Every year many internationals travel to Palestine to help with the autumn olive harvest. Alys Jenkins, an activist from Lancaster, returns to Palestine to find ordinary people facing intimidation and humilation from illegal settlements and the israeli army during this crucial time.
I have been back in Palestine for a week. The suffering continues. The hopelessness of the situation continues. The Occupation continues in all its brutality; and it continues in its less brutal, but nevertheless utterly oppressive, controlling ways.
Despite this, I feel so fortunate to have shared much laughter & good food with amazing Palestinians. We have been welcomed with such generosity and open heartedness. And I have experienced how utterly beautiful picking olives is. Feeling them running through my fingers, and the sound of them falling on the tarpaulin like huge drops of rain.
Here in the West Bank there are many (but never enough) internationals working with farmers during the olive harvest. It is a crucial time of year for farmers to access their land. They face huge problems both from the Isreali army and armed Israeli settlers, living illegally in the West Bank.
I have been working in the village of Aw Zawiya, in Salfit district, central West Bank. The Wall is already complete on one side of the village, resulting in massive land loss. The village will be surrounded on another two sides by the time the planned Wall route is complete, so as to take the massive settlement Ariel (with a population of approx 20,000) into 'Israel'.
The village of Aw Zawiya will become isolated into an enclave along with the villages of Rafat and Deir Ballut, inaccessible to other parts of the West Bank, inaccessible to what are now its neighbouring villages. The only access in is through a tunnel running under a settler only road, extremely easy for the army to control all movement in & out. Anyone who has any doubts about whether Apartheid is really happening here need only take one look at the road system.
The main problems the farmers from Aw Zawiya face is from settlers. Although the settlements in that area are not particularly radical the gun is commonplace. To access the land of one family we accompanied involved walking through a dark, claustrophobic drain for 100m which ran under the settler only road. Every year at harvest time the village councils pay for the drains to be cleared out so that the farmers can pass through a bit more easily.
Shortly after reaching the other side of the drain we were met by the army, controlling a small break in the Wall. It was the usual situation of a lot of waiting around whilst everyone had their ID's checked. Most people got through. An elderly man, alone and trying to reach a hospital post-operation check-up was turned away. He did not have the 'right' ID. In fact he was trying to take a short cut, to avoid a long expensive journey, a route that would have been possible before the Wall was built.
We then encountered an unusual situation, where the majority of the Palestinians were 'allowed' to pass, but the Internationals were refused entry. This reversal of the usual racist situation was I'm sure another way to sabotage the olive harvesting, by reducing the numbers of people able to pick. The first day the negotations took 2 hours before we could continue, by the final day it was down to 20 minutes.
Another family we picked with had to pass through the agricultural gate at Mas'ha village in order to access their land which is now within the settlement. Permits to reach this land are only given during limited periods during the year, and only to older people. The gate is opened and closed once only during the day, and does not allow for a full days work. Palestinians have no choice or control over when they go to their land.
A third family we should have picked with, again facing dangers because the settlement had been built on and next to their land, had all their olives stolen. It was the equivilent of 11 days picking. It is a safe assumption that they were stolen by settlers. We then spent two days picking with a family from the village of Haris, where I was living earlier in the year. Revava settlement was built on their land, and their remaining trees are dangerously close to the settlement. Revava is becoming increasingly radicalised, and there are increasing numbers of attacks, intimidation and threats made towards Palestinian farmers. The first morning we were met by armed settlement security, who made veiled threats to shoot if we did not leave. They were joined by the army, and not for the first time I found myself in the unusual position of feeling marginally safer with the army present. The settler "security" left, and the army stayed, but did not try to prevent us picking. Throughout the 2 days we had many more visits from both the army and "security", but the harvesting continued, and perhaps more than in other places we could feel our international presence making a difference. This difference of course is only possible because of deep seated racism, but we have to use this to the advantage of Palestinians. The land was overgrown and the trees had not been pruned and cared for as the farmer is unable to safely go to his land through the year. This affects not only the ease and speed at which you can pick, but also the yield.
In a village near Nablus, another team from our UK group, accompanied a family to their land which now has an Israeli watchtower built on it. They had not visited their land for 6 years, for fear of being shot. Again this was a very concrete example of the way international presence can make difference.
We were also doing an early morning checkpoint watch at the village of Deir Ballut. An extension to the opening hours of the checkpoint had been negotiated, so we were monitoring this. The first morning we arrived at 6am and there was already a tractor and trailer full of about 20 women waiting to go through to make the most of the day. Not surprisingly there was no sign of the soldiers. A phone call later, they sauntered out, cleaned their teeth in front of the waiting farmers, leaving the water running (unlike Palestinians they are not concerned with watching every drop of water) and after some encouragement from the "fucking europeans", we finally got the checkpoint moving. In fact no one had their ID's checked, again demonstrating that checkpoints are about far more than 'security'.
The teachers have just gone back to work this week. Having not been paid for 10 months, (E.U punishment to the Palestinian people for choosing the wrong party) the teachers along with so many other workers joined the strike. Not necessarily because they supported the strike, but simply because they could not afford to get to work.
I'm sure many of you have been appalled by what is happening in Gaza. Watching the news here with Palestinians is a heart wrenching experience. Not only because of the extremely graphic images that the media has the courage to show, but also bearing witness to the pain of people living in the West Bank watching the slaughter of their fellow people.
The situation is extremely bleak. But we have to find ways, however small, of taking action.
Buy Palestinian olive oil & encourage as many shops to stock it as possible. In Lancaster it is available from Single Step and the Olive Stall. It is a concrete, positive action that many of us are in a position to take. www.zaytoun.org
For more information on boycotting Israeli goods see www.palestinecampaign.org
To donate money, Medical Aid for Palestinians are doing essential work in Gaza, www.map-uk.org
To find out more about the arms links between Britain & Israel, and support an active campaign in Brighton go to www.smashedo.org.uk
For people wanting access to information which will not find its way into the western press, take a look at www.imemc.org
And most importantly COME TO PALESTINE. There are many possibilities for doing this, such as the two week olive harvest groups that Zaytoun are organising every autumn. There are also several possibilities for political tour holidays, including with Zaytoun.