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Harvest, Fear in Olive Groves of West Bank

Associated Press Writer

For the first time in four years, Palestinian farmers hiked from their village to an isolated olive grove where they shook branches to bring down the precious fruit and haul it away on donkeys.

Fear of Jewish settlers had kept them away. Since the Palestinian uprising flared in 2000, two West Bank olive farmers have been killed and dozens wounded in attacks blamed on settlers.

The olive, an old and evocative symbol of a land disputed by two peoples, has taken on a political and human rights dimension, highlighted by the 15 or so Israeli and foreign volunteers who showed up on a recent morning to help farmers from the village of Beit Furik as they ventured out to harvest their outlying groves.

The attacks haven’t stopped, although police say they are far fewer than in previous years. In October, the first month of the harvest, 50 settlers were detained for questioning in 23 attacks on olive pickers, police said.

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After the uprising broke out, Israeli authorities barred Palestinians from tending trees close to Jewish settlements, many of which overlook Palestinian villages. The army says Palestinian gunmen have used olive groves as cover in attacks.

Dozens of Jews have been killed in their settlements, including five shot dead in 2002 in Itamar, perched a few hundred yards above Beit Furik.

Olive trees are a key source of income in hundreds of villages dotting the West Bank hillsides, particularly at a time when the uprising has gutted the Palestinian economy.

However, the farmers of Beit Furik have only picked olives close to their village, shunning their 1,500 trees near Itamar because of military restrictions and fear of settlers.

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On Oct. 17, 2000, Farid Nasasra, 28, a farmer from Beit Furik, was killed and three villagers were wounded near Itamar as they harvested olives. Itamar settlers said Palestinians attacked them with iron bars; villagers said the settlers opened fire without provocation. No one was charged; Israeli police said the Palestinians refused to cooperate with the investigation.

The farmers say they distrust the security forces, accusing them of having stood by as settlers beat and shot Palestinian olive pickers. At least one other picker besides Nasasra has been killed and many others beaten in scuffles with settlers.

Shlomi Saguy, spokesman for the Israeli police in the West Bank, said attacks had diminished this season, thanks to more extensive police deployment. But he had no figures, and no security forces were on hand when the 15 farmers from Beit Furik came to pick olives in the danger zone, a 25-minute hike from their village of 12,000.

Helped by volunteers from overseas and the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights, they spread tarpaulins over the terraced hillside to catch the olives and haul them back to the village.

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Perched on a ladder up a tree, Israeli postgraduate student Gal Karniel said she came to right a wrong.

“The government allows things that are not supposed to happen in these areas. People are not treated like human beings by my government and that bothers me,” she said.

The farmers said the yield was disappointing because the trees had gone untended throughout the year. The army gave the farmers four days to harvest the grove -- insufficient, according to villager Zaid Zamoud, who said: “We would like two weeks.”

Capt. Jacob Dallal, an army spokesman, said they could have more time if they asked for it. “Everything is done in dialogue with the Palestinians,” he said.

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Israeli police say they have learned from the past violence.

“We have increased manpower in every potential trouble spot and set up a central intelligence unit whose sole job is to alert us of incidents,” Saguy said

Settlers say vandalism is isolated and is the work of a few people who do not represent the 220,000 Jews living in the West Bank.


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