Palestinian Olive Harvest: ISM Interview

[Updated October 17, 2002– a note on the action is below]

[Updated October 17, 2002– a note on the action is below]

Diana Valentine is one of many international activists from the US, Canada, Europe, and other countries who are participating in the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) olive harvest campaign of October 2002. She is in a village called Yasoof in the Salfit area of the West Bank. The international activists are accompanying the Palestinians as they attempt to harvest their olives. Unaccompanied Palestinians face violence from soldiers and armed settlers. The internationals and Palestinians hope that the international accompaniment can provide the space and safety for Palestinians to be able to harvest their olives.

Valentine answered some questions in a phone interview this evening, about the actions so far in Yasoof and events to come.

Most North Americans don’t have much sense of what the reality of the occupation is like. Stories of Israeli military raids, especially if there are significant casualties, are sometimes reported, but almost nothing is heard of the daily life of occupation. You’re in a village, accompanying people during their work. Could you give us some sense of what occupation is like?

Try to imagine: all your civil liberties taken away, all your property, your land, stolen, each advance you try to make thwarted—advances like trying to harvest your crops, or go to school, or to try to go to work, all these options taken away. Imagine hope for your children’s futures taken away, undermining your family structures and in a sense your reason for living, your culture, your existence. That’s where it starts.

The Palestinians who you’re working with are facing violence from armed settlers. Tell us something of the rules and law that apply to settlers and how do these differ from those that apply to Palestinians?

They differ greatly. Settlers are the most drastic example of the occupation—even more so than the military, because they are there specifically to take land away from others.

There’s almost no rule that applies to Palestinians that applies to settlers. There is of course the fact that settlers are protected by the Israeli military and Palestinians are not. There are the economic and social differences, huge differences in wealth and income. There’s a physical, geographical difference—the settlers live on the hill, the Palestinians below. There’s the fact that settlers have electricity for 24 hours a day, Palestinians have to ration it, in some cases with 5 hours a day. Here they have their own generator but they have to ration that as well. There are the water issues, of course, you’ve heard the stories of settlements that have swimming pools while nearby villages lack drinking water. There’s all this huge difference in quality of life. There’s also a difference in freedom of movement.

There are the legal aspects: settlers essentially have impunity. Leaving aside the most basic issue that their taking Palestinian land is a violation of international law, even with that aside, they are frequently awarded the right to commit crimes without punishment or with the lightest punishment. The examples are all remembered here—of the settler who shot and killed someone and did 8 months in jail.

Today, this morning, when we were accompanying Palestinians in their attempt to harvest, a settler fired directly at us in the presence of the military. He was actually arrested, because he fired at internationals and because he did it right in front of the military—but I think the chances of him still being in custody right now are pretty slim.

As for the rights of the respective parties in these confrontations, a Palestinian is more likely to be arrested for getting shot at by a settler than the settler is for shooting.

Who are the settlers? Are there any important distinctions among the settlers in terms of background demographics, or ideology? Do different types of settlers react to or treat Palestinians differently?

There is agreement that the older settlements in this area, like Ariel which is 25 years old, have settlers who are largely from Europe and Russia, the Ashkenazim. These settlers do not bother the Palestinians as much—not that Palestinians want to be dropped off on settlement roads, which is often part of their punishment after being detained by the military—but generally keep to the settlement.

Those who instigate violence are the newer settlers from the newer settlements. These settlers are more often from the United States and Europe. There are settlers who belong to the Kehani sect, which is apparently recognized even by the Israeli government as an illegal, terrorist organization. One of the members of this sect committed a massacre at a mosque killing 37 people. It is settlers from this group that we’ll be facing tomorrow morning when we try to harvest.

To whom do the olives belong that are going to be harvested?

The question leads straight to another question: whose is the land? The obvious answer is that it is Palestinian land—legally, historically. Even now, the boundaries of the groves are such that it is obvious that they are parts of these towns and villages. The groves belong to specific families, over generations—even though there is a certain communal element where when one family finishes its harvest it helps another family.

The land is contested by settlements that are taking over and so there are now groves that might actually be physically closer to settlements than to the villages they belong to. The settlers and the military are building walls and fences to enclose the olive groves, pulling them into settlements and stealing more land.

Olives are the last economic option, and not even a very strong option, for so many. Historically, the ‘heart and soul of Palestine’ is the olive. It has this physical, economic importance. It has all the symbolism and culture around it so that denying the Palestinians access to their olive groves is another component of the destruction of these people physically and psychologically.

How is access denied? How does it actually happen?

I can give you an example from this morning.

A small group of settlers were on the scene at around 8am when we—14 internationals from ISM–along with about 15 Palestinians, arrived at the grove near the village. The settlers were firing shots at harvesters when we arrived. They threatened us and began to throw rocks at us. We sat and held our ground, stating our peaceful intentions: “we are here in peace.” The settlers replied “so are we”, and continued to throw rocks and fire their weapons.

The military arrived shortly after, and arrested one settler who had fired at the crowd. The rest of the settlers had left by about 11am. The soldiers then physically pushed the Palestinians off of the grove and declared the area a closed military zone. In a closed military zone, anyone can be arrested.

This is how it goes, except when internationals are absent things get much more violent.

Is there something special about the olive harvest that elicits the violent settler/soldier response?

I think first it is the importance of olives for the Palestinians, their dependence on that harvest, that I just talked about. The need to harvest gets them out of their town, out of the safety of their community and into these groves where they are much more vulnerable, out in the open.

