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Of Olives, Politics and Palestinians

There’s a Palestinian saying that when two people have a good relationship, they are like the oil in the olive — inseparable unless they’re squeezed.

The same might be said of Fawzi Haj Ibrahim Mohammad and his olive groves — squeezed though the two have been. Mohammad, a 57-year-old Palestinian farmer, was born the year that his trees were planted by his father, in 1958. Over the last six and a half decades, through war, occupation and intifada, Mohammad has been separated from and reunited with his trees many times. In October, for the second time this year, the Israeli military granted him permission to return to his groves.

Even as violence erupts elsewhere, the olive harvest remains an annual tradition in these parts, when Palestinians gather in the rust-colored fields and even on tree-lined city sidewalks to pluck the black and green fruit. The harvest stretches from the first October rain through mid-November, after which wedding season begins, financed by olive profits. The harvest is a major source of income for Palestinians, but also a concrete expression of their ties to the land. Many farmers harvest from trees that have been in the family for 500 years, and they plant new trees for future generations.

“It is almost like a national picnic,” said Vivien Sansour, a Palestinian writer and agriculturalist from Bethlehem.

More than 100,000 Palestinian families count on the West Bank’s 8 million olive trees to make their living, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs. But in recent years, the olive harvest has also become a source of anxiety. Palestinians like Mohammad harvest their trees under a constant threat from Jewish settlers. Last year, thousands of Palestinian trees were damaged by settlers. This year, there have been several attacks already. According to Yesh Din, an Israeli legal organization, the attacks are rarely prosecuted. Between 2005 and 2012 out of 162 monitored cases of vandalism, just one resulted in indictment.

On the second day of his harvest, I met Mohammad’s son, who looked to be in his mid 20s, next to a school in Jalud, a town outside of Nablus. I followed him down a rocky slope, and he pointed out a settlement on the hill beyond. Shvut Rachel, recognizable by its red terra-cotta roofs, was legalized by Israel in 2012, after being set up initially in defiance of Israeli law. It was, among other things, the home of Jack Teitel, a Florida-born settler who was sentenced to life in prison last year for murdering two Palestinians among several other attempted murders and attacks.

The settlement itself was established in 1991 by residents of the nearby settlement of Shilo to memorialize two Israeli Jews murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the area. Like all settlements, it is considered illegal by the international community. According to the Sasson Report, a 2005 government study commissioned by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the settlers who built Shvut Rachel did so partially on land already privately owned by Palestinians. Esh Kodesh, on another nearby hill, is an unauthorized outpost.

As we descended, Mohammad’s son turned to me and said: “My problem is that I don’t have a machine gun for the settlers.”

In midafternoon, his father arrived. Of slight build and wearing a plaid shirt, linen pants, a baseball cap, and aviator glasses, Mohammad looked a bit like Texarkana businessman and 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot. And it was no wonder: Mohammad spent his formative years studying agriculture at Texas A&M University, where he perfected his drawl. But he left Texas in the mid ’80s, when Israel declared about 500 acres of his father’s property to be state land, he said, making it prohibitively expensive to continue his education abroad.

According to Hagit Ofran of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch division, the declaration was probably a part of Israel’s large-scale survey of the West Bank in the 1980s. Israel interpreted an Ottoman-era law to declare as public land any property that had not been cultivated in 10 years or more, or property that was cultivated halfway. Many of these parcels were then leased to settlements.

On the day that I visited, Mohammad was cultivating a patch of land that his father had purchased in the 1930s during the British Mandate era. His father had originally planted it with apple trees, but uprooted them to make room for olives. In the early ’90s, he said, a portion of the plot was also declared state land by Israel and later turned over to Shvut Rachel.

Mohammad accompanied me to the edge of his property, which was separated from the settlement’s land by a rickety barbed wire fence. On the settlement’s side, the trees were neatly trimmed. On Mohammad’s side, the grove was a riot of branches, the silvery green leaves exploding in every direction as if a windstorm had swept in and left the trees frozen in place. Since the military only grants him access to his land a few times a year, Mohammad said that he is unable to properly groom his trees, which leads to lower yield.

Back in the center of the field, Mohammad’s workers were busy hacking the lower, fruitless branches off the trees with garden hoes. Some of the workers — there were about 20 in total — were hired by Mohammad, others had volunteered, and still others had been hired by a French organization dedicated to helping Palestinian farmers with limited access to their land accelerate their harvest. The workers had set up black tarpaulins around the base of the trees and, with some standing on yellow ladders, were pulling olives off the branches with their hands and with plastic combs. The fruit hit the tarp with a muffled patter. The day’s work would yield between three and five large bags of olives, which Mohammad would later bring to the local presser to be made into oil.

In the late afternoon, several of the men paused their work and turned toward Esh Kodesh. Visible in the distance were two people carrying what looked like a blue tarp. They seemed to be making their way down the hill. Settlers, Mohammad’s workers surmised. Then, a pair of soldiers appeared and the two individuals left.

Mohammad hasn’t had any difficulties this year. But he said has been confronted by violent settlers over the past several decades, as recently as last year. According to his lawyer, Quamar Mishirqi-Assad of the group Rabbis for Human Rights, in October 2013 about 20 settlers from the nearby Achiya settlement burned more than 100 of Mohammad’s olive trees in the Jalud area. Mohammad also said that in 2007, he and 20 other Palestinians were beaten by some 50 settlers. And in 1997, they cut 300 of his trees. (A call to the Israeli police for information about these incidents was not returned by deadline.)

