- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2002

JERUSALEM Israeli troops on the West Bank have begun protecting Palestinian farmers from Israeli settlers.
This unusual turnaround in mission follows the harassment of Palestinian villagers in several areas by Israeli settlers who have refused, ostensibly for security reasons, to let the farmers pick olives in groves near the Israeli settlements.
One Palestinian was fatally shot in such a confrontation last week, and in some cases armed settlers have reportedly taken away the olives picked in order to discourage the farmers from returning.
The olive-picking season began last week after the first rain of the season, as is traditional. Olives, most of which are made into oil, have been a major source of livelihood for farmers in the region since biblical times. Israeli peace activists have in recent days joined Palestinian farmers in the groves and have been involved in confrontations with militant settlers.
Reaction by the army was initially confused, with some local commanders saying it was a police matter rather than a military one. Other commanders gave villagers their telephone numbers and asked them to call if approached by settlers. These commanders later interceded with their troops.
Appearing Tuesday before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Israeli army Chief of Staff Gen. Moshe Ya'alon said the army will henceforth provide protection for the Palestinian farmers against harassment. He implied that the Israeli government has been lax in its attitudes toward militant settlers.
"I have been dissatisfied with the level of law enforcement in the territories for many years," he said. "The reasons for this lack of enforcement are complex, but they do not lie solely in the military sphere."
The evacuation of militant settlers from an illegal settlement over the weekend involved 1,800 soldiers, many of whom were pulled from counterterror duty for the purpose, Gen. Ya'alon said.
Meanwhile, the easing of pressure on Palestinian cities, initiated two weeks ago at the urging of Washington, began to be reversed yesterday after the suicide bombing of a bus in northern Israel on Monday, which took the lives of 14 Israelis.
Troops moved back into Jenin, which had been almost totally vacated by the army. The car bombers, members of Islamic Jihad, are believed to have come from Jenin, which has spawned more suicide bombers than any other city.
"The terrorists exploited the loosening of the curfew in order to carry out the car bombing," Gen. Ya'alon said in his Knesset testimony.
Israel is apparently not planning to respond to the suicide bombing with any large-scale strike as in the past, primarily not to upset the Americans, who have been asking the country to keep a low profile during the U.S. military and diplomatic buildup against Iraq. Israeli officials, however, say there will likely be "pinpoint" strikes against persons involved in planning the bombing.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, who arrived in Israel yesterday, will hold talks with Israelis and Palestinians over two days about a three-stage peace plan, a blueprint for Palestinian statehood by 2005.
Israel and the Palestinians say the plan, which also has the backing of the United Nations, Russia and the European Union, is too vague on crucial points, the Associated Press reported.

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