Guns among the olives

Had they been here at sunset on the last Saturday in October, most Israelis would not have believed their eyes. In the middle of Havarah, a small village south of Nablus deep inside Palestinian territory in the West Bank, 63 Israelis – men and women, young and old – were standing together with dozens of Palestinian villagers. Jews and Arabs talked together, drank juice, exchanged addresses and phone numbers. Nobody bore arms. They had spent the day together under the olive trees. A human experience. A political act. A symbolic event.

Since biblical times the olive tree has been the symbol of this country. It has sustained the peasants for many generations – Canaanites, Israelites, Arabs. During the few weeks of harvest, the whole family picks the olives – men and women, old people and children. The olives must be picked in time and then brought to the olive press, where the golden liquid is extracted: olive oil. These are days of rejoicing. A whole family can live now on 10 olive trees. Without them, they cannot exist.

The harsher the occupation becomes, the more the villagers become dependent on the olive trees. The Israeli settlers try to prevent the harvesting, to steal the fruit or to burn the groves. They take possession of the villagers’ olive groves without offering payment or alternatives. Or they just shoot. One Palestinian boy was shot and killed by them while picking olives. Hundreds of others were driven out.

On the last Saturday in October, 260 Israelis answered the calls of the various peace organizations. They were divided between the villages that were in the greatest danger. My lot was to come to Havarah, a village lying in a valley between two high mountains. Its olive groves are dispersed on the steep slopes of the mountains, which are covered with rocks and stinging bushes.

Around dozens of trees, groups of pickers, Israelis and Palestinians, started to work. They hit the branches with sticks in order to get the fruit to fall on the green plastic sheets that were spread on the ground. Bad for the tree, but much quicker. Time was short. Sportsmen and sportswomen climbed into the trees, filling hats and bags. Each olive was precious.

The groups that reached the top of the mountain found themselves opposite the settlers of Yitzhar, a well-known nest of fanatics, dressed in their Sabbath clothes – black trousers, white shirts – and holding their guns. They threatened the pickers, shooting into the air and at the ground. The shots echoed between the mountains. Forty minutes later the soldiers appeared and, after hugging the Israeli settlers, demanded that the pickers leave the area. They explained that the settlers were right when they opened fire, because the pickers were endangering the settlement. The pickers continued their work obstinately, defended by the Israeli ‘human shield’. But gradually they were pushed down the slope, closely followed by the settlers, with the soldiers in between.

In the other groves, the work continued without such interruption. Cigarettes were exchanged, conversations started, first haltingly, than more vividly, in spite of language difficulties. Before darkness fell, the sheets were gathered and folded, people put the heavy, full sacks on their shoulders or on donkeys and started the descent from the steep slopes, from terrace to terrace. At the foot of the mountain, an emotional farewell: hundreds of Palestinians, men, women and children, waved enthusiastically at the departing Israelis, in the village square, the alleys and from the windows – a whole village. The happy earnings of a day’s work.

Over 100 international volunteers are in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as part of the International Solidarity Movement’s (ISM and GIPP) Olive Harvest Campaign. More information: or call Grassroots Protection for the Palestinian People (GIPP) on tel: +972 2 296 3847 or mobile: +972 50 557 385.

New Internationalist issue 352 magazine cover This article is from the December 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop