Olive harvest intensifies conflict

Aqraba: In this West Bank village, the olive branch has become another reason to fight.

October 17, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AQRABA, West Bank - The first rain needed to wash the summer dust off the green leaves had not yet fallen. The fruit was still green, not the ripe color of bluish-black. When squeezed, the precious oil did not easily ooze out.

It was too early to pick the olives.

But Khariah Zayaier was in a hurry. He must harvest his olives before the shooting season begins.

Perched in a scraggly olive tree that he thinks dates to Roman times, Zayaier grabbed a branch and stripped off the olives in a downward motion. The fruit fell and scattered on a white tarp spread on the ground.

His children, sitting in the shade below, popped a few hard olives into their mouths and frowned at the bitter taste while their mother gathered up the harvest. They worked quietly and efficiently on the ancient stony terraces that climb this northern West Bank hillside.

Just days before, one of their neighbors was fatally shot in a confrontation with Israelis from a nearby Jewish settlement who are trying to stop the Palestinian farmers from entering the fields, which belong to the Palestinians.

The olive branch, the symbol of peace in this biblical land, has become yet another reason to fight.

"We are scared," said Zayaier, 52, one of the few people willing to venture into the olive groves, which have been in his family for too many generations to count. "We pick with one eye on the tree and another on the hillside. We are going as fast as we can."

That means starting the 45-day harvest early to outsmart the settlers, who not only shoot over their heads to scare the farmers away but have begun entering the Palestinian groves and picking the olives for themselves.

Olives are a staple of the Palestinian diet and the only source of income for many farmers who have carved out an existence on this hard, rocky land. Here, olives are as good as money, wealth is measured in jugs of oil and a man's status is rooted in the number of trees he owns.

But the 2-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict has turned what should be a joyous and bountiful harvest into a dangerous enterprise.

Battles with the settlers have long been a problem during the olive harvest but have intensified this year because of growing frustrations and bitterness over the violence, which has people on both sides living in fear and seeking ways to exact revenge.

"The Palestinians must understand that there is a price for war," said Daniel Shukron, secretary of the Jewish settlement of Tapuah in the northern West Bank. He admits to firing over the heads of Palestinian olive pickers, in part to protect his settlement but also to get back for roadside ambushes and suicide bombers.

"If the Palestinians don't want this price, they should start behaving," Shukron said, noting that the olive trees from the tiny neighboring Palestinian village of Yassuf come within yards of his security fence. He said many homes in Tapuah have been shot at in recent weeks.

"It would be mad to let the Palestinians come close to the settlements," he said. "Some of the people don't come for agriculture and tending their land but to gather intelligence on what is happening here."

The army has cleared away many of the trees close to Tapuah, creating a 400-yard- wide no man's land between the grove and the settlement. Shukron said anyone who enters that zone is a security threat and risks getting shot. "They violate the order, and we can't allow it," he said.

Palestinian olive pickers have other problems as well.

Israeli army bulldozers routinely clear crops along roads used by settlers to eliminate hiding places for ambushes, and entire groves have been declared off-limits for security reasons. In addition, a fence being built around the West Bank could put hundreds of acres of trees on the Israeli side of the barrier.

Even if farmers can successfully harvest their crops, Israeli army checkpoints, closures and curfews will make it difficult, if not impossible, to get the olive oil to market. Many Palestinians have gallons of unsold oil left over from last year.

Zayaier is risking his life to pick a crop he might never be able to sell. Asked what he would do with his estimated yield of 300 gallons of olive oil, he paused from his work and simply shook his head: "I have no idea."

Aqraba is a large village southeast of Nablus that climbs up the side of one hill and down the other, with a marketplace on the ridge. About 8,000 people live here, and the ones who don't farm run the four olive presses.

The importance of the olive is spelled out clearly on a wall at the village entrance, where visitors are greeted by a large painting of an olive tree with a man in a traditional Arab headdress sitting underneath. Instead of a statue in the town square, there is a stump of a long fallen olive tree.

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