Palestinians Hopeful About Olive Harvest

AWARTA, West Bank — Standing in an olive grove, the 61-year-old Palestinian farmer smiled as red, green and black olives rained down from trees shaken by field hands.

For six years, West Bank farmers have had little to be happy about: Jewish settlers often attacked them during the harvest. But spurred by a Supreme Court ruling, the Israeli army is now protecting the Palestinian olive groves.

“This is a wonderful beginning,” said Khaled Junaidi, head of the Palestinian olive oil council. “These trees are the livelihood of our people.”

Olives are the backbone of Palestinian agriculture, and Palestinians are counting on a bumper harvest to boost their economy, which was weakened by an international aid boycott imposed after the Islamic militant Hamas came to power.

The olive tree is an ancient symbol of peace dating to biblical times. But in the Holy Land, it has been a source of violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Since the Palestinian uprising began in 2000, two West Bank olive farmers have been killed and dozens wounded in attacks blamed on settlers, who also cut down trees or steal crops. In other areas, farmers have been denied access to their land by settlers or the army.

Israeli leaders have spoken out strongly against the settler violence.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has called on the army to act firmly against those he called hooligans. Defense Minister Amir Peretz commissioned a World Bank study on the olive harvest, and U.N. officials have said Peretz made protecting this year’s harvest a priority.

The army traditionally kept its distance, but the tough talk of Israel’s leaders, coupled with the Supreme Court ruling, has trickled down to the field.

Lt. Col. Fuad Halhal, a top Israeli military official in the Nablus area, said he often acts as referee between settlers and Palestinians. The Arabic-speaking officer, who owns olive trees in northern Israel, said he has found a common language with the farmers, despite serving in an army that often clashes with Palestinians.

“I speak to them as farmer to farmer,” he said.

Halhal’s computer has a graphic mapping out each plot in his district, with contact information for each land owner. He said he knows them all and, in case of trouble, dispatches an armed force.

Junaidi, who has a small olive grove and was elected last year to represent the farmers, said he has found a partner in Halhal, a member of Israel’s Arab Druse minority.

“Fuad is a good man, he really wants to help,” Junaidi said. “There is now a totally different atmosphere.”

Jewish settlers are less pleased. Emily Amarussi, a spokeswoman, said the farmers pose a danger, citing a recent incident in which a farmer infiltrated a settlement and attempted to burn a home. “If their livelihood stands in contrast to our security, then security must prevail,” she said.

Last week, the army said, a farmer hurled a firebomb at a settler, halting the harvest briefly. In recent years, Palestinian gunmen have repeatedly targeted settlements, killing dozens of residents.

Human rights activists from Israel and the world have flocked to the West Bank in recent years, trying to provide a shield for the farmers. Junaidi said he has asked many volunteers to stay away this year to avoid unnecessary friction.

However, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, head of the Israeli group Rabbis For Human Rights, said it’s too early to declare the harvest a success and send the volunteers home. “Our presence is still important. The army can’t be in every place at every time,” he said.

On Oct. 25, settlers from the illegal outpost of Havat Gilad, southwest of Nablus, attacked a group of Palestinian farmers with rocks and metal bars, wounding at least three people. The area has since been declared a “closed military zone,” accessible only to local farmers.

Farmers also face other obstacles. Israel’s separation barrier, under construction since 2002 to block Palestinian suicide bombers, prevents some Palestinians from reaching their plots. About 2 percent of Palestinian olive trees are stranded on the Israeli side of the fence.

In the village of Deir al Ghusun, near the northern town of Tulkarem, farmers have to cross through a gate in the barrier to reach their groves. The army opens the gate three times daily to farmers with special permits, but residents say that’s not enough during the harvest.

Sail Khalil, 57, said he has been denied a permit because of alleged security concerns. Khalil owns 25 acres on the other side of the barrier, and said he stands to lose thousands of dollars because he can’t get to his trees.

The West Bank and Gaza’s estimated 9 million olive trees cover 229,000 acres and make up some 80 percent of Palestinian orchard areas. This year’s harvest looks to generate some $118 million, according to U.N. figures.

Despite hardships, all agree there has been a marked improvement.

“Things are still not 100 percent, but maybe they are 90 percent and last year it was only 10 percent,” said Nabeeh Benymennai, 60, of Aqraba, southeast of Nablus. “This is the way to build trust.”

© 2006 The Associated Press