By Melkam Lidet
As Palestinian farmers are busy harvesting their olives, extremist Israeli setters seem to have been busy cutting down and destroying olive trees, stealing olives and harassing Palestinian farmers throughout the West Bank. Settler violence and vandalism is not new to most Palestinians who live close to settlements, but the attack on olives is seen as more than the physical by Palestinians. They see it as an attack on Palestinian identity, an attempt to cut them off from their connection to the land as most Palestinians tend to olive trees that were passed down to them from generations. The UN estimates that 7,500 olive trees were damaged by settlers between January and mid-October 2012. Last year, the cost of destroyed olives to the Palestinian economy had a price tag of $500,000. While most attacks take place even in the presence of Israeli forces, only one of the 162 complaints filed by an Israeli NGO Yesh Din since 2005 have led to indictment of a suspect.
Because of these continuous attacks and insecurity, Palestinian politicians and individual farmers have asked for international presence during the harvesting season. Last week, I joined a group of Israelis and internationals to provide “international presence” and also to help a Palestinian family pick their olives. We headed out to a village called Awarta, near Nablus in the northern West Bank. Awarta is in Area C, which according to the Oslo agreement is under full Israeli control. Nearby the village is an Israeli settlement – Itamar – which was established in the 1980s and which has grown to include several outposts, covering around 7,000 dunams of land.
Looking around the area, there is nothing on the surface that would make it any different from a peaceful farmland with olive groves and high rising hills in any other part of the world. It was just another beautiful sun-kissed October morning with a clear sky and easy blowing wind. Families here and there were picking olives and moving the plastic sheets they set beneath the trees as they went about harvesting their olives. But not all is as it seems. This area has witnessed cycles of violence between the local Palestinians and the Israeli settlers living nearby. But our presence was not to make a political point but to make sure the Palestinian family we were helping that day harvested their olives without harassment from soldiers or settlers.
Once we got to the olive grove where we would be spending the day and said our greetings to the family, some of us climbed up the trees while others started collecting the olives scattered on the ground. As we were all busy with the olives our chatters and conversations were interrupted a couple of times by Israeli soldiers speaking through a megaphone. Whenever we heard the megaphone or a car, we’d all stop what we were doing and look towards the road with anxiety.
While picking olives, I couldn’t help but think about why we – the “third parties” had to be here. What makes me or the other internationals and Israelis in our group any more respectable, credible or dignified than the local Palestinians thus prompting restraint on an extremist settler or a power-abusing soldier? After all, don’t we all have the same moral values and human rights as individual human beings regardless of our citizenship or nationality? Why can we “third parties” demand our rights and claim redress for violations while the Palestinians cannot?
That day nothing eventful happened. Settlers didn’t attack nor did the soldiers give us a hard time. The family we helped harvest olives was probably happy and grateful for our presence and I’m sure we all left feeling that we did something good that day. But at a much deeper level of self-reflection, I still cannot get over the fact that our presence was needed for more than the extra hands to pick olives. It was needed to make sure the harvesting happened at all. It was needed because of an occupation that has placed an unequal value on human life, opinion and rights based on nationality. Because according to the occupation, everyone except Palestinians are worthy of protection, are entitled to basic human rights and are more dignified. Is this not racism?