The force is with them

Olive season is upon the West Bank, and the IDF is deployed to protect Palestinian pickers.

It’s olive harvest season in the West Bank. A second lieutenant in uniform, wearing a knitted skullcap, approaches one of the Palestinians picking olives in a grove within the settlement of Karnei Shomron. “Why are you picking the olives like that?” he asks, and suggests a different method, which he thinks is more efficient. The Palestinian, who is from the nearby village of Lakif, explains to the officer that his own method is faster and better.

Olive picking with IDF protection
Daniel Bar-On

The second lieutenant was there with three soldiers, all reservists, to guard the Jaber family, from Lakif, who this week went out every morning to harvest the olives in their grove. The soldiers were there to protect the Palestinians from the settlers.

Tuesday, midday. The soldiers are eating their packed lunch, the Palestinians are busy harvesting. But the father of the family, Suleiman Jaber, is unhappy. He says he arrives at the settlement’s gate at 7 A.M. with his three children and another eight workers, along with a tractor and additional equipment. “The army won’t show up for an another hour,” he says.

The Palestinians cannot get to the grove alone. Soldiers escort them from the guard post to the olive grove. The land belongs to Jaber, but it is situated deep inside the settlement. “It has been our land for 80 years, 32.5 dunams” − just over eight acres − he says. “But this year I was able to get to the plot for only one day, on February 15. Since then they have not let me enter. On Sunday I came to the trees in the morning and found someone already had gotten to them. All the olives on the lower branches had been picked − my harvest was partly stolen. A settler arrived with bags and I quickly called the Civil Administration and spoke to an officer named Bahajeth. He told me he could see the man. But I don’t know if they did anything with the information.”

He points to a well that was ruined − by settlers, he says − and to a tree that has been cut down. “This is how we found the plot on Sunday morning. We wanted to bring in two tractors, but the security officer of the settlement said only one was allowed. Who is he to tell me what is allowed and what is not? This is my land. They did not arrive here until 1982, and now they give me orders.”

Jaber says the road leading to the settlement of Ginot Shomron, too, was built on his land.
“They have given me five days to harvest all the olives,” he says. “How I will do that, I don’t know.”

At the same time, he admits that this year there have not been any violent incidents in the area, whether because of the presence of the soldiers or because the settlers here are relatively moderate.

Things are different around Nablus. On Tuesday the residents of the village of Ein Bous, south of the city, complained that settlers from Yitzhar stabbed a horse they brought to the olive harvest. On Wednesday, Palestinians reported that Yitzhar residents cut down more than 50 trees around the villages of Hawara and Yanun, also south of Nablus. Ironically, the fact that Suleiman Jaber’s olive grove is located inside a settlement increases his chances of completing the harvest without being harassed.

The army secures areas categorized as friction points, in this case, olive groves near or inside settlements. Other groves, such as those around Hawara and Yanun, are at risk of becoming scenes of violence.

Lt. Col. Yoav Kochba, the deputy commander of the Ephraim region brigade, whose sector includes Karnei Shomron and Kafr Lakif, is visiting the soldiers assigned to guard the Palestinian harvesters. “I have to ensure that every olive that a Palestinian wants to harvest gets harvested and that things are conducted without confrontations,” he says. “There are settlements with which we have no trouble and where there is no need for protection, but we try to prevent any chance of trouble. I assign quite a large number of forces to this mission.

In the end, you have to remember that it comes at the expense of other things, such as protecting the roads from stone throwers.”

Still, he admits, this is a quiet sector as compared with Nablus.

How is it that the security forces are deployed to protect the Palestinians in the face of the settlers, but that the law enforcement authorities fail to arrest the disturbers of the peace, whose identity and place of residence is known to every Palestinian in the villages around Nablus?

Mission accomplished

Last night Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton was due to leave the region. After almost five years as the U.S. security coordinator between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and 40 years in the military, the three-star general is retiring from active service.

Dayton played a large role in the dramatic change that the West Bank has undergone in the past few years, most impressively regarding the Palestinian National Security Service, which he cultivated. The NSS went from being a tired, disorderly, undisciplined body to almost a full-fledged army, relatively well-trained and above all young and dynamic. The commanders who led the NSS from its inception have been replaced. The force is now under the command of highly motivated officers who, with the help of close American-Jordanian training and support, have instilled in the Palestinians not only the necessary skills but, more crucially, belief in their ability to crush Hamas’ threats.

To date, some 3,100 Palestinian soldiers have completed special military training in Jordan, under America’s supervision and at its expense. Another 1,900 will have undergone the advanced training by the end of 2011. They are learning how to fight but also how to disperse demonstrations with minimal force. They also heard talks about human rights.

So significant was the American presence − though the general’s staff tried to play it down − that Hamas dubbed the NSS “Dayton’s forces” and the PA “Sultat Dayton” − Dayton’s Authority. Dayton’s replacement, Lt. Gen. Michael Moeller, from the U.S. Air Force, is already present in the region.

Fortunately for him, he will find a far simpler security situation than the one Dayton had to cope with in 2005. Much has been written about the unusual security coordination between Israel and the PA, which sharply contrasts with the gloomy political situation. Israeli sources speak with great esteem about the success of the Palestinian security forces in arresting the terrorist squad that perpetrated the attacks a month ago at Beit Hagai and Rimonim, in which four Israelis were killed and two were wounded.

The level of trust between the sides persuaded the Israelis to allow the Palestinian units to operate around the site of the terrorist attack in Hebron, in order to find the perpetrators quickly. The PA plans to place the murderers on trial. The Palestinian judicial system also has undergone a reform and enjoys greater public trust than in the past. This year there have been 70 percent more indictments submitted to the PA courts compared to last year.

Israel is not overly interested in the Palestinian public’s attitude toward its own security forces. But the Palestinian forces, especially the civilian police and the NSS, are not only improving their ability to take on Hamas. They also want to convince the West Bank public of the “justice of their path.”

On Tuesday a few dozen Palestinian soldiers came to a high school in Tul Karm to play soccer with the students. They spread out among the 120 young people and kicked the ball around with them. Lt. Col. Mohammed Alawna, who is in charge of external relations for the NSS in the northern West Bank, told the students that the force would choose the best of them, “the politest and the most respectable,” to bring into the force. “Tell the truth,” he said to me after another murder on the streets of Lod, “where is it safer − here or in Tel Aviv?”

The regional commanders of the NSS hold monthly meetings with members of the Palestinian public to hear about the problems that crop up in their daily encounters with their own security forces. The NSS visits different schools, to give it the widest possible exposure.

“We want to get closer to the kids,” Alawna said, “to prevent them from connecting with religious or anti-Palestinian elements who are against peace. One day they will be our auxiliary force.”

An aide to Alawna explained that many of the young people view the security units negatively. “Some of them think that all we do is arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists. In our meetings with them the youths get to meet our guys, and they even say they want to join up. They become more aware of the issue of public order and upholding the law.”

After an hour or so of passing the ball back and forth, a tournament began. The goalkeeper for the NSS was a young soldier, Hasan al-Ruah.

“His father is a shaheed,” one of the officers said. “Hamas people killed him in the battle of Qalqilyah” − an incident about 16 months ago in which three Palestinian soldiers and four Hamas activists were killed. It would be fascinating to hear the message that this young soldier has for the high-school students in Tul Karm.