Isaac Shabati was back in the West Bank last weekend for the first time since he completed his Israeli military service in the reserves more than a decade ago.
But this time he found himself on the “wrong” side of the ethnic divide of the occupation — with the Palestinians rather than the Israeli army.
Shabati, a 54-year-old marketing manager from the village of Vradim in central Galilee, was among a small group of Israelis who had come to Kfar Yasuf to help protect Palestinian farmers with their olive harvest.
The village, one of several close to Nablus that over the past month have been at the receiving end of violence from settlers, was the first to hit the headlines, at the start of October, when local settlers tried to steal the crop two weeks before the olives were ripe.
Nearly four weeks later, the presence of international and Israeli activists is offering only limited protection.
Watching over the farmers picking black olives in the autumn sun, Shabati was visibly shaken as he recounted his first meeting two hours earlier with the settlers of Tapuah, a small fenced-off community perched on a hilltop overlooking the terraces of olive groves in the wadi below.
“At about 11am, when prayers in the synagogue had finished, several armed men started moving into the fields to scare away the farmers. I approached them to try to negotiate with them but they hurled abuse and spat at me. Then one pointed his gun directly at me.
“I couldn’t believe it. There were soldiers watching all the time but when I called to them to do something about the settler they couldn’t have cared less. At that moment, for the first time in my life, I was really ashamed to be an Israeli.”
For farmers across much of the West Bank this year’s olive harvest has rapidly descended into a terrifying game of cat and mouse with their neighbours, settlers who in practice hold dominion over the wide areas of Palestinian land that surround their settlements.
The stakes are fearsomely high for the Palestinians: they risk being shot at if they work their fields and starvation if they stay at home. With unemployment at more than 50 per cent and the West Bank gripped by almost constant curfew that makes trade difficult, most rural families have little to fall back upon apart from their subsistence crops.
Some of the worst settler violence has been directed at a swath of Palestinian villages under Israeli military control — inside so-called Area C — in the central West Bank which includes Kfar Yasuf, Dir Al-Hatab, Asawiya, Aqraba and, most notoriously of all, Kfar Yanun.
During the course of the Intifada, the isolated village of Kfar Yanun has seen a slow haemorrhage of its 150 Palestinian residents under a wave of relentless intimidation and attacks by settlers from the neighbouring religious settlement of Itimar.
Two weeks ago Israeli newspapers, usually inured to the excesses of the settlers, reported with shock that the last families in Kfar Yanun had packed their belongings and fled the village in terror. The mayor reported dozens of beatings, which had left villagers unconscious, blinded or with broken limbs.
Settlers had also destroyed the local electricity generator and polluted the water supply.
The news provoked a handful of Israelis like Shabati into action. They fear that Kfar Yanun’s exodus, in its own small way, marks the first signs that plans much talked about inside Israel to “encourage” Palestinian emigration from the West Bank by making life intolerable are being realised.
The Israeli government reacted rather differently to the growing number of Palestinian victims. First, Effi Eitam, the infrastructure minister and leader of the extreme rightwing National Religious Party, ordered a ban on all water drilling in the West Bank, one of the farmers’ major sources of water for irrigating fields. Eitam declared that he was responding to a “water Intifada” declared by the Palestinians.
And second, the army prohibited all Palestinian farmers from harvesting their olives, saying it was unable to safeguard their safety in confrontations with settlers.
Only after the ban raised an outcry from the international community and human rights groups did the army backpedal under orders from Defence Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer and promise to provide soldiers to protect the farmers. However, there was every sign that the government’s new commitment to the farmers’ security was more than half-hearted.
On Sunday, in the wake of a Palestinian suicide attack at the large settlement bloc of Ariel that killed three Israelis, settlers from nearby Itimar again turned vigilantes, attacking a group of international and Israeli activists who had accompanied a few farmers back to Kfar Yanun for the harvest.
Despite the presence of soldiers, two Israeli activists, two Palestinian farmers and four foreigners were injured by the settlers. The victims included a 68-year-old dual British- American citizen, Mary Hughes-Thompson, who had her arms broken, and a 74-year-old American, James Delaplain, who was reportedly hit with a rifle butt in the head while being asked in English by a young settler “Do you want to be dead?”
In a familiar pattern following such attacks, no arrests were made. A police spokesman, Gil Kleiman, said no suspects were in the area when police arrived. The matter was under investigation, he added.
The day before, in Kfar Yasuf, two soldiers had been stationed on a ridge close to an encampment of a few caravans on a hill opposite the main Tapuah settlement: one of dozens of settler outposts that are illegal even under Israeli law and which the government has promised to dismantle.
All morning the soldiers patrolled the village’s agricultural access road, which the army has blocked with earth embankments to stop the farmers using vehicles to access their lands. But they did little to stop the ritual of intimidation by the settlers.
By 12.30pm the soldiers had disappeared, leaving the villagers unprotected halfway through the day’s harvest.
Angie Zelter, a Briton with the International Women’s Peace Movement, which has been organising international and Israeli activists to help the farmers, said she had not been told they were due to leave, despite promises that troop protection would be co-ordinated with the villagers and activists.
“When I talked with the army first thing this morning they told me the harvest could only take place between 8.30am and 10.30am, when the settlers were praying in the synagogue. They said outside these times they could not offer protection.”
Mohamed Aubiad, who has dozens of trees on terraces along the wadi, was among the farmers who decided to abandon harvesting his groves.
He said the six-week olive harvest, which officially began in mid-October, had so far been a chaotic affair. “We watched the settlers come into the fields and try to knock the olives out of the trees with sticks for the first three days of October.
“Finally, we could bear it no longer and came out to harvest them ourselves before all our crops were taken, even though the olives were not ripe and did not have enough oil inside.”
The farmers’ reclaiming of their land led to violent confrontations with the settlers who stoned the villagers, beat them and fired over their heads with guns. It was then that Aubiad and others called Zelter for help.
“The settlers know that if we don’t work our land then we lose our rights to it. If it becomes unworked, Israel can claim it as state land and give it to the settlers. That is what they really want.”
Aubiad is one of many farmers in Kfar Yasuf who report that sacks of picked olives have been stolen by settlers. Last week, for the first time, the police intervened and questioned two settlers from Tapuah about the thefts. Both were later released.
The harvest is one of the last lifelines for rural Palestinian communities, where poverty and malnutrition is rife.
Abu Nader Hussein, a 54-year-old former English teacher, says the olive crop is all that he and his family have left. His three sons, all graduates, cannot break local curfews and have been unemployed for months. They now help him in the fields.
The price the villagers get selling their olives has plummeted by more than half, he says. Unable to sell to former markets such as the Gulf states, the farmers are lucky to earn $2 a litre, even on the black market.
“The settlers are making the harvest impossible for us because they know that it is all we have left. If they can destroy this, then what reason have we got for staying on our land? We will leave like they did in Kfar Yanun.”
But Hussein says his family will not be moved. He has refused to allow his sons to leave to work in the United Arab Emirates, saying they must remain and farm in Kfar Yasuf. “I would rather be shot in the chest by a settler than give him a single olive tree.”