Rural Economy Hit : Israelis Using Olives, Figs to Subdue Arabs

Times Staff Writer

The Palestinian uprising against Israel, most often an uneven struggle of Arab rocks against Israeli bullets, is also becoming a war over figs, grapes, olives and even donkeys.

As part of its effort to subdue rebellious Palestinians, Israel is striking at the heart of the rural economy on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. Israeli officials have warned that if Arab farmers continue to stone Israeli soldiers and civilian settlers, the army will cut access for village produce to markets in Israel and abroad.

An initial experiment of the policy here in Tel, a village known as the fig capital of the West Bank, worked well. In August, at the height of the fig harvest season, soldiers stopped the villagers from transporting the fruit to markets.


After a 35-day standoff, which included a military roundup of fig-hauling donkeys, Tel gave in. On Sept. 14, an Israeli army jeep appeared in the village. No stones were thrown, and two days later Israeli military authorities called off the siege.

“We want to get rid of the illusion of some people in remote villages that they have been liberated,” explained Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “We make it clear to them where (the villagers) live and under what framework.”

Added Maj. Gen. Amram Mitzna, the top Israeli military commander in the West Bank: “We’ll not accept a situation in which villages or areas riot, act violently . . . and then be able to act as though nothing happened.”

The move against farm crops is but one of the daily, quiet struggles of the intifada , as the Arab uprising is known. Tax officials raid Arab shops and present large bills. If the owner is unable to pay on the spot, the police come in and confiscate the merchant’s goods.

Israeli police in the occupied territory routinely pull over Arab drivers whose cars are easily identifiable by their blue license plates. At roadblocks, the police cite obscure rules--one says that drivers must carry chalk at all times in order to diagram an accident--as grounds for issuing tickets.

Drivers with yellow plates, indicating Israeli ownership, are waved through.

Bureaucrats delay the issuance of travel permits to Palestinians and sometimes turn back travelers at border crossings even if they carry the proper documents.

The effort to break the uprising in the countryside seems aimed at more than just harassment. The Israeli army, spread thin by having to patrol not only towns and refugee camps but also villages from one end of the territory to the other, would like to lessen its load.

Anti-Israeli Sentiment

Pressure on insular villages reflects just how widely the intifada has spread during its 10-month course. Places that were known to few but their inhabitants have suddenly joined towns like Ramallah, Nablus, Janin and Hebron as hotbeds of anti-Israeli sentiment.

“Before, we were known only for figs. Now Tel is on the map of the intifada ,” said Hamed, a school teacher and leader of the uprising in the village.

Tel, population 3,500, is an out-of-the-way place. Although it stands near the city of Nablus, it lies on no main thoroughfare. No Israeli civilian need pass it to reach a settlement. Nor is there a military base within sight.

Life in Tel has an an air of past centuries. Men in traditional flowing robes puff on hookahs and drop everything at the call to prayer from the minaret of the village’s lone mosque. Women in embroidered dresses carry baskets to market, cook and sew at home and keep daughters under wraps awaiting a proper suitor.

Surrounded by Trees

The village is surrounded by broad-leafed fig and pale olive trees. Although figs brought fame to Tel, olives bring in much more money, as they do all over the West Bank. The fig siege was considered a test run of what could be a more severe blockade of olives and olive oil exports.

In the southern region of the West Bank, the army clamped down on grape exports from a town near Hebron as an added demonstration of what might happen.

The intifada reached Tel in the persons of rebellious, out-of-work students from West Bank universities. The students tutored villagers in anti-Israeli politics. As a symbol of resistance, they raised red, white, green and black Palestinian flags throughout the village.

The young farmers, familiar with Israeli land grabs on the West Bank as well as with the settlers’ disdain of Arabs, easily accepted the nationalist lessons.

Banners Pulled Down

The Israeli occupiers, who work out of the military base in Nablus, heard about the illegal flags and sent a patrol to pull the banners down. The sight of army jeeps gave the emboldened Arab boys a chance to imitate their city cousins.

The boys threw rocks; the Israeli soldiers gave chase. A mini- intifada was on.

“It looked like child’s play. But of course the ammunition was real,” said Mahmoud Mustafa, an elderly village clan leader.

Several villagers were wounded, and the Israelis made about 50 arrests. However, they were unable to catch ringleaders, who had fled. When the villagers refused to hand over the leaders, the army blocked the three narrow roads that lead from Tel to Nablus and neighboring villages. To evade the embargo, farmers loaded figs on the backs of donkeys and drove them across mountain passes. The Israelis caught on and locked up 50 donkeys in a schoolyard.

Animals Released

However, the all-night braying kept the Israelis awake. The soldiers also complained about the smell and the need to feed the donkeys, the villagers said. The commander released the animals.

“We are assured,” said Walid, a young villager, “that the donkeys gave away no secrets.” But the victory of the donkeys could not obscure the toll being taken on the village. Figs were rotting rapidly on the branch. Yogurt, a product destined for local markets, was spoiling in the hot late summer sun.

Eventually, older villagers prevailed on the young to stop throwing rocks.

“The young do not listen, like before, but we had to stop sometime,” said Abu Salim, a village elder.

Debate Over Uprising

Now old and young in Tel are debating whether to resume the intifada before the olive harvest begins.

“If they stop the olive harvest, it will kill the village,” argued Abu Salim.

“That is your opinion,” answered Walid, his nephew. “The intifada must go on.”

“It can go on after the harvest,” responded Abu Salim.

“And if then the Israelis forbid our goats to graze unless we stop the struggle?” asked Walid.

The debate ended with embarrassment at having exposed such disagreements to a visiting outsider.

It is uncertain whether the traditional leaders of the village will be able to control the hot-headed youngsters. Already, a new crop of Palestinian flags adorn power poles in Tel and anti-Israeli graffiti decorates the walls on the town’s winding streets.

Perhaps, someone suggested, Tel should harvest its olives earlier than usual--just in case.