The olive harvest is under way in the West Bank and, as in past years, it means increased violence by Israeli settlers — against both Palestinians and, in some cases, Israeli security forces.
Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak says the settler violence threatens the authority of the state.
Outside the sleepy West Bank Palestinian village of Tel Feat, Farhas Awaad, 76, and his wife, Fakhriyeh, say they haven’t been able to tend to, and harvest, their 5-acre hillside olive grove because it’s too close to an outpost of the Jewish settlement of Eli.
There is always tension between settlers and Palestinians around olive harvest time, but Awaad says this year has been the worst. Every time he and his family members try to reach the trees they depend on for their livelihood, he says settlers threaten or attack him.
“I’m only afraid of them because they have weapons,” Awaad says. “This is the only reason. Imagine if they didn’t have weapons — we would smash their heads because we are a bigger number! We are not afraid of them. The fight will escalate and develop.”
In some parts of the West Bank, the fight has already escalated.
Last month, after a knife-wielding Palestinian attacked the settlement of Itzar and wounded a 9-year-old, a mob of angry Jewish settlers went on a rampage through the neighboring Palestinian village of Asira al-Kibilya, firing off weapons and brandishing clubs, rocks and knives. The mob smashed windows and cars, uprooted trees and painted the Star of David on some Palestinian homes.
Just a few days ago, settlers near Hebron were caught on tape kicking and punching Palestinian olive harvesters, a British peace activist and two news photographers. Settlers also threw stones at a Palestinian family harvesting olives near the village of Azmut. And there have been several other recent attacks in the West Bank.
The Israeli parliament’s Internal Affairs Committee says police have opened more than 400 criminal cases against Israeli citizens involved in public disturbances in the West Bank so far this year. The majority of the cases are against right-wing activists.
Conflicts Over Land
On one particular day, Jewish settlers march calmly along a dirt road through Palestinian vineyards and olive groves in the baking sun near Karmet Tzur outside Hebron. Several men carry M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders or pistols on their hips.
Daniella Weiss, one of the right-wing settler leaders, directs young people up a rocky hillside. They are carrying shovels, picks, water and wood to help set up a new outpost to fulfill what Weiss calls Biblical prophecy: new settlements for Jews on the West Bank. On the hill directly across from them, a backhoe is digging new terraces for Palestinian farmers to plant olive trees.
“Now in this very specific location there is a combat going on between Jews and Arabs over who this land belongs to,” Weiss says. “On this hill we are now going to build a few shacks and plant trees. This land, this area, waited for the Jewish nation to return to his birthplace.”
A few weeks ago Weiss was arrested for allegedly punching an Israeli police officer, among several other charges. Police came to her house suspecting she was harboring settlers who had torched a Palestinian farmer’s field near the settlement of Kedumim. Weiss dismisses the charges pending against her as political.
As to the recent wave of settler violence, she says it’s simply a reaction to Palestinian provocations. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently said Israel would very likely have to cede “almost all” of the West Bank land captured during the 1967 war for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. Weiss says that is something Israelis must resist.
“It is indeed the combat that is going on over the seizing of our land of our patriarchs,” Weiss says. “And it’s true now the declaration of Olmert about two states makes people nervous. It is impossible to fulfill the policy of a two-state solution with young people scattered on the hills.”
Violence Beyond The West Bank
The tension and the violence hasn’t been limited to the West Bank; Israeli investigators believe extremist Jews were behind last month’s pipe bomb attack in Jerusalem against Hebrew University political scientist Zeev Sternhell, an outspoken critic of the settlers and the Israeli occupation.
“When I opened the door there was a blast,” Sternhall says. “The lights went off and I felt that blood was running out of my right leg.”
An Israeli army combat veteran of four wars, Sternhell sees the bombing as an act of desperation by Jewish extremists.
“They are becoming now more and more violent because they realize that the Israeli society as a whole is escaping them. I think that this was an expression of some kind of despair,” he says.
Despite the bombing, Sternhall says he is as determined as ever to speak out against the settlements. He calls Israel’s 41-year occupation of the West Bank a colonial enterprise that has become a moral, economic and political burden that’s undermining Israeli society and democracy.
(Because of intense interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, NPR makes available free transcripts of its coverage. View the free transcript of this story.)