The olive harvest is underway – so is settler thieving and destruction
UN Mideast peace coordinator ‘appalled at acts of destruction of olive trees and farmlands, desecration of mosques and violence against civilians’.
A senior UN official condemned attacks by Jewish “settler extremists” on Palestinians’ olive trees in the occupied West Bank and called on Israel to “combat violence and terror by Israelis.”
Robert Serry, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, also said he was alarmed that work had started on hundreds of new homes for settlers in the occupied territory since the end of Israel’s settlement freeze last month.
Serry was speaking to journalists on Tuesday while olive-picking with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the village of Tormos Ayya north of Ramallah. He said settlers had destroyed hundreds of trees in the village in recent weeks.
Palestinians began harvesting olives across the West Bank this month.
“I am appalled at acts of destruction of olive trees and farmlands, desecration of mosques and violence against civilians,” Serry said.
“Israel states its condemnation of attacks, which I welcome, but its record in imposing the rule of law on settlers is lamentable,” he said.
“Israel must combat violence and terror by Israelis, as is expected of the Palestinian Authority in the case of violence and terror by Palestinians,” he said.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected Serry’s use of the term “terror” in reference to Israelis and said he should have chosen his words more carefully.
“We understand that he decries acts of violence by certain settlers, but the Israeli government has been the first to condemn them and to instruct law enforcement agencies to crack down on the perpetrators – but when he speaks of terror by
Israelis, does he mean Israeli suicide bombers on Palestinian buses?” spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
Palestinian militants launched waves of suicide attacks against Israelis during the Second Intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation earlier this decade.
The Palestinians have said they will not resume peace negotiations, which began at the start of September with U.S. backing, until Israel agrees to halt building in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted pressure from the United States and the European Union to extend a freeze he had imposed on new home building in settlements in the West Bank. His government is dominated by parties which support the settlers, including his own Likud.
Serry said new building was illegal under international law “and will only serve to undermine our efforts for a negotiated solution”.
The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has recorded almost one incident a day and in some cases more against Palestinians and their olive trees since the start of the
harvest, spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli said. The Israeli army had provided better access to groves near settlements, she added.
“But this is their obligation … the Israeli authorities have failed miserably in enforcing law on settlers attacking Palestinians and their property,” she said.
Harriet Sherwood in Luban a-Sharqiya, 24 October 2010
Eighty-year-old Rasmia Awase had left the best olive trees until last. She and her family had already harvested most of their crop when they went to a small plot near their home in Luban a-Sharqiya on Saturday morning.
Here were 40 trees that Awase had planted and tended herself, and they were now, two decades later, at their peak – the most productive of all the trees, which support 37 members of the extended family.
But Awase found that someone had got there before them and had chopped down the trees, leaving stumps in the ground and branches scattered about the plot. The family blame hardline Jewish settlers from the nearby Eli settlement.
“I was in shock, I lost my mind,” she said. “I planted these trees with my bare hands, I gave them 20 years of hard work – and they are all gone.” Each day of her long life was worse than the one before, she said with her eyes watering.
The Awase family are not alone in their experience. Among the tactics used by Jewish settlers this harvesting season are cutting down and torching trees, stealing fruit and attacking farmers trying to pick their crops, according to human rights organisations.
“It has reached a crescendo,” said a spokeswoman for Yesh Din, one Israeli group monitoring incidents in the West Bank. “What might look like ad hoc violence is actually a tool the settlers are using to push back Palestinian farmers from their own land.”
The upsurge in violence this year is attributed to a rise in settler militancy following the 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank and uncertainty about the outcome of the current, although stalled, peace negotiations.
According to Oxfam, which is trying to help Palestinian olive farmers realise the economic potential of their crops, some families are too frightened to pick the fruit. “We have seen a lot of olive groves burning and trees which have been chopped down,” said the charity’s Catherine Weibel. “People are clearly very stressed and worried, always afraid the settlers are coming.”
Olives have been cultivated in the rocky hills of what is now the West Bank for thousands of years. Around 95% of the harvest is used to make olive oil, worth up to 364m shekels (£64m) a year to the Palestinian economy. Most farmers are small scale, growing trees on land that has been in the families for generations.
In recent weeks, there have been numerous reports of trees being stripped of their fruit overnight. Rabbis for Human Rights claimed that the olives from about 600 trees near the settlement of Havat Gilad were stolen before their Palestinian owners could harvest them. Police confirmed they were investigating the alleged theft.
The police had received 27 official complaints about sabotage since the beginning of this year’s harvest, said a spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld. Sixteen Israelis had been questioned. “There are a number of ongoing investigations into damage caused in the past few weeks,” he said. “We are working to prevent incidents on the ground. This is an ongoing problem that we have to deal with.”
Damage had also been caused to Israeli property, added Rosenfeld.
Akram Awase, Rasmia’s son, was sceptical about the protection offered by the Israeli police and military. “In the old days the resistance used to stop them [settlers],” he said. “Now there is no resistance, all of them are in jail. You can’t do anything. Who do you complain to? The soldiers protect the settlers. They have raped our land and they will never leave it.”