Olives being harvested, Daniel Bar-On
Olives being harvested in Karnei Shomron by area Palestinians. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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Settlers from the northern West Bank have reportedly been circumventing attempts by the Israel Defense Forces to protect Palestinian farmers as they harvest their olives. The settlers are believed to be entering Palestinian olive groves before the army can send troops to protect the harvesters - and taking the olives or destroying the trees.

The residents of the village of Burin near the settlement of Yitzhar in the northern West bank said a group of settlers had tried to keep them away from their land and had thrown stones at them. Afterward, the security forces intervened, and there were no injuries.

However, there are apparently far fewer violent clashes between settlers and Palestinian farmers than in years past.

As of last year's harvest, the Civil Administration contacted Palestinian farmers with lands near settlements with which there had been friction to offer them protection during the harvest. Companies of Border Police and IDF officers are moving gradually from north to south and providing protection to farmers so they can harvest their crops unhindered by settlers.

The number of clashes between settlers and Palestinians dropped off sharply as a result.

This year, the harvest began about 10 days ago, and according to IDF officers, there have been cases where settlers knew ahead of time which days the army was going to be guarding which orchards. It is believed that the settlers arrived before guards could be posted, and under cover of darkness harvested most of the olives themselves.

In the orchards near the outpost of Havat Gilad in the central northern West Bank, an officer said an IDF patrol had seen two settlers coming with two sacks of olives to one of the houses in the outpost.

In two cases, Civil Administration personnel found the thieves, confiscated the stolen olives and returned them to their rightful owners.

However, security sources say it is very difficult to prevent theft and the district police do not treat thieves harshly when they are caught.

According to Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B'Tselem, which is monitoring the olive harvest, said the settlers are believed to have a "new strategy" and that rather than resorting to physical violence, they were taking advantage of the fact that everyone knows the times when the guards are to be posted.

"In a number of places where the Palestinians are not allowed for the rest of the year, when they come on the days allocated to them, they find the olives have disappeared," Michaeli said. About 100 trees had been bored into and ruined near the village of Turmus Aya north of Ramallah, Michaeli said. "In the village of Deir al-Hatab, south of Eilon Moreh, a B'Tselem field worker found a group of young Jewish men with their teacher, harvesting olives on privately owned Palestinian land" she said.

Also near Turmus Aya, Palestinian farmers found that some 400 trees had been harvested before they could get there.

Itai Zer, the leader of Havat Gilad, denies that anyone at the outpost had been involved in the theft of olives. "One of our guys was harvesting olives on our land," he said. "Then the Civil Administration came and said it was not sure that was our land. But its a disputed area now before the court," he said.

The Civil Administration has distributed written instructions to soldiers involved in guarding the orchards, ordering them to act decisively against harassment of Palestinians harvesting their olives. "Soldiers are not permitted to stand idly by and must act within the framework of their function to prevent the offense and to restore order. Soldiers on the scene must also prevent offenders from fleeing and preserve the evidence, if possible," the instructions say.