Analysis |

Palestinian Volunteers Help Olive Harvesters in Ways the Palestinian Authority Can’t

In dozens of villages, the harvest has become life-threatening, and Israel prevents Palestinian security forces from protecting farmers. Volunteers have fill the vacuum – but settler violence isn’t limited to three weeks a year

Amira Hass
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A Palestinian man harvesting olives next to the separation barrier, on his land that was sectioned off by the wall, near the West Bank village of Beit Awwa, October 12, 2020.
A Palestinian man harvesting olives next to the separation barrier, on his land that was sectioned off by the wall, near the West Bank village of Beit Awwa, October 12, 2020.Credit: Emmanuel Dunand / AFP
Amira Hass

Volunteers with the Palestinian group Faz3a, whose members accompany olive harvesters to protect them from attacks by settlers, fill a vacuum. It’s a vacuum that the Palestinian Authority’s security forces never could fill in the West Bank’s areas B and C, where the Oslo Accords bar them from operating.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian youths train in martial arts and the use of weapons for recruitment to the Palestinian security forces, including the police. Under the agreements with Israel, they must help the Shin Bet security service and the army monitor Palestinians, arrest and interrogate them.

They’re expected to avert any harm to Israeli citizens. But they’re barred from protecting Palestinian civilians against attacks by thugs who are Israeli citizens.

All the PA can do is “condemn” the violence. Its security agencies may pass the complaints of the assaulted Palestinians to the Israeli police (before coordination was halted in May), and write down the details of the assaults.

At the beginning of the month, Palestinian media outlets reported on the establishment of the group Faz3a for the 2020 olive harvest. They quoted one of its founders, Mohammed al-Khatib of Bil’in, as saying that faza’a – Arabic for a response or a call for help during a war – is a Palestinian tradition of coming to the rescue of the masses in times of trouble.

Faza’a operations in 1948 are etched in the Palestinian collective memory, when residents of Palestinian villages gathered their guns from their hideouts and went out to help the organized Palestinian fighters in the fighting against the armed members of the Jewish community.

Olive harvesting isn’t just any seasonal farming or source of income. It’s a cultural, multigenerational and festive family event that everyone eagerly awaits. Entire families take part, young and old alike, and the process is a skill taught by the grandparents.

But in dozens of villages in the West Bank, the olive harvest, and agriculture in general, have become dangerous activities, even life-threatening, due to the proximity of the ever-spreading outposts and the settlements that spawn these outposts. Settler violence and the Israeli authorities’ refusal to stop it have had a chilling effect: Not everyone dares to take the risk, not everyone wants to bring the women and children along, for fear of putting them in harm’s way.

Settlers near their outpost fighting an olive-grove fire that was caused by the Israeli police's tear gas canisters at the West Bank village of Burqa, October 16, 2020.
Settlers near their outpost fighting an olive-grove fire that was caused by the Israeli police's tear gas canisters at the West Bank village of Burqa, October 16, 2020. Credit: Nasser Nasser/AP

Year-round violence

Unlike the faza’a of 1948, the volunteers today have no weapons, only determination, courage and political awareness. They know that an abandonment of the farmers and villages contributes to social disintegration.

Khatib was among the founders of the coordinating committee of popular resistance against Israel’s separation barrier in the early 2000s and was arrested for this, stood trial and went to prison. If we wish to draw any conclusions from his past, the volunteers take into account the possibility that the army will arrest them. When it comes to Palestinians, even self-defense can be considered a crime in Israel and reason for arrest.

Faz3a says about 200 volunteers have joined so far, and they are expecting to work for around three weeks until the harvest is over. But the violence isn’t seasonal. It’s a problem year-round, and the Palestinian farmers stand alone in the battle, as if it were a personal problem, not one of Israel’s direct and indirect methods of shrinking the Palestinian space.

The violence during the olive harvest is only one of many Israeli measures that have had a chilling effect or killed the joy of farming. In some regions the army routinely denies Palestinians access to their land “to prevent any friction” with violent settlers, except for three times a year, a few days each time: to plant, plow and harvest grain crops, and for the trees, to harvest, trim and plow.

These farmers have had to give up on the custom of growing vegetables among the trees for private consumption or small-scale marketing. Ten or even 20 days of access a year aren’t enough, though some owners of land beyond the separation barrier have turned, against their will, into 10-day-per-year farmers.

An example of this can be seen in villages like Biddu and Beit Ijza, whose orchards are surrounded and cordoned off by the large Israeli-only expanse that the settlements of Givat Ze’ev and Givon have created.

“At one time the orchards were a place for the entire family to relax on Fridays,” a resident of Biddu said while waiting for soldiers to open a gate for the villagers to get to their land. “We would come to work here a few times a week. Now accessing the area is like visiting a prisoner in jail.”

A Palestinian woman harvesting olives at the outskirts of the West Bank village of Mughayer, north of Ramallah, October 13, 2020.
A Palestinian woman harvesting olives at the outskirts of the West Bank village of Mughayer, north of Ramallah, October 13, 2020. Credit: Nasser Nasser/AP

Fewer permits allotted

Thousands of Palestinian families own tens of thousands of dunams of fertile agricultural land that has been imprisoned beyond the Israeli separation barrier. The barrier has 74 gates that allow farmers to pass through to reach their land. Forty-six of them are defined as “seasonal” and are opened only a few days a year. Twenty-eight are supposed to open every day or at least three times a week.

The soldiers arrive, open and shut the gates a short time later, three times a day. Since the barrier was built, Israel has gradually stiffened its terms for obtaining a permit to access farmland. The number of permits has decreased, and thus, so has the number of family members reaching the orchards. Young people in particular show less and less interest in enduring the hassle.

Each permit is issued only after a run-around from one Israeli Civil Administration office to another. The shortage of working hands is noticeable in the number of thornbushes among the trees, as well as in the decayed leaves and unpicked fruit. Sometimes farmers must go through a gate quite a distance away and then get to their plots on foot, because not everyone receives a permit to enter with a tractor or a donkey and wagon.

Beyond the fixed opening time of the gates, the farmers have no control over what happens on their land. Harvested crops and equipment are stolen. Garbage gets dumped there. There are fires, whether due to negligence or a stun grenade or tear gas canister shot by a soldier; the Palestinian farmers depend on the Israeli firefighters’ goodwill to put out these blazes.

Here the Faz3a volunteers can’t be helpful. Though it’s public and private Palestinian land, part of the West Bank, they are barred from reaching it. Only Israelis and foreign tourists may freely access this Palestinian land.

The attitude of Palestinians to this situation falls somewhere between feeling a bit sorry for the Palestinian Authority to being angry and mocking it. “What can it do?” the farmers wonder when access to their land is blocked by settler violence or Civil Administration rules.

Some people conclude from this state of helplessness that “they don’t even care there in the PA.” This is how Israel widens the gap and sense of alienation and distrust between the Palestinian citizen and a disabled Palestinian self-rule.

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