No Olive Branches Here: Settler Violence Threatens the Olive Harvest in the West Bank

Israeli settler violence against Palestinians and their property, which escalated this summer, is on the rise again with this October’s olive harvest season in the West Bank. Officials from the United Nations as well as activists in Palestine and Israel are calling on Israeli forces to intervene to stop the violence.

The sheer number of settler attacks this season has alarmed B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, and the UN’s special coordinator for the Middle East process, Robert Serry, who has called on Israel to “ live up to its commitments under international law to protect Palestinians and their property in the occupied territory so that the olive harvest – a crucial component of Palestinian livelihoods and the Palestinian economy – can proceed unhindered." Thus far, Israeli authorities have not responded firmly.  
 
Since late September, settlers have attacked Palestinian harvesters and activists, destroying olive trees in Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem, and in a village near Ramallah. These attacks have not been limited to those involved in the olive harvest. On October 8, 2012, three settlers were arrested for attacking Israeli police officers posing as Palestinians shepherds. The undercover operation was initiated following multiple reports of settler violence against Palestinians shepherds in the South Hebron Hills.
 
In its recently released Olive Harvest Factsheet, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories reports that “over 7,500 olive trees belonging to Palestinians were damaged or destroyed by Israeli settlers between January and mid-October 2012.” Of those 7,500 olive trees, the UN estimates nearly 870 olive trees were cut down, uprooted, poisoned or burned since the harvest began on October 5, 2012.  Settlers have also been recorded on video stealing olives from Palestinian groves.
 
In light of this onslaught, Palestinians have taken to the streets in protest against settler violence during the olive harvest by blocking a main road used by Israelis. This week, Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Hanan Ashrawi called on diplomats in the West Bank to protect olive harvesters by “placing observers with Palestinians harvesting olives to deter settler attacks.” The protest and call to diplomats demonstrates the Israeli government’s unwillingness to act and indifference to the plight of thousands of Palestinians whose yearly income depends on a successful olive harvest.  It also highlights the Palestinian Authority’s inability to provide security for its citizens, even in areas it allegedly controls.
 
Settler violence clearly illustrates the irony of the Separation Wall, checkpoints, and other security apparatus employed by Israel in the West Bank to “ensure settler safety.” These measures separate Palestinian communities from each other and their livelihoods, but do not guarantee Palestinian safety from settlers living in nearby settlements. Meanwhile, settlers enjoy freedom of movement across the West Bank, and settler attacks and vandalism are rarely investigated or prosecuted.
 
Palestinian olive harvesters are not faring any better in Gaza, though the threats to their lives and property come from the Israeli Defense Force rather than settlers. On October 16, olive harvesters in northern Gaza reported coming under Israeli fire while harvesting.
 
Curbing settler violence in the West Bank requires coordinated action by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They already cooperate on a number of security areas benefiting Israel. They must create a new paradigm in which harvesters are protected through: provision of police escorts, unbiased intervention by IDF soldiers when Palestinians lives and property are threatened, and criminal prosecution of settlers involved in attacks.