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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 October, 2004, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Ugly war over West Bank olive crop
By James Shaw
BBC, Jerusalem

Members of the Abdul Rahman family harvest olives (photo by Alon Farago)
The Abdul Rahmans fear going to their orchards alone
The slopes of the hills around the Palestinian town of Nablus are dotted with olive groves, and on the summits of many of these hills are Jewish settlements.

From a distance it all looks peaceful enough. But on the ground, an ugly land war is raging between Palestinian farmers and Jewish settlers.

Sometimes the settlers throw stones at the farmers. Sometimes they set dogs on them. A few days ago, a villager was shot dead.

On the wooded slopes below the settlement of Tappuah, one Palestinian farmer, Hekmat Abdul Rahman, only feels confident enough to continue with the harvest because he and his workers are accompanied by activists from a group called Rabbis for Human Rights.

The settlers told Palestinians: 'Go away, this is not your land, this is ours'
David Nir,
Rabbis for Human Rights
"We can't come here," says Hekmat. "This is our land, but when any one of us came to here, they came. They bring dogs."

Hekmat strikes an olive tree with a stick, scattering olives on the dusty red earth. "They do like this. They damaged everything here."

Vigilante group

Further up the hill, two police jeeps are stationed between the olive groves and the settlement. The police are well-armed, with handguns and automatic weapons.

The settlers may be watching what's going on from their observation tower, but while the police are here it seems, they won't make an appearance.

Israeli police take down a harassment complaint from Hekmat Abdul Rahman with Tappuah settlment on the horizon (photo by Alon Farago)
Israeli police are meant to keep the farmers and the settlers apart
One of the activists, David Nir, is giving the police a report on the latest attacks. There has been a whole series of incidents since the harvest started earlier this month.

"Two days ago in another village, there came a group of about 12-13 settlers and they beat up the Palestinians with sticks and the settlers told them: 'Go away, this is not your land, this is ours'," he said.

The entrance to Tappuah is guarded by an Israeli soldier. He rolls back a heavy iron gate to let in visitors.

The settlement is a collection of about 150 single-storey modern houses. Down a dirt track on the edge of the village is a cluster of buildings with a sign which reads Jewish Brigade Dog Compound.

The Jewish Brigade is a vigilante group which has been investigated by the police for setting up illegal road blocks, in order to search Palestinian vehicles for bombs. They say the dogs they train are for patrol work and home protection.

Good relations

Further along the track is the outpost which overlooks the olive groves. A couple of beaten-up portable cabins and a chicken coop surround the watch tower.

A policeman is lying on the roof of his jeep, looking down the hillside through a telescopic sight. Otherwise the place is deserted.

Chairman of Tappuah settlement council Hillel Yitzhak (photo by Alon Farago)
Hillel Yitzhak says settlers want good relations
The chairman of the village council, Hillel Yitzhak, is taking tea on his veranda. He has been here for 26 years, ever since the settlement was founded.

He says he doesn't know who is responsible for harassing the olive farmers. Most people in the settlement would like to have good relations with the local Palestinians, Mr Yitzhak says.

"People come and go more or less as they wish. I can take responsibility for 99% of the people here. Maybe there's 1% who I can't," he says.

"A few days ago there was an incident, and we checked it out and we find out that it's someone who came from outside the settlement."

Mr Yitzhak says he blames the politicians on both sides for stirring up bad feelings.

Rabbis for Human Rights continues to file daily reports on the violence and intimidation, here and elsewhere in the northern West Bank.

The police and the activists have only limited personnel and resources. With more than a month to go, it's shaping up to be a difficult harvest.

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