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Culture : Through Ages of Palestinian Upheaval, the Olives Endure : In the occupied West Bank, centuries-old harvest rituals thrive. Picking the fruit lets local Arabs earn money, socialize--and escape, for a while, the violence of their lives.

November 20, 1990|DANIEL WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HUSAN, Israeli-Occupied West Bank — There is probably no public activity in the Holy Land, barring perhaps religious and communal strife, older than the gentle autumn harvest of olives.

To hike into the stone-laden valleys and to clamber over the worn terraces to pick the ripening fruit is to travel to an elemental age. Yet, there are details that break the trance. On a recent afternoon in the groves near this ridge-top village, F-16 jets of Israel's air force screamed overhead. A boom box blared news of Saddam Hussein.

But imagine that the jets are arrows and Hussein is the ancient Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar--he himself is said to imagine so--and focus again on the core rhythm of the harvest. It seems to beat much the same as it did thousands of years ago when the Bible said this was a land "of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey." For a few hours at least, there is a partial release from the compression of violence that dominates news from the lives of Palestinians.

As in many contemporary scenes of rustic charm, it is deprivation that gives the olive harvest beauty. The Palestinian population of the West Bank is sufficiently hard-pressed to continue the Mediterranean chore of picking olives in the old-fashioned way. Unlike wealthy Italy, for example, no chemicals are sprayed to encourage the olives to fall here; no fork-tongued machines grab and shake the twisted trees to loosen stubborn fruit. No waves of migrant workers are imported to do the picking, for the Palestinians themselves are migrant laborers in large numbers--in the fields and factories of prosperous Israel, and in the offices and plants of oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf.

Families harvest on plots too small to produce more than side income. They come, young and old, girls in jeans and aunts in long, black, embroidered peasant dresses, boys in UCLA sweatshirts and their fathers in checkered-cloth headdresses, to pass the day on and under the trees, alternately reaching and stooping, picking and sorting, sipping tea and, at midday, eating in the shade.

So last month, when the Israeli government forbade Arabs from the West Bank from entering Israel to work in order to ensure a break in the whirl of civil violence that threatened to spin out of control, the timing was not bad. No one sat at home moping about lost income. Hands were in demand all across the West Bank.

"Welcome. A hundred welcomes!" Hajeh, a graying grandmother in Husan shouted to an arriving visitor and two nephews who, having been turned back by soldiers on their way to Jerusalem, were available to start picking.

Hajeh, her cousin Rima and Rima's family had left their hilltop house early. They were planning not only to pick from their own rows of 10 trees, but also from groves owned by other relatives who hold steady jobs and cannot pick the olives themselves. In return, they will receive half the harvest and perhaps make $300 for three weeks' work, plus a two-year supply of oil for their own use.

It's not much, considering that anywhere from four to 10 family members are involved in the picking. A single worker hauling bricks in Jerusalem can make $15 a day.

In any case, olive income will supplement earnings from a hodgepodge of sources: the father and three of the young men in the family work as house painters; another son is working in Saudi Arabia; a fifth studies in the Soviet Union, and two others are in local schools.

The family network of jobs has been shredded by local rebellion and foreign politics. Frequent strikes called by leaders of the Arab uprising interfere with the building trade.

Two of the sons, Abed and Basal, both in their 20s, spent four months in jail and then, for six months, were forbidden to enter Israel. The military government of the territories issues orange identification card covers to quickly pinpoint those who have been jailed for stone-throwing or other anti-Israeli activity. Palestinians can retrieve the regular green cover only by staying out of trouble.

Majid, the son in Saudi Arabia, held a good-paying job working in a Riyadh storeroom until Iraq invaded Kuwait three months ago. But then widespread Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein prompted a Saudi backlash, and Majid's boss fired him. He found another job, but at lower wages, in another warehouse.

"No one can say it doesn't hurt when Israel cuts us from working or we go on strike," said Nimer, the oldest son. "There are simply not enough jobs in the West Bank to keep us busy."

In these autumn days, the sun, appearing offended by the skimpy rain clouds just now gathering, has lost its usual vigorous shine. The paler light softens further the already dull green of the olive trees and of the scrubby bushes that push out everywhere from the flinty rock, so that the valleys sometimes seem to be in a perpetual dawn.

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