The Bitter Harvest of Palestine
by John Ross
December 18, 2003
NABLUS, PALESTINE -- I dig my thumbnail into the newly-picked olive and the rich oil spurts into my palm of my hand. I am picking "zitoon" in the Awwarta valley of Nablus, a millennium-old tradition that finds voice in the Old Testament -- only now it is not the Pharoahs or the Romans that seek to crush the farmers but the Israeli settlers and the brutal army and police that protect them.
| In Occupied Palestine, a bulldozer as tall as a three-story building eradicates an olive grove. (Note the small, fleeing figures in the foreground.)|
In this in the most ancient of lands, where even the children seem old, the struggle to stay on the land remains fundamental to the survival of villages like Awwarta, a hillside cluster of 5,000 Palestinian farmers and their families (another 5,000 live in the diaspora, mostly in Jordan, Europe and the US).
The settlement of Itamar, where 300 security troops vigorously protect 150 Israeli settler families, scowls down on Awwarta from heights that ride the ridge. Sometimes, the settlers cut off the juice, leaving the villagers in darkness, just to remind them who controls the power in this biblical valley.
In season, the Israelis steal the olives and burn and strip the trees. Two years ago, one local farmer could still harvest 2,000 kilos east of the settlement fence, but this year his bounty has been reduced to 400. Another farmer arrived in his grove of ten trees to find them already picked clean by the settlers.
Crazy settlers like a bushy-bearded gentleman named Victor curse and poison the wells and fire their Uzis to scatter the Palestinian pickers. Stray donkeys are stolen. International Solidarity Movement (ISM) workers who accompany the farmers are detained and deported on the spurious grounds that they "defend terrorists."
The Israeli settlement movement first took wing after the 1967 war, when the "children of god" established a beachhead in Hebron (where the Brooklyn-born racist fanatic Baruch Goldstein would later murder 29 Palestinians to become a martyr to their movement). Today, there are 195 settlements in Israel proper and the occupied territories, with a total population of 200,000 (twice that if east Jerusalem is factored in.)
Although the settlements account for only a small fraction of the Israeli population, they gobble up hundreds of thousands of acres of Palestinian farm land and a disproportionate amount of government resources, depleting education, health, and other social service outlays for the majority of Israeli citizens.
The Bitter Hymns of Marcel Khalifa
In early morning, under the swoosh of the Israeli jets, mostly older men and women in kaffias and headscarves -- plus many young children on furlough from the local grade school -- load up their patient donkeys with ladders, tarps and buckets and head out to their trees. These small family plots (first defined under the Ottoman Empire) impose neat rows of green against the red-brown valley floor and hillside where gazelles are sometimes spotted.
Much as their grandfathers before them, they beat the olives from the branches with stout sticks, and a green rainfall spills onto the tarps spread below where the women sort and clean the fruit (there are seven distinct types of olives).
Awwarta and other Nablus valley villages are assigned special days when it is "legal" -- according to the Israeli government -- to pick their own olives. These days are often changed or curtailed when settlers complain that the "Terrorists" are picking too close to the fence. Villages are no longer allowed to sell their own oil to outside buyers.
Mosher and his family invite me to pick from his dusty trees beneath the Itamar gate and. As we glean the dry, gnarly branches, he sings the bitter hymns of Marcel Khalifa and the words of the great Palestinian poet of repression Mamoud Darwish. "They tell the world of how hard our life is, but no one will listen," the 20-year-old grade school teacher insists as we pull black olives from a tree that is perhaps twice my age, and I am 65 years old.
After sunset, the farmers load their donkeys to transport the harvest to the olive press. Men mingle and smoke, comparing this year's yield to the past and complaining loudly about how the Israelis have seized their trees to create a "security perimeter" where migrant workers from Thailand and the Philippines now pick Awwarta's olives for about 50 shekels a day.
Awwarta's olive groves are the heart and soul of the village's identity. Palestinian villages have lost perhaps a half-million olive trees to the settlements since Israel was declared a nation 55 years ago.
For farmers like Saad, a burly member of the Awwarta city council, resistance to this genocide has become second nature. We sit around his large table, filled with ripe olives, hummus from his garbanzo patch, yogurt provided by his few cows, flat bread baked from his wheat fields on wood fires taken in the pruning of his trees. Even the olive pits are dried and used to heat homes in the cold winters.
Looking up from his meal, Saad smiles and sighs: "This is why I love this land -- no matter what the Israelis do to us, we will never leave it."
Escape into Nablus
NABLUS, OCCUPIED PALESTINE -- The Lonely Planet guide praises Nablus as "beautifully situated between the mountains of Gerezin and Ebel. A typical bustling Arab town with an enchanting old quarter." The government of Israeli strongman Ariel Sharon (and the brutal army and police that ride roughshod over Nablus) describe this occupied metropolis as "the cradle of Palestinian terrorism."
At the military checkpoint, we stand on line in the scorching sun and choking dust for an hour behind concrete barricades laced with toothy razor wire to enter the city. Although internationals are privileged to pass right through, we choose to wait with the Palestinian workers trying to reach jobs and families on the other side.
When we are finally signaled to approach, a hawk-faced Israeli soldier cradling an AK-47 flips through my passport suspiciously and punishes us for standing in solidarity with the Palestinians by refusing us entry. "You can't go in. There are terrorists inside. You won't be safe," he tells us.
