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West Bank Olive Farmers Face an Uneasy Harvest

Weekend Edition Sunday: October 8, 2006

West Bank Olive Farmers Face an Uneasy Harvest

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

In the West Bank, Palestinian farmers are preparing for the annual olive harvest, a mainstay of the local economy in many villages. The harvest has been disrupted in recent years by sabotage and violent attacks by Jewish settlers living on the hilltops above the orchards. But this year, the Israeli High Court ordered the Israeli Army and police to protect the farmers against settler violence.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON: Farmer Bajas Beni Jabr(ph) doesn't break a sweat in the warm, late summer afternoon sun as he shifts his dusty herd of sheep from one corner of his yard to another. The sheep don't seem to mind much, but the sudden movement startles a donkey tethered nearby.

SOUNDBITE OF A DONKEY

KENYON: There's precious little plant life in the immediate circle around Beni Jabr's house in the village of Yanun. Much better grazing land stretches out before him in all directions, along with hundreds of his olive trees that dot the hillsides. But he can't let his sheep wander on most of his land because, he says, the settlers on the surrounding hilltops will open fire.

Mr. BAJAS BENI JABR (Palestinian Farmer): (Through translator) We live in a big prison. We are surrounded from all sides by settlers, which every direction we take, we are going to get shot.

KENYON: This corner of the West Bank, east of the volatile city of Nablus, has been a battleground for years. In 2002, Palestinian gunmen entered the nearby Jewish settlement of Itamar and killed five people. Villagers insisted the gunmen weren't from Yanun, but in the weeks that followed, settlers burned the village generator, defecated in the water supply, and severely beat a number of villagers. Yanun briefly gained notoriety as the first village to be almost completely abandoned during the second Intifada.

Four years later, most of the villagers have returned to their homes. Forty-year-old Rashad Morar(ph) keeps chickens in addition to his olive harvest. He says one reason the village is repopulated is the constant presence of Western peace activists who live in Yanun year round.

Mr. RASHAD MORAR (Palestinian Farmer): (Through translator) Our children used to be scared of anybody, thinking that they are settlers coming to attack. Since they are born, they're only seeing the aggressiveness of the settlers. Now the situation is better with the presence of the solidarity groups.

KENYON: Some are predicting a big olive crop this year, but Morar is not optimistic. He says even if the Israeli army and police obey the court order they're under to prevent violence during the harvest, the damage has already been done, because he's been too afraid of settler attacks to care for his trees all season.

Mr. MORAR: (Through translator) I'm not expecting a good harvest at all. And I don't expect my trees to give me a good harvest, because I've not taken care of them.

KENYON: Just over the hill from Yanun is the village of Beit Surik, another frequent target for the settlers from Itamar and Alon Moreh and their outposts.

At the top of the village on a windswept hillside, 67-year-old Faizah Nassaseri(ph) waves at some 20-acres of trees that he can't harvest. They're not the thick, gnarled, twisting trunks of old olive trees. These are much younger trees that he planted after, he says, settlers burned his original trees. In the distance, a wooden guard tower is visible.

Mr. FAIZAH NASSASERI (Palestinian Farmer): (Through translator) Come, I'll show you the guy that shoots at people. Do you see the small tower up at the top? The person who mans that tower is the one that is now seeing us. And if we proceed, we are a target for his shooting.

KENYON: Nassaseri, whose brother was shot and killed while harvesting his olives near here a few years ago, says he probably won't take the risk this year. He'll let his crop go to waste.

Mr. NASSASERI: (Through translator) I cry when I think of my land. It only brings grief to my heart that I cannot get near it. My children and I worked very, very hard to replant the land that they burned.

KENYON: According to Israeli army figures cited by the Jerusalem Post, some 2400 olive trees have been burned, uprooted or otherwise destroyed in the West Bank since 2003; half of them just last year. This year, under court order to protect the harvest, Israeli authorities have threatened to bar not only the worst known settlers offenders, but the leaders of liberal Israeli groups that try to help the farmers get their olives harvested.

Arik Asherman, director of one of those groups - Rabbis for Human Rights - says he'd be delighted if the army would do its job and its presence isn't needed. But his group is planning to send volunteers to the West Bank, just in case.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, on the West Bank.

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