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  • Lorin Peters

Shanti Sena Stories: An Unsuccessful Olive Harvest

2008 October 18

Olive harvesters arguing with police 2008

Tel Rumeida is the 200-foot high round hill half a mile southwest of Abraham and Sarah’s Tomb. Remnants of an ancient city wall and gate lie near the top of the tel (archeological mound). Everyone believes King David’s first palace must have stood somewhere on it.

David, the great warrior, slayer of Philistines (Palestinians in English) and unifier of ancient Israel, is the archetype and hero and role model of the Hebron settlers. For them this tel is therefore of inestimable value. They have tried to buy out the Palestinian families living on top of the tel, unsuccessfully. So they have harassed those families almost daily for the past two decades.

The east slope of Tel Rumeida is covered with terraced olive groves. Some of the trees appear to be at least 500 years old, if not older. When the current CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) delegation (first-time visitors) discovered there would be an olive harvest on the tel, they rearranged their schedule.

The delegation leader asked me to lead the group up the tel. The best route is also the route where two of us were stoned heavily two years ago. So this morning, when I woke three hours earlier than usual, I knew exactly why I felt anxious. I prayed for an hour. I repeated my mantram for two hours. In the end I chose to face, as best I could, my fears.

At 8:30 am, five delegates and I walked through the Old City / Kasbah, out the Ibrahimi Mosque Gate, then back along Shuhada Street, where Palestinians, and sometimes internationals, are not allowed. As we passed several pairs of soldiers, and several groups of settlers, I greeted them “Shabbot shalom” (Sabbath peace). Somewhat unexpectedly, they all returned my greeting. I felt somewhat relieved.

We paused at Avraham Avinu to read the settler billboard claiming that “this land was stolen from the Jews in 1929”. There was a massacre of Zionists in that year, but their Muslim neighbors saved virtually all of the native Palestinian Jews. Then we started up Tel Rumeida itself, pausing again at Abraham’s Well, an ancient cave with a small pool of clear water at its bottom.

When we arrived at the top of the tel, we found perhaps five internationals, 10 Palestinians, and 15 Israelis already picking olives, plus perhaps 10 photojournalists busy taking pictures. The local Palestinian organizer asked our CPT delegation to work about 100 meters back down at the bottom of the olive grove.

The owner had already spread tarps and old rugs under one tree. So we began picking the small dark olives from the lower branches. One person stood on a ladder, another found an old chair, another climbed up into the tree. We dropped the olives into old buckets. But a fair number fell onto the tarps, so some of us crawled around picking up these loose olives.

We had been picking about an hour when, suddenly, we heard cries behind us. Abed, a Palestinian photographing harvesters in a tree 20 meters away, had just been attacked by four tall settlers wearing their kippas and long white shirts. They had knocked him to the ground and were kicking and hitting him savagely.

Jan, a petite but tough Scotswoman, and I, the two CPT members, rushed over and up the steep terrace. As Jan arrived, one settler had taken Abed’s large professional camera away. She asked him to return it. As he swung the camera away behind himself, its strap swung all the way around. Just as I snapped a photo, Jan grabbed the strap. The settler instantly swung his right fist into her right cheek, full force, knocking her off her feet.

As I looked up from my camera, the settler was swinging his hand toward me. For an instant I thought he was going to deck me also. But he actually was hurling Abed’s large professional camera as far as he could down into the rocky terrace behind and below me, apparently hoping to damage or destroy it.

About that moment, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) soldiers arrived. Jan shouted, “That man attacked me. Detain that man!” But the soldiers made no effort to detain the attackers. When the attackers left the scene, I walked over to retrieve Abed’s camera. Thankfully, it appeared to be unbroken. One soldier later said to Jan, “We stopped the fighting. Don’t ask for anything more.”

When the Israeli police arrived, they declared Tel Rumeida a “closed military zone”, meaning that all non-residents have to leave. Of course the settlers were already gone. Most of the Israeli peace activists wanted to continue the harvest. But Israel has a law banning all Israelis, other than settlers, from entering Palestinian areas. The effect, and probably the intent, of this law is to make it difficult for Israelis who oppose Israel’s occupation to meet and work with Palestinians. Eventually the Israeli police began detaining the 15 Israeli activists and escorting them out of Tel Rumeida.

The police left us alone. But they called our landowner over and spoke to him. When he returned, he said that we should stop working soon. Five minutes later he served us Arabic tea and cookies. After another ten minutes, he suggested we exit the olive grove through his basement. Perhaps he was protecting us from the police.

We had picked only one tree, collecting maybe eight gallons of olives. The four young settlers got what they presumably wanted. The olive harvest was stopped. Today’s harvest was mostly unsuccessful.

Except that the harvest is not really about olives. It is actually about the struggle for power and control over the land. And the settlers may have miscalculated. A half-dozen of the other photojournalists were standing 15 meters away on the terrace above the attack, with their video cameras running.

That same evening Jan and I were chatting with the manager of our hostel in Jerusalem, when we suddenly saw ourselves on the TV in the hostel lobby. Al Jazeera and the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) both broadcast, worldwide, the complete footage of both attacks.

The settler movement was extremely embarrassed, and immediately began making false allegations. They claimed we had “marched” through “their” street, “throwing stones” and “provoking” them to defend themselves. But the next morning the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz carried an extensive front-page story, and four-color photos, of the settler attack.

Settlers fighting with olive harvesters 2008

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