The quiet in Mohammad’s orchard this season belies the seething situation in other parts of the West Bank. Palestinian and international media have reported attacks on Palestinians attempting to harvest olives outside of Nablus as well on as their trees. Zakaria Sade, a field worker with Rabbis for Human rights, said that the settlers don’t simply act out of malice; they have a tactical aim.

“They think people come to the land because of the olive trees,” he said. “If they burn the trees, they will leave. If they leave, they can build settlements.”

I asked Miri Maoz-Ovadia, a spokesperson with the Binyamin Council, which represents settlements in Jalud and beyond, to put me in contact with a settler involved in violent acts against the Palestinians, but she declined. “It’s not a voice I would be proud of,” she said. “The people who act in violent ways over here, these are not civilians we are in touch with.”

Mike Guzovsky, an American-Israeli settler and follower of the late ultranationalist rabbi Meir Kahane, said he couldn’t help me either. Both Guzovsky and Maoz-Ovadia claimed that while Jews are involved in violence against Palestinians, the root of the problem lies with activists who come to the West Bank for the olive harvest.

“During the year it is usually quiet, and then during the harvest is when the balagan, when the mess starts,” said Maoz-Ovadia. “It starts with activists from other places.” Or as Guzovksy described them: “various anarchist extremist left wing groups who egg on Jews and Arabs to fight with each other.”

Maoz-Ovadia and Guzovsky said that writing about the Palestinian olive harvest at a time when West Bank settlers and Jews inside Israel were facing increased violence from Palestinians was missing the larger picture. (Actually, Guzovsky called it “unbalanced and obscene.”) “Palestinian farmers and Israeli farmers both suffer from the same situation,” said Maoz-Ovadia. And it’s clear that the Jewish settlers fear the Palestinians, too, even as they reject the charge that their settlements there are illegal.

In January, near Jalud, in an incident that made international headlines, a group of 10 settlers from Esh Kodesh were detained and attacked by Palestinians after the settlers had trespassed on the village of Kusra and began destroying village property. The settlers had come to the village in an apparent act of retaliation after the Israeli Civil Administration came to uproot settler olive groves planted on private Palestinian property. Anticipating the settlers’ arrival, about 30 Palestinians organized into security details and apprehended the settlers. A group of elderly Palestinians halted the younger ones from further harming the settlers, who were turned over to the Palestinian law enforcement and later to the Israeli police.

Mohammad wasn’t there, but he said it was the right thing for the older Palestinians to do.

“We don’t have the right to kill any person, but we have the right to be safe and to go to our land safely and work over there,” he said.

His solution is to have the settlers return to Israel proper. “The safest way is to move the settlements inside their home, not in the occupied place” — meaning the West Bank — “even though all of Palestine is occupied.”

Mohammad’s land is in Area C, the Oslo Accords’ designation for the portion of the West Bank under Israeli military and civil control. During the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2005, many farmers in Area C were barred from accessing their land by Israeli forces who were protecting settlers from Palestinian violence and vice versa. This practice was later outlawed by the Israeli High Court, which ruled in 2006 that the military cannot close lands to Palestinians because of settler violence and that farmers must be able to harvest “to the last olive.” Even so, many Palestinian farmers have been unable to regain access to their property because settlers had begun cultivating it in the interim period.

In 2007, Rabbis for Human Rights appealed to the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank to enable Mohammad to access a 40-acre portion of his land that he had been prevented from farming by the military. According to Mishirqi-Assad, Mohammad’s lawyer, he was given permission to cultivate the land. Yet since then, he has been in an on-again-off-again negotiation with the military to coordinate access to the property, which is often granted just a couple of times per year. This year, Mohammad was initially given just three days to harvest his olives, but his allotted time was later extended.

A spokesman with the office of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories said that it coordinates the olive harvest in closed military areas with various Palestinian liaisons, granting extensions depending on the security situation. “In the specific case of Fawzi Ibrahim, this year coordinations were made for planting and for harvesting on his lands and he expressed satisfaction with the results of the coordination.”

Mohammad is represented by Rabbis for Human Rights in two other ongoing cases. In one case, he is attempting to access 50 acres of his land that are being cultivated by an olive oil company called Eretz Zeit Shemen in the Achiya settlement. According to Mishirqi-Assad, acting for Mohammad, a military court ruled that the company must exit the land. But the military did not enforce the ruling and Mohammad has still been unable to access his land.

In a second case, a settler from Esh Kodesh named Zvi Strook, who is the son of Knesset member Orit Strook, planted vineyards on about three acres of Mohammad’s land. The military ordered Strook, who had previously served time in an Israeli prison for kidnapping and beating a Palestinian, to exit the land. Strook has since appealed and the case is pending in the court. (Attempts to reach Eretz Zeit Shemen and Strook were unsuccessful; the office of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories said it could not provide information on Mohammad’s two cases by deadline.)

Back in the field, Mohammad’s workers emptied the tarps of olives into woven white bags. A few children walked into the grove and collected errant olives in plastic bags that they would later sell in town for candy. In a few hours, Mohammad would return home to Jalud, where his wife of 32 years was waiting for him.

Before I left, Mohammad told me a story about a settler who was interested in buying part of his land. Mohammad said he wasn’t interested in selling it, but that he might conduct a trade — a few acres in the West Bank for an equal amount in Tel Aviv.

When the settler said that he didn’t have any land to sell in Tel Aviv, Mohammad replied: “I don’t have any land to sell either.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or on Twitter @naomizeveloff.

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