We are trying to reach Bet Fariq where olive farmers await our presence to fend off soldiers and settlers who try to disrupt the harvest. Although Bet Fariq is an hour's walk from Awwarta, an Israeli settlement separates the two villages, forcing us to cross through Nablus. Palestinians are not allowed to travel on the well-paved roads that access the settlements.
My travel partner, Sherri, decides that we must take the back road into Nablus, an uphill climb along a mountain road patrolled by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). If we are captured, we will face arrest and perhaps deportation. The Army has deliberately broken up the pavement and gouged out deep ruts to prevent ordinary vehicles from traveling the hillside.
As we set out, the sun turns blood orange and sinks in the west. We will trudge this broken road in the pitch-dark of a moonless night. We fortuitously encounter a Palestinian teacher. Because the Israelis have fingered him as an activist, he must walk this road to reach his students in the Balarta refugee camp.
Suddenly, an Israeli army convoy appears and Sherri and I bury ourselves in the hillside shrubbery. Soon the troops are moving again. We exhale deeply and continue to crawl through the night.
A beat-up taxi appears. We are now in Nablus and purportedly safe. The taxi driver greets us warmly. Even his dispatcher offers a hearty welcome on the radiophone.
As we ride towards the impoverished Balarta camp, the driver treats us to a tour. Here is where the Israeli Army killed a dozen Palestinian policemen last year. There is where the IDF shot three children whose crime was to throw stones at their oppressors. He points out cars flattened by Israeli tanks but omits the hospital that the Israelis will raid with blazing gunfire three days later to capture two wounded militants.
Beaten Bloody by the 'Children of God'
EIN ABUS, OCCUPIED PALESTINE -- The "children of god" charged down the bare brown hillside swinging thick clubs and hurling large, lethal stones, war-whooping in Hebrew their harsh curses upon the people of this lacerated land. It was October 25, and I was standing with a Palestinian farmer and his family under a freshly-picked olive tree.
The old farmer had just showed me the scars on his scalp from the beating the settler youth inflicted upon him in last year's olive harvest when he heard them running towards us. Hurriedly, his wife gathered the tarpaulins and his son shouldered the heavy sack of olives. "Yala!" they warned. Time to go.
I was following the old man down the terraced terrain when the savages broke out of the trees. Before I had time to turn, they were upon me -- six, maybe seven, young men in yarmulkes and long, lank hair. The first blow glanced off the small of my back and I tumbled to the red-brown earth, trying to cover my head with my forearm.
The second smashed into my wrist and the blood began to spurt -- the wound only excited the settlers' thirst for more of it. Now they were pulping my lower legs with sharp blows from their sticks. One youth picked up a large, jagged rock and advanced upon me with malice glowing in his evil, rabid eyes, hurling it from five feet away. I felt the painful crack against my knee and winced visibly, and then they were pulling me to my feet, tearing my clothes and booting me down the hill like a punctured soccer ball.
Just as I felt my legs collapsing under me, my friend Arik Ascherman, the head mavin of Rabbis for Human Rights, dove into the fray, momentarily diverting the attackers' attentions. They ripped Arik's own yarmulke from his bushy head and yelled at him that he was a betrayer of the Jews. Meanwhile, young Palestinian men took hold of both my bloody arms and led me down the narrow goat path to safety.
Arik was the first peace activist to stand up to an Israeli bulldozer after Rachel Corrie was crushed last March. He will soon stand trial for that act. Meanwhile, the settler community has published a "wanted for incitement to murder" poster with his likeness attached.
The Nablus Chainsaw Massacre
Rabbis for Human Rights had come to Ein Abus, a village north of Jerusalem, to verify reports that these self-appointed "children of god" had chainsawed hundreds of olive trees the week before -- a crime against both the people and the land. Yitzhar, the illegal, barebones settlement that spawned these crazies, stretches across 18 kilometers of naked hilltops but is really not much more than a string of tin-can mobile homes that followers of the late and unlamented Meir Kahane seized from Palestinian villagers a decade ago.
Under the hypocritical Bush/Sharon "road map" peace plan, Yitzhar was supposed to have been dismantled but when the Israeli Army sent troops to accomplish this simple task, the heavily-armed soldiers were pelted with rocks and eggs and retreated in shame.
Two days after our attack, Rabbi Ascherman and I traveled to the white-washed settlement of Ariel to file complaints. Ariel, a fenced city of 20,000, is named after current prime minister Ariel Sharon who took over the housing ministry after being replaced as defense chief following the 1982 massacre of 1,700 Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Lebanon.
The Israeli press and even the US consulate half-heartedly condemned the attack on Rabbi Ascherman and this old Jewish reporter but only minimal energy would be expended on bringing the muggers to justice -- as little effort was assigned to investigate the murders of Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, or the maiming of Brian Avery, young International Solidarity Movement activists attacked by the guns and bulldozers of the IDF.
As I stumbled bleeding and bruised down the hillside after the beating at the hands of "god's children," my Palestinian hosts were eager to underscore how they had suffered such wounds during a half-century of Israeli despotism.
"Perhaps it is not nice to say this when you are in such pain," a village official said gravely, "but now you will know in your own body how we have suffered here."
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John Ross ( firstname.lastname@example.org) invites his readers to know the reality of Palestinian life by participating in the annual olive harvest in this hard and dangerous land.