Facing settler violence, Burin welcomes internationals for olive harvest

October 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Sabreen expected a high likelihood of settler attacks this Shabbat, but experienced a strange mixture of relief and loss at finding the olive trees picked bare Saturday morning.

On Sunday, PLO leader Hanan Ashrawi wrote that, “Given Israel’s support for the settlers and its refusal to allow the Palestinian Authority to provide protection throughout the occupied territory, the Palestinian people require international intervention to ensure their security,” reported Ma’an. Lacking institutional support, Palestinians in the village of Burin are welcoming international volunteers (including Israelis) in a kind of grassroots ‘intervention’.

Ahmad Najjar and his foreign 'assistant' gather olives  (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

Ahmad Najjar and his foreign ‘assistant’ gather olives (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

Burin is a well-known site for settler violence and heavy Israeli military intervention; a ‘friction’ area, as the military euphemistically refers to it. On Tuesday 4 September settlers cut 18 olive trees in Burin and on Tuesday 11 September settlers burned Burin almond trees. Thus, Sabreen foresaw a confrontation when villagers expressed intent to harvest their trees located nearest to Yitzhar settlement. While those olives were ripe for picking on Friday, on Saturday morning Ahmad Najjar found that settlers had picked his trees bare. They had arrived a day too late.

Ahmad lives with his family in Burin, a village of nearly 2000 residents in a valley among rolling hills dotted with settlements 7 kilometers south of Nablus. On the peaks neighboring Burin sit the settlements of Har Brakha, Givat Arousna, Yitzhar and a Yitzhar outpost. Yitzhar is infamously known for having the most violent settler population in the West Bank. In 2011, OCHA recorded 70 attacks by Yitzhar settlers on neighboring Palestinian villages, “the largest figure recorded from a single settlement this year.” Yitzhar has 900 settlers and was established in 1983 on land taken mostly from the Palestinian village of ‘Asira al Qibliya. As evidence, Ahmad points to olive trees cut by Yitzhar residents and small boulders settlers rolled down the hill into his olive grove.

Yitzhar on a hilltop overlooking Burin (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

Yitzhar on a hilltop overlooking Burin (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

Because of the high risk of attack, Burin farmers encourage internationals to accompany them during the olive harvest season that usually falls within the month of October. Many alternative tourism groups and political activism organizations promote olive harvesting trips for outsiders, but individuals are also employing this strategy in solidarity with farmer communities.

Sabreen Aldwak, a strong-willed 20-something Ramallah-ite, advertises the opportunity to volunteer on trips to Palestinian olive groves through the English-language site ramallahramallah. Sabreen has a background in business management and currently spends her time volunteering in several spheres: everything from elderly care to olive harvesting. She has returned to Burin during the past three olive harvest seasons including this October saying that she loves being in Burin. Last harvest season, she spent two straight weeks assisting villagers. Although Sabreen says she would still volunteer even if alone, she wishes Palestinian youth would volunteer in addition to foreigners who frequently respond to her offers.

 Sabreen harvests olives with Burin residents and international volunteers (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

Sabreen harvests olives with Burin residents and international volunteers (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

“Nothing will happen, but in case something does, stay close to me,” Sabreen reassuringly advises her crew of nine newbie internationals on Tuesday and the first day of the olive harvest at Burin.

Sabreen knows the families of the village well and is warmly greeted as we enter the house referred to as the “evening party,” by locals. Um Ayman, an elderly grandmother, is the matron of the house, which is furthest up the hill and in closest proximity to the settlement of Yitzhar. Settlers regularly ambush the house and have thrown firebombs and glass bottles containing paint at her windows, which are now protected in mesh. Um Ayman’s heavy metal doors are dented from repeated blows of settlers attempting to enter or, at least, frighten the household. The attacks usually come at night and the whole village rises to defend this recurring battlefield from where the frighteningly lighthearted term has arisen. Ghassan, whose family has lived in Burin for generations preceding the State of Israel, tells me that the youth of the village have also waged retaliatory skirmishes running up the hill to attack the settlers.

The view from Um Ayman’s house  (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

The view from Um Ayman’s house (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

“Our life has become a routine,” said Ahmad while picking olives Saturday afternoon: “If we try to harvest olives, the settlers will come.” Ahmad explains that the presence of internationals greatly reduces the likelihood of settler attacks and enables the families of Burin to harvest their olives during the time-sensitive and labor-intensive season.

On the first day of the harvest Ahmad’s family works throughout the day, guiding the internationals as they progress through 15 of their trees. The Najjar children join their parents after the school day ends excitedly gathering olives from the tarpaulin sheets laid out under the trees while meeting people from Gaza, the USA, the UK, Sweden, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. On the other side of the ridge, a group of 10 Israelis assisted another Burin family with their harvest.

Ahmad’s family owns 70 trees producing 300 kilos of oil in an average year. This year, Ahmad expects that he will only extract 100 kilos from the sparsely laden trees. The family uses the oil and olive products from their trees for themselves, although Ahmad says that he could sell their oil for 20 NIS per kilo (USD $5 per 2.2 pounds). Ahmad explains that his family’s primary reason for harvesting is not economic return, but the principle of protecting their land from expropriation.

Ahmad Najjar working in his tree. (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

Ahmad Najjar working in his tree. (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

80% of Burin is in Area C; an Israeli administered and militarily policed territory composing 60% of the West Bank. The arrangement originates from the Oslo Agreements that mandated Israel with providing services and policing to all populations within Area C. However, for Palestinian residents of Burin, their experience has convinced them that, in practice, Israel applies a policy of extreme discrimination infringing on their rights while enabling settler expansion and violence.

On Friday this week, Israeli soldiers stopped a group consisting of the Najjar family and seven internationals accompanying Sabreen while picking olives at Ahmad Najjar’s grove. The group was ordered to leave the trees and wait in the nearest building: Um Ayman’s house. Ahmad said that after an hour the soldiers allowed people with West Bank identity cards to return to the fields for the remaining part of the day, thereby excluding the internationals and the majority of the work group. Instead of leaving Burin, the internationals remained in the house to document any possible attack on the family who continued working. The internationals ventured back to the trees two hours after the soldiers had left defying what they considered arbitrary and illegitimate orders, said Erik Pettersson from Sweden.

International law lays responsibility on the state for preventing and ensuring accountability to all acts of violence against an occupied population. Israel, however, has systematically failed to prosecute Israeli settlers who attack Palestinians and their property, said a report published Friday by Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din. The report follows 162 investigations of vandalism against Palestinian trees since 2005. So far, only one of the investigations has led to an indictment.

On Saturday, a contingent of 15 internationals accompanied Sabreen to Ahmad Najjar’s trees where they continued the harvest. As the afternoon receded and the group concluded the day’s work, a pair of Israeli soldiers who had parked by Um Ayman’s house stopped Ahmad. A bulging sack of olives lay across Ahmad’s shoulders. He slumped under the weight while the soldiers asked him if he would be back to work the land on the following day.

Ahmad Najjar leaves his olive grove at the day’s end. (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

Ahmad Najjar leaves his olive grove at the day’s end. (Photo credit: Ryan Roderick Beiler)

Ahmad answered the soldiers that he would certainly return to collect the remainder of his harvest. Unmentioned in the exchange was that without Israeli accountability and the Palestinian Authority’s inability to police areas like Burin, olive harvesters facing settler violence rely on the support of local and international volunteers in order to safely access their olives.

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