It is another opportunity for Israel to dispossess the Palestinians. It is another way to control and oppress them. I think it’s just that—while they are harvesting, which is something they have to do, they are stuck in a certain place for hours. That makes them vulnerable.

There’s something else to say about the olives. Some of the Palestinians from this community wanted to discuss ideas for marketing the olives. Remember that I said olives are the last economic option, but that they’re not much of an option. That’s because in addition to the occupation, Palestinian olive growers also have to face neoliberalism. The domestic market is flooded with cheaper olive oil from places like Spain. The occupation—the checkpoints especially, and the curfews—mean that any international markets for the olives have been destroyed. So even if they can harvest their olives, which is difficult enough, they still have virtually no markets for them, given that they’re under siege.

What has been the typical Palestinian response?

Palestinians go into the field; they are chased away; they leave; they wait; they return; they stay. In the process they are beaten, they have stones thrown at them, and in some cases they are shot.

Settlers especially prey on those who are alone, in small groups of one or two, young people who go out into the fields especially early. There haven’t been any incidents of Palestinians attacking settlers. The physical set-up of the confrontation makes it impossible. You have to picture this. The olive harvest is on a tiered hill. The harvesters start at the bottom. The settlers start at the top. They are throwing stones downhill. Throwing a stone downhill is different from trying to throw one uphill—the settlers have the advantage of the high ground. For Palestinians to try to defend themselves violently, given that the settlers are armed and ultimately protected by the military, would just be impossible not only right then but also in the reprisals that would inevitably follow.

So what is the typical Palestinian response? To try to harvest the olives. To endure the violence. And, recently, to invite international presence and attention in the hope that this can protect them.

What is the planned response if there is violence tomorrow? What will the ISM role be?

We talked it over in our group, and we agreed that we will stay on the site even if the military tries to push us off. This morning when it happened we weren’t as organized as we should have been, so the soldiers were able to push the Palestinians off the grove even though we stayed on for several hours after they left. Tomorrow we will be better organized and stick together, Palestinians and internationals.

The army knows we will be there and says they will be there as well. This is their tactic for the media. They will claim that they arrested the settler this morning and that they are there to maintain peace between these two conflicting sides, the settlers and the Palestinians. The Palestinians understand that this is a tactic but they think it is for the best. Tomorrow we will be joined by a group of Israeli activists as well, Rabbis for Human Rights and others. We will stand our ground—we won’t fight back of course, no lashing out, no rock-throwing from us, no violence. We are expecting possible beatings and arrests, and the Palestinians will stay with us as long as they can.

Ariel Sharon is in the US visiting with George W Bush today to talk about the War on Terror. Is this the kind of meeting Palestinians are following? Is this at all relevant to the situation on the ground?

It is relevant the same way the fact that the US provides tremendous military aid to Israel is relevant. But if you realize that this is a meeting between people responsible for massacres, as Palestinians do, you see that Palestinians can’t hope for much good to come out of this meeting. No one here is thinking—wow, how great, these two statesmen are meeting and they will save us.

No, what is on everyone’s mind here, and what Sharon and Bush are probably going to talk about, is Iraq. People feel here about Iraq what one would expect. It’s a major issue. Most believe that the US will go to war, and they believe that when the US goes to war, Israel will punish the Palestinians. They believe this partially because Israel has vowed to support the US, and partly because Israel has vowed to retaliate against any attack by Iraq. Palestinians aren’t counting on support from the other Arab nations. The expectation here, the feeling, is that there is going to be war. And that Palestinians will suffer from the war.

Oct 17, 2002, update. Tell us about the action

When we got to the field this morning, as we expected, there were settlers and also soldiers at the site. There were about 15 settlers and 4 soldiers, and the settlers attacked immediately. No one was seriously injured, but it is really a miracle that no one got shot. The settlers were firing their guns a lot, they were throwing rocks at very close range, yelling racist and homophobic slurs, chasing Palestinians and internationals, shooting and screaming and pushing and terrorizing people. They were brandishing metal pipes, knives, and of course guns. One settler pulled a knife on an activist and said he was going to slit his throat. There were some mainstream press people here, including a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. One of the photographers was physically roughed up and I had to intervene to prevent the photographer from getting beaten. The reporter asked repeatedly for an interview with them, asking didn’t the settlers want their point of view to be heard? The reporter was told to f*#k off by the settlers. This was at about 8am, again.

This time, the activists and Palestinians held their ground and sat down, and it was clear, as we’d decided, that we were not going to be moved. By about 10:30am, the police had come and sent the settlers away. This was not some violent confrontation between soldiers and settlers. They were exchanging high-fives, fraternizing, after settlers had chased us, fired their guns, and so on. I asked one of the soldiers if he was going to arrest any of the settlers: he said no, I’m here to protect Israel. I asked if that meant that he was here to protect the settlers– he said no, just myself. I wondered who he was supposed to protect himself from.

The settlers left, the police left, and the military left but they didn’t declare it a closed military zone as they did yesterday. We had planned to stay regardless of what they declared. They allowed the Palestinians to harvest in one part of the grove, so we went ahead and harvested. It’s a small victory for now, but of course it isn’t over, and we’re expecting a repetition of this kind of scene over the coming days.

Diana Valentine is an activist based in San Francisco. Justin Podur is a ZNet writer and volunteer.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.