This time of year is the harvest season for many different crops. One of the larger, more profitable crops in Israel is olives. Harvesting olives takes a lot of time and quite a few hands. The organization Rabbis for Human Rights works in Israel for the basic human rights of everyone. In this instance they find volunteers who are willing to go help Palestinian olive farmers work their land because they only have limited amounts of time that they are guaranteed protection and the ability to harvest their crops. I joined them a two weeks ago to help the farmers harvest their crops.
Since it is a busy part of the year and the organizers did not have many student volunteers, we were spared the requirement of being at the bus pickup at 6:25 in the morning and instead left at 8:15 to drive to the site where we would be working.
On the drive out I noticed a stark contrast between the land on the east side of the border crossing. There was much less greenery and as we passed houses and communities, they were in rough shape. Especially when you compare them to the pleasant looking pre-fabricated houses of the settlements.
We arrived to the farm we would be harvesting and were given explicit instructions;
1) Do not be by yourself, a group of three is best if we’re not with the entire group.
2) Have a phone with you at all times.
3) If someone approaches you, disengage and call one of the two people in charge.
After the briefing we walked to a part of the field. This was when I learned how to harvest olives. It’s actually a pretty easy to get each individual olive off the tree since they fall with little pressure. To gather the olives, we were told to just drop them on the ground, onto these blankets that they would sort later. We ended up with piles of leaves, twigs and olives at our feet.
My classmate Sarah and I talked to some of the other students and rabbis that came on this trip. One of the farmers had a radio on in the background and it was cool to listen to the Arabic radio station while we were harvesting. The group of 10-12 of us got through a few trees in the first twenty minutes that we were harvesting.
But then the army stopped us.
Before I go on, I want to relate the explanation that we received from Rabbi Arik Ascherman.
There are three zones that have different restrictions for what the farmers need to do to be able to access land they have the legal right to work (I don’t recall the color labels Rabbi Ascherman used, so I will refer to them as 1, 2 and 3). Zone-1 is closest to the settlement and has many more restrictions. The farmers need to coordinate with the army if they are going to be allowed in these areas. Zone-2 is the “in between” area. Coordination is highly recommended to be in these places and sometimes this area is closed to the farmers. Zone-3 is the furthest away and is supposed to be open without coordination. The army can use its discretion to close this area if it is necessary.
We were working in a Zone-3 area. All of a sudden we were told to stop. This was because Rabbi Ascherman was talking to the 3-man patrol that had demanded that everyone that was working needed to leave immediately. After ten minutes of arguing and phone calls to lawyers and commanders, Rabbi Ascherman told us that we needed to leave the area to wait for our bus and the Palestinian farmers could continue to work their land.
Our bus had left because the driver needed to go to a Mosque to pray, we sat down in the shade a few minutes from the road to wait. As Rabbi Ascherman was telling us what happened, he received a call from the farmers because the patrol was now forcing them to leave as well. This was within ten-minutes of us being out of eyesight. We continued to wait for our driver and he went back to discuss the issue.
Unfortunately the story ends with a District Commanding Officer deciding that the farmers needed to leave.
Although they were working on their property, they were directed to leave their land for no reason that could be explained other than that they needed to be gone for the time being.
You might be asking, “Why is this a problem?” or “Why should the farmers be allowed to work there?”
As it stands the farmers have the legal right to the land they currently have. The issue is that settlements, many of which were started illegally and many of them were eventually granted legal permission to exist, are attempting to claim more land. In the pre-State period land for kibbutzim was purchased or acquired legally. Eventually the borders for Israel were established to include the kibbutzim. For this reason there are some very violent settlements in the Occupied Territories (West Bank) that are laying claim to land that was a part of historical Israel.
The hardest part was seeing the damage that some of the more violent settlers cause to some of the land. We stopped to see a section of the over 1500 olive trees that were burned on October 15th. The only reason we could decide is that the land “should belong” to Israelis and not Palestinians. Therefore the trees needed to be destroyed.
Regardless of what my position on a Two-State solution or a One-State solution, the fact of the matter is that these Palestinians have the legal right to work their own land. I’m glad I had the chance to help, even if it was for only twenty-minutes before we were forced to leave. This was an interesting experience, seeing how larger political decisions and attitudes manifest on the other side of the border.