On the West Bank, an olive harvest battered by aggression

December 9, 2013: 11:02 AM ET

Seasonal assaults, perpetrated by a small minority of settlers, have become a perennial problem for Palestinian farmers.

By Amy Kaslow


FORTUNE -- The West Bank's olive harvest is in full motion, and with it, a surge in Israeli settler aggression. Each week brings more reports of settlers trespassing on Palestinian land to hack at trees, uproot entire groves, or set fire to fields where olives have grown for hundreds, and even thousands, of years.

The seasonal assaults, perpetrated by a small minority of settlers, have become a perennial problem. Last year, they destroyed some 7,500 trees; this year, the damage seems even worse, given nature's own limitations: 2013 has so far yielded only a meager production.

Olives, and the oil they produce, constitute an essential, and commonly the only, source of income for many West Bank Palestinians. The United Nations Development Program for the Palestinian People (UNDP) estimates that 80,000 families rely on some 8 million trees for their livelihood. Small farmers, who own their own orchards or pool tracts of land to work, enlist their entire families to collect and press the fruit. After picking their own acreage clean, they travel to extended family to help gather the crop. Even urban residents depend on olive income from nearby trees. And poor Palestinian laborers often commute long distances to tend many of the larger groves owned by wealthy expatriate Palestinians who live abroad. All told, olives account for nearly half of the West Bank Palestinian agricultural cultivation and make up 14% of sales.

There is no other industry on the West Bank as symbolically significant, says Ephraim Sneh, who has served as Israel's health minister, transportation minister, deputy defense minister, and, as Brigadier General in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), spent three years as head of the civil administration of the West Bank. Sneh contends that settlers "want to hit the symbol of Palestinian attachment to the land and their source of income." The message, he says, is, "'We will cut you out, uproot you, burn you out.' The settlers are doing to the trees what they want to do to the Palestinians."

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Israeli security measures have imposed tight restrictions on farmers' access to their land, adding to the many dozens of barrier gates as settlements increase. And, as the settlements grow in number, so do the daily skirmishes. In these closed areas, farmers must first receive entry permits for spring tilling and fall harvesting. For their personal safety, they must depend on Israeli soldiers who are sometimes posted close by their field.

Privately, some Israeli government officials might recoil at the settlers' brazen destruction, and others might resent the poor treatment of IDF soldiers by some belligerent settlers who reject the military's obligation to secure Palestinian personal and property rights on the West Bank. Israeli officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Years back, the Israeli High Court ruled, "Protecting the security and possessions of the local residents is among the most basic obligations of the military commander in the field." Yet, according to many NGOs, the ruling has been largely ignored. Yesh Din, an assertive legal rights group funded by the European Union, among others, asserts that of the 162 complaints detailing attacks on the trees monitored by the group since 2005, just one has led to an indictment. Other legal advocates say many Palestinians who suffer attacks and incur losses are too fearful or fed up with past experience filing complaints, and have no confidence in Israeli authorities.

"Israeli courts have been very forward-leaning on human rights issues," observes Meryl Justin Chertoff, director of The Justice and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, and a specialist on transitional justice in the world's trouble spots. "It is a real credit to the rule-of-law ethos that is part of their DNA. But often, there is a bifurcation on what the courts rule, and how it is executed on the ground."

Along the broad hillsides hugging the road from Ramallah to Nablus, lines of olive trees grow on the terraced earth. The gnarled trunks support branches that have produced fruit for generations of families and local markets. On the descent from a rural village north of Nablus, home to one of the largest areas of fertile groves, small orchards punctuate the rocky terrain. Just off the main road, several rows into a grove, a robust woman is perched halfway up a tall ladder. She is dressed from head to toe in conservative garb, with only her face and hands exposed. Climbing to the top rung, she looks over her shoulder to shout instructions at her teenage son who is straddling a large limb 20 feet away. He is positioned much higher, and must shake the highest, outer-most branches within reach, or the precious olives will remain on the tree. She plucks the small, purplish-black fruit and drops it to the ground cover below, where a large plastic tarp captures the day's pickings.

The proximity of West Bank Jewish and Arab day-to-day life is prickly, of course. But during picking season, anxiety about vandals jeopardizing the family's income heightens tensions. As 28-year-old Nada Dajani, a western-dressed aid worker, and I approach the ladder, the olive picker stops and fixes her eyes on the uninvited guests. After introductions, her wary look gives way to a big smile and she beckons them to walk through the trees. Like so many groves, this one is both remote and accessible -- far enough from military and police outposts that the distance delays any response to complaints, yet easily reached from the road, near an Israeli settlement, and vulnerable to attack.

An urbane East Jerusalemite, Dajani, treats the subsistence farmer with respect. Dajani is a recent hire of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), an NGO with a 45-year history on the West Bank, and she talks excitedly about ANERA's work to build local capacity with cooperatives and encourage farmers to share successful techniques, technology, even logistics, to achieve economies of scale. But the long security barrier separating Israel from the West Bank, the checkpoint delays, limited access to fields, and settler harassment are all "discouraging; really, overwhelming," she says, prompting some young Palestinians to abandon farming.

In this span of land, the size of Delaware, there are more NGOs per capita than almost anywhere else in the world. Among the self-appointed groups monitoring the annual olive harvest is a non-governmental organization that advocates for Palestinian farmers called Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR). The activist Israeli team of clergy, lawyers, and communications experts is intent on demonstrating "traditional Jewish responsibility for the safety and welfare of the stranger ..." They help to work the groves and document Palestinian complaints, but despite high profile Israeli efforts like these, a long list of Palestinian grievances lodged with local police and military outposts, and official protests from UN and other international officials on the ground, the current Israeli government is politically beholden to the group representing hardline settlers and simply will not push back hard on settler violence.

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Sneh insists the authorities could act, if they wanted to, and he recalls when, as a member of Israel's Knesset, he received a call from RHR president and rabbi Arik Ascherman about a settler attack on an olive grove south of Nablus. "I went there immediately, saw for myself, and called the defense minister," who dispatched the army to the village. The Israeli government sent paratroopers to stop the settlers, who punctured the wheels of the army jeep and then physically attacked the soldiers. Years later, in 2006, Sneh served as deputy to Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was committed to ending the violence, and authorized the IDF to take preemptive measures to do so. "There was zero tolerance," demonstrating, Sneh contends, that the annual cycle of attacks can be stopped.

In the eight years since, the West Bank has become unmanageable for the Israeli government. "Inside the Green Line, this could not happen without punishment. So there is a different rule of law on the West Bank. On the West Bank, the settlers are the law."

Not all settlers vandalize, of course, but the net effect of the assaults is far greater than their number. Such acts deepen distrust between neighbors who are challenged every day to share common ground.

If the annual assault is a window into the strife between settler and Palestinian, "the olive tree represents an attachment to the soil, to the land," says Sneh. "The roots, the old age of some of the trees, are living symbols of the profound link between the individual and his land."

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