- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

HARIS, West Bank Kneeling side-by-side in the West Bank soil, a rabbi helps a Palestinian farmer harvest olives. It is a sign of solidarity during times that are tough, especially for those trying to eke out a living from unforgiving land.
The West Bank village of Haris lies next to the Jewish settlement of Revava. The settlers, citing army security regulations, say the farmers of Haris may not tend trees growing less than 300 yards from the settlement walls.
The Palestinian farmers say they do not challenge this edict for fear the settlers, or the soldiers who guard them, may open fire.
So Rabbi Arik Ascherman and eight other Israeli human-rights activists traveled to Haris to give the villagers a Jewish human shield and help them harvest their olive crop.
"Recently farmers at another village who went out to tend their fields were beaten by settlers with iron bars," Rabbi Ascherman said. "We are here today to support the Palestinians and give them a sense of security without in any way provoking a confrontation with the settlers of Revava."
But the arrival of the Israelis and Palestinians brought a swift response.
Settlers peered down from the walls, and a security guard, with a pistol slung on his hip, arrived to ask their business.
The Palestinians eyed their settler neighbors warily. "If you weren't here I wouldn't dare be here," farmer Mamoun Daoud told his Israeli escorts.
Soon an army patrol arrived, led by a major who gave a rough shove to a news photographer who did not understand the officer's order in Hebrew not to take pictures of him. A short time later, the same officer was heard trying to calm the agitated settlers, assuring them that the Palestinians were on the scene only to work their fields and meant no harm.
The settlers seemed more infuriated by the presence of Israelis helping Palestinians than by that of the Palestinians themselves.
"Rubbish," they screamed in Hebrew at the activists, adding even harsher curses.
Peace activist Michal Weiner said the abuse exemplified a cultural gap between Israelis that went beyond politics.
"We have different moral standards, we come from different worlds, for me the settlers are like war criminals."
The activists favor an Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the West Bank, while the settlers defend their right to live in communities set up by successive Israeli governments.
Another member of the Daoud clan, Ghanam, said the settlers' encroachment on Palestinian land was pushing its owners toward violence.
"I don't throw stones," he said. "But when they come and mess with my land, what can I do? I'll throw stones, then I'll be a terrorist."
Mr. Ascherman, born in Erie, Pa., is a Reform rabbi and director of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization promoting social justice programs within Israel and trying to bridge the gap between Israelis and Palestinians.
He acknowledges the legitimate security concerns of settlers throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip who come under almost daily attack from Palestinian gunmen. But he feels that the kind of restrictions the villagers of Haris face in working their own land and the wholesale uprooting of olive trees, ostensibly to remove cover for attackers, is excessive.
"There is a red line between legitimate self-defense and collective punishment of innocent people, and it has been crossed," he said.
After two hours of work, the Palestinians and Israelis had managed to pick only a few pounds of olives.
"It's heartbreaking, compared to the harvest last year when we also came," said Rabbi Ascherman. "The trees are bearing less because the farmers are scared to come down to the fields and tend the trees as they need to."
Before leaving the village, Rabbi Ascherman and his colleagues visited a Palestinian peace campaigner, Issa Souf, who was shot in the spine by troops in May as he tried to usher his brother's children inside their house and out of the soldiers' way, he said.
Paralyzed from the waist down, he told of the economic hardship caused by Israeli closures of local roads, the uprooting of 2,000 olive trees and the three villagers shot in clashes with the army.
"We live in a dangerous area here," he said.

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