Al-Lubban Ash-Sharqiya, West Bank – With a canvas tarp and a bucket in tow, the Daraghmehs surround one of the many olive trees dotting the family’s small parcel of land, plucking the green fruit in the early morning hours. For this Palestinian family of seven, the olive harvest has become a seasonal ritual passed down from one generation to the next.
Perched on one of its branches, 17-year-old Jalal freed a handful of olives and dropped them onto the tarp, each making a thumping sound as it hit the earth. The day moves by quietly. But the family said the serenity marking this fall morning in the village of Al-Lubban Ash-Sharqiya is an anomaly. For weeks on end, Khalid Daraghmeh, the family’s patriarch, and his eldest son, Jamal, have been in and out of Israeli prisons, following a series of attacks by Israeli settlers.
“We have been beaten and wrestled to the ground by settlers on numerous occasions,” said Khalid Daraghmeh, also known as Abu Jamal. “When they come, they don’t spare us or the plants or animals.” Abu Jamal said the settlers have thus far killed four of his dogs, uprooted 350 seedlings, and removed the irrigation system of pipes used to water the plants. On one occasion, settlers stripped naked and dipped themselves in another well used for drinking, he said.
The Daraghmeh home is surrounded by freshly-paved roads leading up to the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Levona, one of three bordering their land. The village, located some 30km south of Nablus, lies adjacent to Route-60, the primary north-south road that runs through the West Bank.
‘I’m not going anywhere’
“They asked to buy my land on several occasions,” Abu Jamal said. “But this land is mine and I’m not going anywhere.” Large rocks peppering his land stand as testament to the number of times they have been hurled by settlers, he said.
Two months earlier, a group of some 30 settlers attacked them in their home, recalled Taghreed, Abu Jamal’s wife. The settlers took the door off its hinges and beat her children 13-year-old Mo’men, and her youngest, Nour, only 10, she said.
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“As I tried to protect the children, one of the settler men hit me on my shoulder with a stick, punched me in the chest and then tore out part of my Abaya (cloak),” Taghreed added. “When he started shooting in the air, the children began to cry. Luckily the ambulance arrived at the moment. Then the soldiers came and took away Jalal and Abu Jamal for trying to protect us. The settlers claimed they hit them.”
The Daraghmeh home, an old stone structure dating back to Ottoman times and passed down from Abu Jamal’s grandfather, is also where Taghreed gave birth to her son Jamal.
Born and raised in Caracas, Taghreed came to Palestine when she married Abu Jamal. “My kids and I all have Venezuelan passports,” she said. “But you’ll never catch us even thinking of leaving this place. We don’t want our land to be given to the settlers. We’re only here for the sake of our land.”
Settler attacks have been on the rise since the olive harvest started at the beginning of October. They have become so frequent they prompted a senior United Nations envoy to condemn them and call on Israel to bring those responsible to justice.
“I am alarmed at recent reports that Israeli settlers in the West Bank have repeatedly attacked Palestinian farmers and destroyed hundreds of their olive trees at the height of the harvest season,” said Robert Serry, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.
The Palestine Centre, a research organisation based in Washington DC, recorded a 39 per cent increase in settler violence from 2010, and a 315 per cent increase since 2007. These include physical attacks, harassment, vandalism, and trespass.
This year alone, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that settlers were guilty of vandalising more than 7,500 trees. And according to the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem, Israel has uprooted 1.2 million Palestinian olive trees since 1967.
According to an Israeli spokesperson, “The Israeli army sees the harvest as a very important event that is beneficial for Palestinians in the West Bank, so the army does its utmost to ensure the harvest goes smoothly.”
The spokesperson added that the Israeli government had “dispatched its forces across the West Bank to ensure the security of those involved in the harvest.”
The olive oil industry is of paramount importance for Palestinians, making up 14 per cent of the agricultural income of the Palestinian Territories and supporting the livelihoods of approximately 80,000 families.
In addition to settler attacks, the olive industry specifically, and the agricultural sector at large, is affected by a stringent permit system that prevents thousands from accessing their land for most of the year and during the harvest. Often permits are awarded for very short periods of time, or when they are finally issued, they come too late. According to the UN, in 2011, 42 per cent of applications for permits to access olive groves behind the wall submitted prior to the harvest season were rejected, compared to 39 per cent in 2010.
“Cultivating our land is an act of steadfastness and peaceful resistance. Helping has always been a part of our culture and it is slowly being depleted. We are trying to revive it through acts like these.“
– Mahmoud Hriebat, Ramallah resident
“Tens of thousands of olive field trees are either behind the wall or close to settlements and therefore inaccessible without a permit,” said Walid Assaf, the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Agriculture. “They are rarely given, and only for a few days. But even then farmers are attacked by settlers under the watchful eye of the Israeli army,” he said. According to Assaf, the ministry has documented 83 attacks on Palestinian farmers during this year’s olive harvest across the West Bank.
Frequent settler attacks have prompted groups of Palestinians and foreigners to fan out across the West Bank, helping families crop their harvests and acting as a deterrent to settler attacks. Today, a busload of supporters from Ramallah arrived at Al-Lubban Ash-Sharqiya to help the Daraghmehs with their harvest and cultivation of their land.
Palestinians from Haifa, Acre and Jaffa tended to the land, removed large rocks and planted seedlings, following instructions from Abu Jamal. Others hailing from countries as far as China were busy clearing weeds.
Matt Reed, a 22-year-old Briton, said he is a friend of the Daraghmehs and regularly comes to help them. “Jalal and his dad have been arrested at least four times and they are often slapped with bails as high as 20,000 NIS ($5,000),” he said. Even though Reed said he believed an international presence is important during the harvest time, he acknowledged that settlers aren’t always deterred. In fact, he said there had been three settler attacks on the Daraghmehs when foreigners were around.
Mahmoud Hriebat, a 29-year-old man from Ramallah, said he had heard about the plight of Abu Jamal and his family and was adamant to lend a helping hand. “Cultivating our land is an act of steadfastness and peaceful resistance,” he said. “Helping has always been a part of our culture and it is slowly being depleted. We are trying to revive it through acts like these.”
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @DaliaHatuqa