Had they been there last Saturday at sunset, most Israelis would not have believed their eyes.
In the middle of Havarah, a small village south of Nablus, 63 Israelis, men and women, young and old, were standing together with dozens of Palestinian villagers. Jews and Arabs talked together, drank juice offered by the hosts, exchanged addresses and phone numbers. The local children were wearing stickers brought by the guests, showing the flags of Israel and Palestine. Nobody bore arms.
All of them looked happy, and with reason: they had just finished a hard day’s work at olive picking. They had been together under the trees. They were together when the settlers opened fire.
All this happened deep inside Palestinian territory, after two years of violent confrontation. A feast of Israeli-Palestinian fraternization in the middle of the bloody attacks. A human experience. A political act. A symbolic event.
Since biblical times the olive tree has been the symbol of this country. It has sustained the peasants for many generations – Canaanites, Israelites, Arabs. Throughout the year, the peasant works in the grove that has been handed down from father to son, treats the trees, cleans the ground. During the few weeks of harvest, the whole family picks the olives – men and women, old people and children. The olives must be picked in time and brought to the olive press, where the golden liquid is extracted – olive oil. These are days of rejoicing.
A whole family can live now on ten olive trees. Without them, they cannot exist. The harsher the occupation becomes, the more it prevents movement and denies livelihood, the more the villagers become dependent on the olive trees.
Therefore the actions of the settlers are so dastardly. They try to prevent the harvesting, to steal the fruit or to burn the groves. Their actions remind one of one of the wickedest deeds described in the Bible, for eternal shame: the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21.):
“Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, hard by the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. And Ahab spake unto Naboth, saying, Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house, and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it, or, if it seems good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money. And Naboth said to Ahab, The LORD forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.” The rest of the story is well known: Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, produced false witnesses, Naboth was stoned to death, Ahab got the vineyard. In the end, the dogs licked the blood of both Ahab and Jezebel.
But compared to today’s settlers, the wicked Jezebel was a model of righteousness. The settlers take possession of the villagers’ olive groves without even offering payment or alternatives. They just shoot. One Palestinian boy was shot and killed by them while picking olives, hundreds of others were driven out.
Almost every Palestinian village has olive groves that border on some settlement or “outpost”, and that is now controlled by the settlers. When the owners approach to clean the ground or pick the olives, the settlers shoot at them “in coordination with the army”. The simple pretext: when the villagers pick olives near a settlement, they can see what happens there and threaten it.
A monstrous perversion, indeed: putting a settlement in the middle of a dense population of Palestinians and forbidding them to work their land, because it is close to the settlement.
In some cases the settlers were not satisfied with shooting, but invaded the groves physically, drove away the villagers and stole the olives they had picked. The prophets of Israel would have been shocked. Daylight robbery. And the army keeps silent.
The intentions of the settlers are more evil than those of Ahab and Jezebel. They want to turn the life of the villagers into hell, in order to force them to leave. That is what’s called “voluntary transfer”, or, in simple language, ethnic cleansing.
For decent Israelis, the conclusion is clear: they get up to help the villagers to pick the olives, before they rot on the trees or are stolen. They form a “human shield” against the settlers. During the last few weeks, hundreds of Israelis have done just that.
Last Saturday, 260 Israelis answered the calls of the various peace organizations (Gush Shalom, Ta’ayush, The Women’s Coalition, a sector of Peace Now and others.) They were divided between the villages that were in the greatest danger.
My lot was to come to Havarah, a village lying in a valley between two high mountains. Its olive groves are dispersed on the steep slopes of the mountains, which are covered with rocks and stinging bushes. It was quite an effort just to get there. Here and there somebody fell down and was scratched. But all arrived.
Around dozens of trees, groups of pickers, Israelis and Palestinians, started to work. The owners of the trees took advantage of the presence of the Israelis and worked quickly. Going against accepted practice, they hit the branches with sticks in order to get the fruit to fall on the green plastic sheets that were spread on the ground. Bad for the tree, but much quicker. Time was short.
Everybody was working feverishly, holding the fruit-laden branches and filling buckets and sacks or gathering from the ground. Each olive was precious. Sportsmen and sportswomen climbed into the trees, filling hats and bags.
The groups that reached the top of the mountain found themselves opposite the settlers of Yitzhar, a well-known nest of fanatics, dressed in their Sabbath clothes – black trousers, white shirts – and holding their guns. They threatened the pickers, shot into the air and at the ground (one of the Israeli pickers was hit by a clump of earth). The shots echoed between the mountains. Forty minutes later the soldiers appeared, and, after hugging the settlers, demanded that the pickers leave the area. They explained that the settlers were right when they opened fire, because the pickers were endangering the settlement. The pickers continued their work obstinately, defended by the Israeli “human shield”. But gradually they were pushed down the slope, closely followed by the settlers, with the soldiers in between.
In the other groves, the work continued without interruption. While it was going on, cigarettes were exchanged, conversations started, first haltingly, than more vividly, in spite of language difficulties. Some of the villagers spoke Hebrew and told about the places in Tel-Aviv where they had worked.
Before darkness fell, the sheets were gathered and folded, people put the heavy, full sacks on their shoulders or on donkeys, and started the descent from the steep slopes, from terrace to terrace. The local boys leapt easily, the elderly and the guests moved more cautiously, holding on to bushes and supporting each other.
Many happy people were there. Those who had faced down the hooligans were happy because they had not fled. The Israeli pickers were happy because they had combined a political demonstration with a useful act. The Palestinians were happy because they had saved at least part of their harvest. They were carrying the heavy bags on their shoulders. At the foot of the mountain, the sacks were put on donkeys and ancient cars that looked as if they were about to fall apart at any moment.
In the end, an emotional farewell: hundreds of Palestinians, men, women and children, waved enthusiastically at the departing Israelis, in the village square, the alleys and from the windows – a whole village. The happy earnings of a days work.