West Bank.

While most of the settler violence is directed at Palestinians, two of those hurt in the latest attack were Israeli volunteers with Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), an organization comprised of rabbis and rabbinical students which has, for more than a decade, sought to protect Palestinians and their trees during the olive harvest.  Olive trees are not only a major source of Palestinians' livelihood, but a mainstay of the West Bank landscape and a symbol of their roots in the land. 

According to RHR, the situation has improved somewhat in recent years, but more than 1,600 olive trees have been vandalized by settlers in the past two months alone, including 100 trees destroyed in Qaryut near Nablus this weekend, and 400 olive trees burned down in Jalud a week before.

"Non-Jews have property rights in the Land of Israel, and protecting the ability of farmers to safely access and make a living from their lands is part of honoring the image of God in every human being," says Arik Ascherman, the president and senior rabbi.

RHR derives its mandate from the Biblical declaration that every human being is created "in God's image" – b'tselem in Hebrew – as well as international law.

"RHR follows in the footsteps of the Jewish and Hebrew leaders that have historically called for justice and fairness, whether that be the Prophet Micah and his imperative of righteousness, or Professor René Cassin, one of the crafters of the UN Declaration of Human Rights," says Moriel Rothman, a former intern for RHR who coordinated volunteers during the 2011 olive harvest.

The organization often draws on the weekly Bible portion read by observant Jews around the world in its email newsletters. At the start of the olive harvest, the lesson was especially fitting: "Abraham’s journey teaches us that even if we are the landowners, we must remember the experience of migration and make sure to treat the foreigner within our gates as we would want to be treated in our homes."

RHR believes that bringing Israeli Jewish volunteers to the West Bank provides a very different encounter than that of elites negotiating around tables in foreign capitals. “By breaking down stereotypes of Israelis, particularly religious Israelis, we empower Palestinian peacemakers to be heard by their own people,” Ascherman says.

According to him, there has been an improvement over the years, as many farmers can now access lands they couldn't reach for up to 15 years. But Israeli authorities have failed to prevent numerous settler attacks in recent weeks.

“We were quite surprised that the [Israeli] security forces, knowing that Palestinians were working today [Sunday] and knowing what had happened, didn’t manage to stop the attack with iron bars,” says Ascherman. He says RHR has been "frequently told that the security forces can't allocate any more resources, and that this year the usual harvest reinforcement was not provided."

Earlier this week, Israeli human rights watchdog Yesh Din charged Israeli police in the West Bank with failing to protect olive tree groves. According to the group, only four of 211 complaints of olive tree vandalism since 2005 have ended with an indictment. The "vast majority" of cases were closed because of "police’s inability to locate the perpetrators or for 'lack of evidence'," The Times of Israel reports.  

More than 7,500 olive trees were damaged between in 2012, a slight drop from 2011, according to a 2012 UN report. Thousands of olive trees have already been damaged so far this year, although exact numbers are not clear. According to Visualizing Palestine, 800,000 olive trees have been uprooted since 1967, putting a dent in an industry that comprises 14 percent of the agricultural income in the West Bank and Gaza and supports the livelihoods of 80,000 Palestinian families.

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