Jewish settlers clashed with activists of the Rabbis for Human Rights movement near the West Bank city of Hebron on Friday as they protected Palestinians beginning the annual olive harvest.
Israeli police and soldiers grappled with settlers who tried to drive off local Palestinians and international supporters of Palestinian rights in the West Bank.
“This is just the beginning of the olive harvest which will be going on for the next two months,” said the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, Arik Ascherman.
He said activists were going to 40 Palestinian villages to protect olive growers and uphold their right to work the land, and harvest. They would act “as human shields” if necessary.
A settler woman screamed “Murderer, murderer” at the rabbi, and settlers angrily shouted down any activists trying to explain their aims to TV reporters.
The West Bank olive harvest has developed over the past decade into a regular confrontation between Palestinian farmers and Israelis who have settled on nearby land.
Palestinians say settler harassment often turns to encroachment and eventually seizure of more land in the name of settler “security”.
“There are those who say all the land of Israel belongs only to the Jewish people,” Ascherman said. “Everybody knows these are Palestinian-owned trees.”
“It’s unfortunate that some people so filled with mistaken religious fervor are choosing to insult, be violent, trying to steal the olives.”
The settlers say they want a secure route from the settlement through the olive grove, to a cave regarded as a Jewish holy site.
“The settlers would like to make a path … as part of their effort to create facts on the ground,” Ascherman said. “They’ve been trying to create this outpost here to take more and more Palestinian land.”
Rabbis For Human Rights said in a statement that delegations also joined Palestinians for the olive harvest near Nablus, “where there is a long history of the army preventing agricultural work”.
“In several locations olives have already been stolen in recent weeks, and this year’s harvest will be all the more difficult because of the recent wave of settler violence,” the group said.
Its members would “work to insure that Israeli security forces meet their obligations under international law and the ruling of the Israeli High Court”, the statement added.