Palestinian farmers under attack hold little hope of truce

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2007, 12:00am

Not ready to leave relations with the Palestinians to her government or the army, academic Ruth Cohen is one of dozens of Israeli volunteers joining Arab farmers in harvesting olives in the hills of the occupied West Bank.

Ms Cohen, 59, who teaches art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, does not pick olives as quickly as the Palestinian farmers, but if it were not for the volunteers' help, the farmers might not be able to access some of their trees in Karmah.

The mission of the volunteers, who are dispatched by the dovish Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) group, is to protect Palestinian farmers from attacks by extremist Jewish settlers who have used violence to stop Arabs tending to their groves. The volunteers also urge the army to do more to protect the Palestinians. The effort is now in its third year.

These Israelis are idealists who stand out in a conflict dominated by fundamentalists and cynics. After seven years of fighting and the rise of Hamas, most Israelis are tired of hearing about the Palestinians, let alone doing anything to try to solve the conflict with them. Few believe the negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in advance of the upcoming US-brokered peace conference will yield a breakthrough.

But Ms Cohen and rabbi Arik Ascherman, the head of the group, are trying to make a difference on the ground. The American-born and Arabic-speaking Mr Ascherman draws inspiration from a US Jewish leader, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King during the American civil rights struggle. He cites the Geneva Convention in his efforts to convince Israeli generals that they are responsible for the welfare of Palestinians, not just soldiers and settlers.

'Imagine peace,' says a badge sported by Ms Cohen, who says the occupation's strictures on Palestinians cannot be reconciled with her beliefs. 'Where has Judaism gone if we are not observing the most basic rights of others, the right to sustenance?' she said.

Protecting Palestinians is a risky business. Two weeks ago, an RHR volunteer and fieldworker were run off the road by a settler in the northern West Bank, days after a Palestinian was struck in the head by a stone thrown by a settler.

Three years ago, Ms Cohen was harvesting in the northern West Bank when she heard a shot ring out. She later learned a Palestinian farmer had been shot and killed.

'I am here because it is wrong that they cannot get to their land and trees. It gives me a lot of strength to do the right thing,' she said, helping a 22-year-old Palestinian, Alaa Abu Sheikh, to harvest Palestine's staple crop into buckets. 'I'm not really here to pick, but to watch that they don't get attacked.'

Here in Karmah, although the Palestinians are working only a hundred metres from the Otniel settlement, the picking goes peacefully. Despite settler objections, the army allowed the harvest. It posted Israeli soldiers in and above the grove to deter settler violence and ensure Palestinians don't move any closer to Otniel, which has lost 10 people to Arab attacks during the past seven years, according to its mayor, Hevron Shiloh.

Mr Shiloh said he recognised that Palestinians should be allowed to access the grove. 'We have no problems with the Arabs harvesting provided they co-ordinate with the army and come to harvest, not to kill,' he said.

It was the first time Palestinians were able to access the trees close to Otniel in three years, according to Musa Mahamre, a Palestinian lawyer who joined the harvest. 'Two years ago, we came here and the soldiers fired tear gas at us. I was arrested. I think that because of the presence of the Israeli volunteers and journalists the army decided to allow us to harvest here.'

Mr Mahamre said the harvest's importance to Palestinian livelihoods had increased in recent years as other sources of income, such as work in Israel and work in the Palestinian Authority, had dried up.

In addition, he said, harvesting amounted to exercising ownership of the land. If Palestinians were unable to work their land, it could be claimed by the Israeli state as vacant absentee property and seized according to an Ottoman Turkish law more than a century old but still invoked by Israel, he said.

In Mr Ascherman's view, working together in the groves can build trust between Israelis and Palestinians. 'The dialogue of the olive groves can give people hope there is someone to talk to on the other side. It can break down stereotypes. This gives peace a chance,' he said.

But Abu Sheikh, the young Palestinian picking with Ms Cohen, said the experience would not change his political views. 'It is very good that they help. But all of Palestine is occupied, including Haifa, Jaffa and Nazareth,' he said.

That type of hard-line thinking, along with an absence of American pressure on Israel, poses a challenge to Mr Abbas in advance of the peace conference. He is seen by many Palestinians to be in a weak negotiating position. 'This conference will be merely public relations, a ceremony enabling the US to say it is interested in the Palestinian issue so that the Arabs states will support it in its struggle with Iran,' said Hani Masri, a columnist for the al-Ayyam daily newspaper published in the West Bank.

Hamas, the fundamentalist Islamic group that rules the Gaza Strip, opposes Mr Abbas' diplomacy as a sell-out of the Palestinian cause.

Mr Masri said it was possible Mr Olmert and Mr Abbas could paper over their differences by coming up with a vaguely worded joint statement. 'This will have very negative consequences,' he said.

'It will intensify Palestinian internal divisions. Israel will interpret the paper as it wants, and the Palestinians will interpret the paper as they want. The Palestinian opposition will attack Abbas.

'It is impossible that this conference will succeed,' Masri said. 'It will fail, the only question is to what extent.'