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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006, 08:39 GMT 09:39 UK
Olive harvest sparks tensions
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Jerusalem

Members of the Abdul Rahman family harvest olives (photo by Alon Farago)
Some Palestinians fear going to the groves on their own
Before dawn, Kanaan al-Jamal, 38, hauls his two young children from their beds and along with his wife they set off to tend the olive groves close to their home.

In olive groves dotted across the rolling West Bank, Palestinian farmers are preparing for the harvest: pruning the trees, collecting spoilt olives, and preparing ground sheets under the trees to catch the fruit.

But the Palestinian farmers are also preparing for violent clashes.

"It's a difficult time," says Mr Jamal, referring to the harvest. "But the olive tree is part of our religion; it is part of our culture."

During the olive picking season, tensions run high between Jewish settlers and the Israeli military on the one hand, and Palestinian farmers on the other.

Access Problems

Many of the West Bank's olive groves lie close to Jewish settlements and there are frequent clashes between the two sides.

For years settlers have been attacking Palestinian farmers and chopping down their trees.

But this olive picking season is set to be different, insists the Israeli army.

The military has finally realised that it has to offer protection to Palestinian farmers

A two-year court battle led by human rights groups now means that the Israeli army is required to beef up its protection of Palestinian olive farmers and allow them full access to their lands.

Palestinian farmers often require a permit from the army to visit their lands which lie close to Jewish settlements.

Last month, Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz announced that anyone interfering or harassing the farmers during the picking season would be dealt with severely.

Israeli Human rights groups are praising the move but say more needs to be done.

"I think the military has finally realised that it will have to offer some protection for the Palestinian farmers," says Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem.

"But access often depends on commanders in local areas and on a day-to-day basis."

Israeli police take down a complaint from Hekmat Abdul Rahman with Tappuah settlement on the horizon
Israeli police try to keep the farmers and the settlers apart

Mr Jamal, however, says that the Israeli army frequently prevents farmers from his town of Assera Shamiliya - located 5km north of Nablus - reaching their land.

"They say we have to co-ordinate with them," he says. "But it's impossible and it often takes days to get a permit. We don't bother. Why should we? It's our land."

Mr Jamal says that Israeli soldiers riding in military jeeps often appear in the town's groves. The soldiers fire tear gas and live bullets and bark at the villagers through loudspeakers to leave the area, he says.

Bumper Harvest

Some human rights groups accompany the Palestinian farmers to their groves to ensure they can gather their harvest.

Rabbi Ascherman, co-director of Rabbis for Human Rights, insists that the presence of his group helps the Palestinians negotiate with the army and ward off attacks by Jewish settlers.

"But the ideal situation would be if we didn't need to be there," he says. "The ideal situation would be if the farmers could just harvest in peace."

For Mr Jamal and his family the coming weeks mean earlier mornings and harder work. But this is only the start, he says.

Problems arise when Palestinian farmers try and sell their produce because transport restrictions in the West Bank.

"When we start trying to sell the olives it's a whole new battle with the Israeli authorities," says Mr Jamal.

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