The War of the Olive Harvest: Palestinians vs. Settlers

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Hazem Bader / Getty Images

A Palestinian couple harvest olives near Israel's separation wall, which divides their family's land into two, on Oct. 14, 2010, in Beit Awwa, near Hebron in the West Bank

It is a ritual of autumn not unlike homecoming or leaf peeping in more decorous parts of the world. Come fall, Palestinians go out to harvest their olives. And Israeli settlers go down from the hilltops to stop them.

"There! There! All these olive trees were burned," says Bureen Mayor Ali Eid, with an angry gesture that takes in a hillside once colored with the dusty green of ancient trees and now charred after the settlers had gone through. "We have lost more than 16,000 olive trees by cutting or burning since 2005. Every year is worse than the year before."

The Israeli military concurs. The current harvest is the most violent in years, and attacks by settlers on Palestinian property are largely to blame. A senior officer in the command responsible for the West Bank told TIME more than 50% of Israeli forces here are stationed in the groves. The deployment comes on order of the Israeli Supreme Court, which six years ago instructed the military to safeguard Palestinians as they harvest the berries that have been the mainstay of the West Bank economy for generations. As many as 100,000 families rely on the 10 million trees here, which, if unmolested, will live for hundreds of years.

But Palestinians, who tend to live in the valleys, complain that the Israeli military continues to favor the settlers, who build on the hilltops. And the scene just outside Bureen (pop. 3,500) gives weight to the charge. The rows and rows of trees set alight stand just yards from an Israeli military checkpoint: a steel-and-concrete watchtower commands a clear view of the scene of a crime that locals say has gone unpunished. "When [Palestinian] kids attack cars, they respond," says Atef Abu al-Rob, a field reporter for B'Tselem, an Israeli human-rights group. "When 100 settlers attack, they don't respond."

As much as the Palestinian cause was defined for years by terrorism attacks, settler violence now threatens Israel's international image. Already burdened with the label of occupier and colonizer for building on Palestinian land taken in the 1967 war, Israel's settlements are the hinge on which peace negotiations have swung shut. The Palestinian Authority says it won't talk while Israelis build homes on the land that would form their half of a two-state solution.

The international attention amplifies bad behavior that human-rights advocates call routine. "Greetings from the hills" was the message spray-painted in Hebrew on the scorched outbuilding of a girls' school near Nablus earlier last month. Two weeks earlier, a mosque was set afire outside Bethlehem; the Hebrew graffiti there insulted the Prophet Muhammad. "We have our share of lunatics, no doubt about it," says Daniel Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, which represents the West Bank settlers. "It's the single issue that causes us the most damage, but first of all, I oppose it on moral grounds."

Bureen, just south of Nablus, nestles in a valley surrounded by settlements and "outposts," the nascent settlements not technically authorized by the Israeli government and often populated by militant young Israelis. Palestinians suspect some of the men who destroyed the olive trees come from a settlement called Yizhar. The settlers believe the Bible promises them the West Bank, which they call Samaria and Judea. "There are clashes here between Palestinians and Israelis, no doubt about it," says Avraham Binyamin, a soft-spoken social worker who acts as spokesman for the 200 families in Yizhar. "There is a conflict here over to whom this land belongs. It's mutual and sometimes it goes to violence." He does not deny attacks on olive groves but prefers to talk about earlier attacks on settlers: the most recent was two years ago, when a 9-year-old boy survived a stabbing.

The view from the hilltop is stunning; Binyamin's smile is knowing. "I'd love to sit in the valley," he says. "We're caught up in a conflict of people against people. I hope the guy from Bureen will have a good future. But all my efforts will be to assure that his future won't be here. Because this land belongs to the Jewish people."
With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Bureen