It could and should have been their finest hour. The olive harvest. A seasonal family celebration involving an encounter with nature, cultivation of the soil and a harvest in the grove, whose trees were planted by the family’s ancestors. It’s also supposed to be their surest source of income, in the face of an unstable, fragile economy, in which no one knows what the future holds or what a random soldier at a checkpoint will decide.

This beautiful season has become a nightmare. Another nightmare. Practically no day goes by without attacks by settlers, or a morning without the discovery of trees that have been chopped down, battered or denuded of fruit. So far this year, 8,000 trees have already been vandalized in the West Bank, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, by hundreds of settlers who have taken part in the pogroms. There have been 18 such incidents in the past two weeks alone, says Yesh Din-Volunteers for Human Rights, an Israeli nonprofit.

With the entire West Bank painted now in the colors of the harvest – there isn’t a road without blankets or tarpaulins (on which the fruit falls), ladders and whole families gathered alongside and picking olives – there are apparently few who have not felt the brutal and evil arm of their Jewish neighbors. Those who steal sacks of olives from people who tended them for years and have very few other sources of income, if any; who strike the trunks and branches with axes; who burn groves and uproot trees.

Eretz Israel – so beautiful, whole and undivided. The overwhelming nationalist hatred and wickedness is accompanied by the perpetrators’ hatred of the land and hatred of nature, of the earth and its fruit.

We were the guests this week of two farmers in their 60s who haven’t enjoyed a peaceful harvest for years. But this year, the settlers’ plundering and acts of mutilation appear to be more intense than ever. These are people who know nothing bad will happen to them if they steal, uproot or burn. Jews they are – and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces are in their thrall and will virtually always protect them, even in their lawlessness.

Ibrahim Salah was standing on a ladder high up in a tree when we arrived at his grove in the village of Far’ata, west of the urban settlement of Ariel. His body and face hidden by branches, he was picking olive after olive and dropping them onto the blanket spread out below. His wife, Nada, sat on the ground sorting and tossing the olives, separating out twigs and leaves. Nada and Ibrahim, who are cousins, were born on the same night 68 years ago. They’ve been married since they were 18 and have seven children. Today they are at work in the family plot. The olives Nada puts into the sacks are green and shiny; it was a good year for olives.

All his life Ibrahim worked as a tiler and in doing renovations in Israel. “But it was enough,” he says in Hebrew. Ibrahim knows the history of every tree in the grove of several dozen trees. He relates that one particular tree, withered and lowly, had been moved from a different location and is now acclimating to its new surroundings.

In 2006, the Salahs’ son Basel was beaten badly on the head and shoulder by settlers during the olive harvest; he was hospitalized and still suffers from a permanent slight disability. In March 2019 , we visited Ibrahim after settlers from nearby Havat Gilad or its satellites dumped sheep carcasses into his well to poison the water. The sight of the carcasses, which he hoisted from the water before our eyes, was appalling, the stench unbearable. Since 2002 he hasn’t had a single quiet harvest. He recalls one occasion when he and his family had sat down to eat on their land and a settler complained about the smell of the labaneh and the fish they were eating; she demanded that soldiers nearby remove them. Another time they were resting during a coffee break and settlers complained that they were not at work, which was the reason they had received permit to be there; the army intervened and that was the end of the coffee break.

The Salahs own 35 dunams (almost 9 acres) of olive groves close to Far’ata and another 18 near Havat Gilad, several hundred meters away. Because three of their plots are so close to the settlement, they must coordinate the plowing of the soil and the olive harvest with the IDF. It’s a world first: A person is allowed access to his land just a few days a year and only by permit – basically because his neighbors are violent. Every time Ibrahim is allowed to access his land, he’s thunderstruck.

“Every year there is something new,” he tells us. This year he found that the fruit of some 50 trees that are 70 years old was stolen even before he got to the groves next to the settlement. “Seven or eight years ago,” he adds, “they built a house and a tent on my land. I filed a complaint, but nothing happened. They stayed. I filed more than 27 complaints, and nothing helped.

“This year I’ve already filed three complaints. In one plot they didn’t leave me a single olive, in the second they cut down five trees and in the third they stole [the olives of] three trees and started to build a house there. We wanted to talk to them and tell them not to build, they started to shout at us and to chase us until the army came in an protected us.”

