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Olive Harvest a Mideast Conflict

October 22, 2002

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AQRABA, West Bank (AP) _ Thunder crashes like waves over mountains as Palestinian farmers pick olives in groves of gnarled trees, working quickly before the coming rains. But a greater danger threatens the once joyful harvest: violent attacks from Jewish settlers.

With horses, axes, rifles, stones and fire, Jews who’ve built outposts on nearby hilltops, disrupt work crucial to the survival of these hamlets, cutting and burning trees and beating Palestinian villagers.

``They want to take the land, to impoverish us,″ said Musla Jaber, a bearded man with a gash on the side of his head he says came from a rock hurled at him.

Palestinian villagers and human rights groups have reported daily harassment of olive pickers from Jewish settlers since the harvest began this month. After driving farmers away, the attackers have stolen ladders and sacks of the crop, and picked the fruit for themselves.

For Palestinians, who have seen their economy crumble since they launched an uprising two years ago, the monthlong olive harvest is a critical lifeline for many families.

It’s central to their history and religion. The trees, with rough trunks twisted like knotted rope, are cited in the Muslim holy book, the Quran, as a blessing from God.

This year seems to have brought only curses.

Izzedine Jaber, 44, a plump man with a gold tooth and thin beard, is so scared when he goes into his olive grove that he keeps his dusty orange car nearby to speed away at the first crackle of a gun. Just over the next hill, he saw a friend shot dead. A cousin was beaten so badly in the face that doctors had to remove one eye.

More than 200,000 Jewish settlers now live in enclaves built in the hilly West Bank and seaside Gaza Strip _ lands where more than 3 million Palestinians live.

In two years of violence, Palestinian gunmen have killed more than 100 Jewish settlers, mostly in shooting attacks. Israeli settlers have been accused of killing about a dozen Palestinians and destroying property.

The Settlers’ Council, an umbrella group that represents settlers, condemned violence against Palestinians, said spokesman Ezra Rosenfeld. But he said he believed the claims of attacks were exaggerated.

Israel’s police have responded to a number of attacks on olive farmers, police spokesman Gil Kleiman said.

On Oct. 6, Hani Minyeh, a 22-year-old grocery store clerk in Aqraba village, ran to help farmers defend trees from attacking settlers and was shot dead, said his friend Izzedine Jaber. Police seized six weapons, arrested one Jewish settler and questioned six others, Kleiman said. All were later released and no charges filed.

Kleiman said police were running ballistic checks on the bullet that killed Minyeh. ``We take the investigation very seriously,″ he said. ``It’s very difficult to do due process policing in a war zone.″

Palestinians complain that Israeli security forces serve only the settlers.

``They can occupy all of our country and they can’t protect one (Palestinian) farmer going to his fields?″ Palestinian Agriculture Minister Rafiq Al-Natshah said of the security forces.

With industries such as manufacturing and tourism in shambles, the olive harvest now accounts for 10 percent of the Palestinian gross domestic product, Al-Natshah said. Olives are the main part of an agricultural sector that accounts for a quarter of all Palestinian exports.

On a recent afternoon, another family in the Jaber clan was so jumpy they fled upon a stranger’s arrival, fearing settlers had come down the hill. In the morning, Jews fired shots to scare them from the fields, the men said.

Riskala Jaber, a skinny man with torn clothing, hid for an hour just below a ridge with his three brothers, watching the settlers make off with sacks of olives.

With no other work, he needs to harvest olives to support a wife and five children. ``Even if they try to kill me I’ll still pick the olives,″ said the 27-year-old man, who looks much older and walks with a cane. ``My eyes are always on the mountain.″

From where he stands, he can just see the electricity poles and street lights of the small Jewish outpost above.

Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank _ intended to block suicide bombers _ may also keep olives and olive oil from getting to markets. With storehouses still full from last year, prices are low.

In a normal year the Jaber brothers would split $5,000 between them. Now they might end up selling their olives for half that to be made into soap.

Abdelmajid Odah, 32, doesn’t even have enough trees left to sell his olives. Settlers cut about 300 of his family’s trees last year and ruined others with chemicals that also sickened his elderly father, he said.

His brother’s 2-month-old daughter, Noha, rests in a tiny makeshift hammock strung between two trees. His family works, chatting, sharing tea. It’s quiet, just the sounds of them clipping branches and the plop _ like rain hitting the roof of a tent _ of olives landing on ground tarps.

The scene only seems idyllic. But, ``there is always fear in the mind,″ Odah said.

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