AZMUT, October 17 (JMCC) - “We were having breakfast under the trees,” says mother Dalia. “We heard the children screaming. At first we thought they were playing.”
This is the first time that six-year-old Nadia had encountered settlers, says her mother. Hugging the little girl who is clearly shaken, her eyes wet and puffy from crying, Dalia explains that the settlers were armed with semi-automatic M16 rifles.
“They pointed the guns at us, and fired warning shots into the air, telling us to leave straight away.”
Families from the village of Azmut were picking olives in the groves close to the village when the incident happened. “The spot where we were collecting our olives is three kilometres from the settlement
,” says resident Louay Alawneh.
“There were four men with rifles, and 20 men crouching among the olive trees. They were from the settlement of Alon Moreh,” he says with certainty.
Friday marked the start of the Palestinian olive-picking season. Farmers and family members spend long hard days collecting the olives that were cultivated over the year.
But stories such as Dalia’s were heard across the West Bank
. In Kafr Qaddum, farmers were forced to leave part of their groves, and in the villages of Tel, Sura, Jet and Farata acres of groves were set alight. Reports of settlers poisoning olive trees have also been common.
Every year the harvest season results in clashes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers.
Under international humanitarian law, Israel - as occupying power in the West Bank - must ensure the safety and protection of the population living in the territory under its control. Human rights groups are sharply critical that Israel
is not fulfilling this role.
The United Nations reports that in the first six months of 2010, thousands of crops and olive trees, a vital local resource, were damaged in settler-related incidents.
In Azmut, somebody called the Israeli army to intervene, says Alawneh. “The settlers were advancing too close to our village.”
But the army is quick to say that intervention does not guarantee protection. “We asked the army to ensure that the settlers did not return this day so that we could continue the harvest,” says villager Thabet Thabet, “but they replied that they would not. ‘We are not here to protect you,’” he says he was told.
Azmut, like many other olive groves around Nablus
, are classified as Area B. According to the designations of Arab-Israeli peace agreements, in these regions, Palestinian police deal with civil offences while the military is responsible for security, including interaction with settlers.
Palestinian farmers report of acts of physical violence and theft as key problems for their harvest.
Last year, settlers stole much of Azmut’s harvest, says Dalia. “They waited until we had picked the olives and then used weapons to take the bounty back to the settlement.”
This year, the settlers were less successful, stealing a few bags amounting to some 50 kilograms. Nevertheless, at $8 or $9 per kilogram this is significant lost revenue.
“Olives make up 15 to 18 percent of agricultural output in terms of GDP,” says Oxfam employee Lara El Jazairi, “Although not a major sector of the economy, there are 100,000 families, approximately one million people, for whom this is a secondary, but essential form of income.”
Nearly half of Palestinians are somehow involved in the olive harvest. “It has a strong cultural and political importance,” explains El Jazairi.
Ultimately, the struggle over the olive trees and their fruit is really about land.
Trying to ward off the grasping hand of a military authority, Palestinians plant olive trees to help prove land ownership and prevent confiscation.
Sources say there has been a rapid increase in the number of olive trees planted in southern Hebron
to ward off the construction of illegal settlements in the area.
Fayyad Juma, head of the Kafr Qaddum cooperative, estimates that Israeli authorities have confiscated 12,000 dunams of village land to build the nearby settlement of Kadumim.
“I cannot go within 100 meters of the settlement,” says farmer Asem Akil explaining the security restrictions that have been implemented, “but I have trees there to harvest.”