That happened on Monday, October 11. Ibrahim wrings his hands, explaining that a settler woman and two youths, apparently her children, lay in wait for them on their way back home and started to pummel them – he and Nada, two people almost 70 years old. The soldiers helped to protect them that time. The following day a few Israeli volunteers arrived to help the Salahs and to protect them, and this time they weren’t attacked. But no one returned the harvest of the 50 trees the settlers had stolen beforehand.

For his part, Yousef Hammoudeh, a 64-year-old resident of Yasuf, east of Ariel, has actually had the experience of soldiers returning to him what settlers had stolen, but of course no one was brought to trial for the theft. Like Ibrahim and Nada Salah, Hammoudeh has endured numerous attacks on his groves. He also tells us that some of his family’s land was expropriated years ago in order to establish the settlement of Kfar Tapuah.

Previously Hammoudeh worked as a teacher; he was also employed by the Palestinian Authority as an expert in analyzing aerial photographs. Now retired, with eight children and 12 grandchildren, he depends on the olives for his livelihood. Sacks of them are in his yard, waiting to be taken to the olive press. He arrives to meet us driving an all-terrain vehicle.

Last Thursday, October 14, Yousef went with his brother Ibrahim, 45, to their land, but settlers who had taken control of it chased them off as if they were stray dogs, with threats and stones. Their property is situated along Highway 60, at the foot of Rehelim, a settlement perched on a hill. The grove, which was purchased by the men’s grandfather, contains 70 trees scattered in the valley between the settlement and the highway. Violent, marauding settlers erected a few huts there seven or eight years ago. Settlers tried to steal the ladders the family had brought for the harvest, but they managed to rescue them and fled home, mortified.

Last Friday, the Hammoudehs – Yousef and his wife, Hawla, 55, daughter Khanin, 33, and son Suheib, 23; and Ibrahim and his son, Salah, 15 – tried again to get to their grove, this time from above, from the hills. As they approached they met a woman, Juma’ana Abdel Raziq, who was harvesting her olives nearby. She told them that settlers had robbed her: They stole her cell phone and her handbag as well as the olives she had picked together with two workers she’d hired from the nearby town of Salfit; the workers had fled.

As Juma’ana was telling her story, volleys of stones rained down on the members of the Hammoudeh family who were trying to get to their land. A stone struck Yousef in the head, another hit his wife’s leg and a third slammed into Suheib’s back. A few rocks hit their car, causing damage. All of this took place next to the main highway. Soldiers arrived on the scene and ordered the Palestinians to leave. Juma’ana lay down on the ground and said she would not leave until her property was returned to her. The Hammoudeh family joined her, saying: We will not budge either. They knew very well where the thief had come from – not far away, from one of the shacks that dot their land. In a rare, not to say unheard of gesture, a soldier went to the settler’s dwelling and brought back Juma’ana’s phone, bag and the olives.

Last Saturday another attempt was made by the Hammoudeh brothers and their family to harvest their crop. This time Yousef’s son Hamzi, 30, a Palestinian policeman on leave, had joined them.

The soldiers told the group they would not be able to work their land without coordinating it in advance with the army. “I’ll tell you the truth, the soldiers did not behave badly,” Yousef admits now. But then, he adds, a Border Police unit arrived and the picture changed. The family had even brought falafel balls for the soldiers (“I thought they were guarding us”), but the officers that had showed up crushed them underfoot. “It turned into a battlefield,” Yousef says.

Border Police officers beat Hamzi, who tried to tell them that this was his family’s land, to protest and to argue with his counterparts, the Israeli police. They knocked Suheib to the ground, and he was cut by thorns. Finally, an officer grabbed Hawla by the throat. Video footage taken by Yousef shows the brawl between the family and the officers. The latter were about to arrest Hamzi, but Israeli volunteers accompanying the family were able to prevent that.

The Hammoudehs went home after half an hour. Now, by order of the IDF, they have one day to harvest their olives, October 27, but it’s unlikely they will manage, even though about half the crop has been picked. The plan is to recruit help from their village. For now, of course, Yousef doesn’t dare approach the grove without coordination with the army.

We, however, went by there later without him and saw the valley with the olive trees, the invaders’ shacks and the houses of Rehelim perched on the hill that overlooks his land.

Meanwhile, back in the grove owned by Nada and Ibrahim in Far’ata, the couple had collected some small branches, lit a fire and brewed tea. The earth was covered with a green carpet of olives, Ibrahim was back in the tree and Nada was on the ground, tossing and sorting the olives.

Everything could be so beautiful here.