YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


No Olive Branches in the Grove

Jewish settlers in the West Bank dispense frontier justice to hinder attacks. Palestinians insist they only want to harvest their crops.

November 07, 2002|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

YASUF, West Bank — The villagers gathered at first light on a road running along the ridge of a hillside dusted with olive trees. They carried burlap sacks, rakes and tarpaulins, and their donkeys carried ladders, as they prepared to harvest olives with the same techniques used since biblical times.

They were scampering down the hill toward the trees when four jeeps came careening down the road, churning up dust and screeching to a halt.

Out of one jeep hopped a red-haired man wearing a skullcap and earrings and swinging a metal pipe -- a resident of the nearby Jewish settlement of Tappuah. Three others carried automatic weapons. Another settler with a grizzled beard arrived on a donkey. He carried a machete along with an M-16.

"Get the hell out of here!" screamed one of the men as he ran down the hillside after the Palestinian olive pickers. When he was just above them, he scooped up a stone and took aim.

An elderly Palestinian supervising his sons at work propped himself up with his cane and gestured for his family to run to safety.

"Yalla," Ahmed Abdullah Obya, 74, told his sons. "Let's go."

So began a fairly typical morning in the olive groves of the West Bank. Almost every day since the start of the olive harvest early last month, Jewish settlers have harassed or even attacked Palestinian pickers. These ugly encounters represent some of the most in-your-face violence between Jew and Arab and are frequently likened to the Wild West -- although a more geographically appropriate analogy might be the eye-for-an-eye code of the Bible.

Jewish settlers readily admit that they send out posses to administer crude frontier justice to the Palestinians, but they say such actions are warranted by Palestinian terrorism.

"If the Arabs hit us once, they get it back a thousand times," said Yaacov Hayman, 48, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, where 11 Jews have been slain by Palestinians over the last year.

The settlers also fear that Palestinians will use the olive trees as cover to creep up on their homes and attack. "We live out here, and sometimes we have to take matters into our own hands," Hayman said.

Most of the olive battles take place near the West Bank city of Nablus, where some of the most militant settlers live.

The jeeps at the Yasuf skirmish, which was witnessed by a reporter, photographer and peace activists, were plastered with bumper stickers advocating the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. One settler wore a T-shirt bearing the image of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the late militant. Kahane was the spiritual inspiration for Kahane Chai, which is banned in Israel and listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization.

"Be careful. These people are mishuggah," warned a young Israeli soldier, using the Hebrew word for crazy, speaking at the skirmish in Yasuf to a couple of the peace activists. The army, called in that morning to head off a clash, arrived late but stepped in between the two groups and prevented the rock-throwing from escalating into worse violence.

Peace Activists Hurt

The so-called olive wars have been waged in the West Bank since Jewish settlements started sprouting in the late 1970s, but never have they had such ferocity. A 24-year-old Palestinian was shot to death Oct. 6 as he helped a neighbor pick olives in Aqraba. Scores have been injured, among them four peace activists who were beaten with stones and rifle butts Oct. 27 while helping olive pickers in the village of Yanoun.

Yet another casualty of the olive wars is the West Bank economy, already hobbled by two years of violence and increasingly dependent on earnings from the olive.

The arid, stony hills of the West Bank produce about $150 million of olives each year, less than 4% of the Palestinian economy in a good year. But in bad times -- and these are the worst of them -- the olives are the bedrock of many a family's household budget.

"They will make us go hungry by preventing us from picking our olives. It is their way of kicking us out," complained Obya, the old man who went slinking home after the incident in the groves.

Obya is the patriarch of a family of 27: five sons, their wives and children, all living under one roof. Theirs is a rambling three-story house, attesting to the $1,000 a month each that four of the sons -- the fifth is a student -- used to earn working in Israel before the current uprising.

When the men had jobs, they would send their wives and children into the groves. Olive picking is not terribly arduous work; it involves brushing one's hands along a branch until the olives fall into a basket or onto a tarp. Picking was more of an autumnal picnic than serious employment. Families would gather under the trees, bringing thermoses of tea and eating fresh figs; a fig tree is planted on each terrace of olives to provide the snacks.

Los Angeles Times Articles