- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

JIT, West Bank — Fearful that radical Jewish settlers will steal their olives, Palestinians are turning to an unlikely source of protection to secure this year’s harvest.

Several hundred Israelis, from left-wing activists to moderates, regularly volunteer to help Palestinians pick olives, thinking their presence deters violence.

“I think what we do now is the way of peace. Palestinians and Jews work hand in hand on the trees and pick fruit together,” said Zacharia Sada, West Bank coordinator of the Rabbis for Human Rights.

“It gives us hope that the other side of the occupation, the Jewish people, are a peaceful people and want to live together,” he said, sitting in the shade and listening to the soothing sound of olives dropping to the ground. For Palestinians, the olive symbolizes their attachment to the land in the occupied West Bank.

A middle-aged woman in a flowered dress and white kerchief balances on a branch to reach fruit as an army jeep drives by.

“Thank God. That’s what there is,” said Ahmed Yamiin, smiling and thanking volunteers profusely for their help as he sews up sacks of freshly picked olives in this village, where Jewish settlers have routinely vandalized olive groves.

Across the road, behind Jit and beyond Mr. Yamiin’s weather-beaten face, looms the settlement of Qedumim, with its red-roofed villas and manicured gardens.

“Normally there are 150 to 200 people [helping] in the village, but they are too frightened to come here,” he said. Only Mr. Yamiin and three other Palestinians were willing to join the volunteers this day in harvesting the olives nearest the road.

“Some of them come with dogs. When they come along, some drive their cars very dangerously to scare us off. They throw rocks. They shoo us away,” Mr. Yamiin said when asked about the Jewish settlers.

Adding to their problems, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are experiencing the gravest economic crisis since the Palestinian Authority was created, battling sanctions imposed by Israel and the West against the elected but radical Islamist Hamas-led government.

As a result, none of the 160,000 civil servants on the Palestinian Authority payroll has been paid since March.

“For seven months, they’ve had no money. It’s the main problem in the village. Now if the army and settlers don’t let them get to their lands, or if the settlers steal the fruit,” said Mr. Sada, himself a Jit resident.

Money will come by squeezing olives into oil at Jit’s shabby breeze-block olive press, which Mr. Ahmed says extracts about 33,000 pounds of oil per year.

Already during this harvest, observers are seeing a tentative improvement — the first since the high court ruled in June that Israel, as the occupying force, has a duty to protect local Palestinians and ensure they can use their land.

“I’ve already seen more flexibility from the army in terms of willingness to do what the Palestinians ask,” said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, which helps with the harvest in 30 West Bank villages.

“Although there have been some days when the soldiers have been nasty or threatening,” he said. “One day they said, ‘You move any further than here and we’ll shoot you and treat you like terrorists.’ ”

The Israeli military insisted it was cooperating with police and the civil administration “to ensure that the Palestinian olive farmers are able to pick their olives without disruption.”

Rabbis for Human Rights, which has a few hundred volunteers on its books, has been helping with the harvest for four years. Their activities are bolstered by other Israeli groups that also send volunteers.

“The real test is not the olive harvest, it is what comes after,” said Mr. Ascherman, predicting disaster if the military sticks by a new policy of excluding Israeli activists from contested areas.

“The attitude that looks at Israeli volunteers as causing trouble and provocation is a very dangerous attitude,” he said.

He also warned that the high court ruling will be more difficult to enforce in those parts of the West Bank shifted to the “Israeli side” of the concrete separation barrier, ostensibly built as a last defense against “terrorist” infiltration.

“We’re back to square one on this,” Mr. Ascherman said. “Many people are denied permits to get to their land. … We’re extremely concerned.”

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