AWARTA and SUSYA, West Bank — The olive branch may be a universal symbol for peace, but in the West Bank, the olive harvest brings a season of unrest between Jewish settlers and Palestinians.
It owes much to proximity. Small communities of Israelis living in the West Bank are within areas typically closed off to Palestinians.
In some parts of the West Bank, the settlement security boundaries run directly through Palestinians' olive groves. In some areas, the trees are fenced in by these dividers, and in other areas, they lie just outside. Many farmers said they are too fearful to harvest without protection.
In 2006, the Israeli Supreme Court, in response to a series of violent attacks by settlers, ruled that the army must do more to protect Palestinians during the harvest.
As a result, the Israeli army now announces the days it will be patrolling in each area to protect Palestinians as they move closer to the settlement boundaries.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, an activist from Rabbis for Human Rights, said that the smaller — and often more radical — settlements are threatened by peace negotiations and the talk of removing them. Some settlers have been reacting with acts of vandalism to discourage Palestinians from harvesting their olives, in light of a law left over from the Ottoman Empire stating that any land not worked after a period of three years is considered to be state land.
“The settlers know that many people here don’t have papers [from Israeli courts affirming official ownership of the trees] and that the land is ancestral,” Grenimann said. “So if Palestinians can be shooed away from an area where there might be an olive tree or two … because it’s very sparse around here [in Susya] ... then eventually if land is declared state land, it might be handed over to the settlers.”
In an act of vandalism before the harvest, settlers recently burned about 200 trees near the fence bordering the settlement of Itamar, near Nablus, and along the main road of the neighboring Palestinian village of Awarta, according to the town's Deputy Mayor Hani Darousha.
Darousha said the loss of the olive trees was particularly painful because of their special place in Palestinian culture and the amount of time it took for them to grow.
“When you plant a tree, it’s like growing a child,” Darousha said. “These trees are 500 years old.”