MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. In the West Bank, it's time for the olive harvest. And as in past years, that has meant increased violence by Israeli settlers against both Palestinians and Israeli security forces. Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak says the violence threatens the authority of the state. NPR's Eric Westervelt sent the story.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Outside the sleepy West Bank Palestinian village of Tel Feat, 76-year-old Farhas Awaad and his wife, Fakhriyeh, walk carefully toward their five-acre hillside olive grove. But this year, they can only look. They haven't been able to tend and harvest the olives because the grove is too close to an outpost of the Jewish settlement of Eli. There's always tension between settlers and Palestinians around olive harvest time, but Awaad says this year has been the worst. Every time he and his family members try to reach the trees they depend on for their livelihood, he says settlers threaten or attack him.
Mr. FARHAS AWAAD (Palestinian Olive Farmer): (Through translator) I'm only worried from them or afraid of them because they have weapons. This is the only reason. Imagine if they did not have weapons - we would smash their heads because we are a bigger number. Yes, the fight will escalate and will develop.
WESTERVELT: In some parts of the West Bank, the fight has already escalated. Last month, after a knife-wielding Palestinian attacked the settlement of Itzar, wounding a 9-year-old, a mob of angry Jewish settlers went on a rampage through the neighboring Palestinian village of Asira al-Kibilya, firing off weapons and brandishing clubs, rocks, and knives. The mob attacked homes, smashed windows and cars, uprooted trees, and painted the Star of David on some Palestinian homes. Just a few days ago, settlers near Hebron were caught on tape kicking and punching Palestinian olive harvesters, a British peach activist, and two news photographers. Also, settlers threw stones at a Palestinian family harvesting olives near the village of Azmut.
There were several other recent attacks in the West Bank. The Israeli parliament's Internal Affairs Committee says police have opened more than 400 criminal cases against Israeli citizens involved in public disturbances in the West Bank so far this year. The vast majority of the cases are against right-wing activists.
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WESTERVELT: Jewish settlers walk calmly along a dirt road through Palestinian vineyards and olive groves in the baking sun near Karmet Tzur outside Hebron. Several men carry M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders or pistols on their hips. Daniella Weiss, one of the right-wing settler leaders, directs a group of young people up a rocky hillside. They are carrying shovels, picks, water, and wood to help set up a new outpost to fulfill what Weiss calls Biblical prophecy - new settlements for Jews in the West Bank. On the hill directly across from them, a backhoe is busy digging new terraces for Palestinian farmers to plan olive trees.
Ms. DANIELLA WEISS: In this very specific location, there is a combat going on between Jews and Arabs who this land belongs to. On this hill, we are now going to build a few shacks and to plant trees. This area waited for the Jewish nation to return to his birthplace.
WESTERVELT: A few weeks ago, Weiss was arrested for allegedly punching an Israeli policeman, among several other charges. Police came to her house, suspecting she was harboring settlers who had torched a Palestinian farmer's field near the settlement of Kedumim. Weiss dismisses the charges still pending against her as political. As to the recent wave of settler violence, she says it's simply a reaction to Palestinian provocations. Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently said Israel would likely have to cede almost all of the West Bank land captured during the 1967 war for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state. Weiss says that's something Israelis must resist.
Ms. WEISS: So it is indeed the combat that is going on over seizing to the land of our patriarchs. And it's true that specific declaration of Olmert about two states makes people nervous. Now, it is impossible to fulfill the policy of two-state solution with young people scattered on the hills.
WESTERVELT: The tension and the violence haven't been limited to the West Bank. Israeli investigators believe extremist Jews were behind the pipe bomb attack last month in Jerusalem against Hebrew University political scientist Zeev Sternhell, an outspoken critic of the settlers and the Israeli occupation. Sternhell had recently returned from a trip to Europe when he was attacked at his home.
Dr. ZEEV STERNHELL (Political Science, Hebrew University): When I opened the door, there was a blast. The lights went off, and I fell that blood was running out of my right leg.
WESTERVELT: An Israeli army combat veteran of four wars, Professor Sternhell sees the bombing as an act of desperation by Jewish extremists.
Dr. STERNHELL: And they are becoming now more and more violent because they realize that the Israeli society as a whole is escaping them. I think that this was an expression of some kind of despair.
WESTERVELT: The professor says, despite the bombing, he's as determined as ever to speak out against the settlements. Sternhell calls Israel's 41-year-old occupation of the West Bank a colonial enterprise that's become a moral, economic, and political burden that's undermining Israeli society and democracy. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.