The Israel Defense Forces and the Civil Administration did well to inform the Israeli public about the steps being taken to ensure that the olive harvest is conducted properly; the season began last week. Well-trained Israeli ears are quick to locate the matrices of that well-guarded harvest: any village that might serve as the target of settlers' attacks on Palestinian farmers, their orchards or their crops.
In contrast to the limited military and police protection that Palestinian harvesters received in the previous two years, this year, the protection is expected to be especially serious, and the IDF talks of "harvesting to the very last olive." This implies that attempts by settlers to attack or intimidate the harvesters will be averted. Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, is under the impression that, at least at the command level, the IDF is determined to protect the welfare of the harvesters and the harvest.
Harassment and attacks by settlers, who tried to terrify the villagers, existed even before 2000, but they grew more prevalent after the second intifada began. The army and the police turned out to be either absent, helpless or apathetic. The military commanders found an easy way out: They closed vast areas of farmland to their owners, the Palestinians, as a means of "protecting them" against the settlers.
Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and other left-wing Israeli organizations, such as the Ta'ayush Arab Jewish Partnership, decided as early as 2002 to accompany the Palestinian farmers, despite the danger that the settlers would also attack them. The rich experience of RHR activists supplied the factual basis for a petition against the state and the security forces that was submitted by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, together with this dissident group of rabbis and five Palestinian villages, to the High Court of Justice in 2004. It took the court two years to hear the petition, including the state's responses, additions and corrections to the petition, examining the state's assurances, correcting the responses and so forth. But in July 2006, the court handed down a ruling that obliged the security forces to protect Palestinians' property rights and their right to cultivate their land. The IDF, the Civil Administration and the police are now bound by the court's ruling. That is why they now sound more resolute than ever before in their warnings to the settlers.
Of all the systematic Israeli assaults on Palestinian farmers, those which are initiated and carried out by settlers have received the most successful negative public relations: A few well-known personalities signed up to assist in one or two well-publicized harvest expeditions, members of the Kibbutz Movement expressed shock and regularly accompany farmers from some of the villages, and there were tough editorials in the press. But what is forbidden to the settlers is permitted to the state, the IDF and the Civil Administration, big time.
MachsomWatch, another group of dissident Israelis, has been accompanying farmers in the northern West Bank on their troubled journeys to their lands, which are locked behind the separation fence and, in effect, have been expropriated from them. The women of MachsomWatch get reports from the various gates in the fence. The state promised the High Court that it would make it possible for the farmers to reach these lands. So it promised. But most of the year, the gates are open only twice a week. People have therefore given up on trying to grow vegetables and wheat, which require daily attention, or on letting their sheep graze in uncultivated pastures. Many times, the gates do not open at the appointed hour. Many times, soldiers do not accept the residents' permits or confiscate them on various pretexts. The activists from MachsomWatch spend long hours on the telephone, trying to reach army command posts to check why a gate was not opened on time, why a permit was confiscated, why a request by two women for permission to work their family lands was turned down.
Now that it is harvest time, the gates are due to open every day, three times a day. Instead of several dozen permits for every village, several hundred are being given out. Yet there are still many who are turned down, in arbitrary fashion. This daily damage to the Palestinians does not find its way into the headlines.
The Israeli occupation establishment constantly imposes various forms of harassment on Palestinians engaged in agriculture, one of the foundations of the Palestinians' existence: the separation fence, which imprisons the lands of 42 villages behind it; the settlers' constantly expanding security fences; the expropriation of lands for the construction of bypass roads and security roads; the destruction of wells; the closure of various areas (including the entire Jordan Valley) for military purposes; the closing of roads to Palestinian vehicles; the checkpoints every few kilometers; the diversion of trucks carrying produce to long and badly paved roads; the waiting in line for hours and days at Israeli crossings; the closing of the Gaza crossing for months, thereby making it impossible for Gazans to market agricultural produce; the discouraging bureaucracy required at Civil Administration bases to obtain a pass to reach one's own lands - or to not obtain it at all.
All these forms of assault by the establishment, which appear to be more and more deliberate, explain why more and more Palestinian agricultural lands appear as if they have been abandoned, with unplowed soil and trees with rotten fruit. They also explain why more Israeli than Palestinian produce can be seen in Palestinian marketplaces, and why so very many farmers need food parcels.
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