IDF mobilises as fears over olive wars grow

Umm Yasser Abu Kharmah, 73, picks olives near Ramallah this month

Umm Yasser Abu Kharmah, 73, picks olives near Ramallah this month

The IDF is deploying unprecedented forces in the West Bank to ensure that this year’s olive harvest can be carried out smoothly.

In past years, violent clashes have broken out between settlers and Palestinians over the right to pick olives around some of the settlements.

This year, the Defence Ministry’s civil administration in the West Bank has mapped out the ownership of all olive groves near settlements which are classified as “flash points”. A mobile battalion-sized security team of Border Police and the Special Patrol Unit has been formed to secure the area.

The olive season stretches between Succot and Chanucah, but the civil administration is allocating each Palestinian owner two or three days in which their groves are protected. Some of the Palestinians have complained that this is too short, a complaint echoed by civilian organisations helping out with the olive season, chiefly Rabbis for Human Rights.

The civil administration has promised additional “secure” days where the need arises.

“We have made sure that our force is very visible near the settlements, so they can see we mean business,” said the head of the civil administration in the Nablus area, Lt Col Fares Atila. “So far, there have been no problems.”

The Yitzhar settlement, which is surrounded on all sides by olive groves, has previously been a flashpoint. Two weeks ago, the IDF parked two armoured trucks by the junction leading up to Yitzhar, signalling, according to the officers, that anyone trying to disturb the olive-picking would automatically be arrested. Major General Gadi Shamni, the commander of Central Command, also signed military orders closing the olive groves to Israeli civilians for the next three months.

The settlers in the area reacted with disdain. Ittai Zar, leader of the Havvat Gilad outpost, the first area in which the olive-picking began, said that “this security operation is without any proportion. If they had used all these resources for our security, the murder of Jews could have been averted.”

Yossi Dagan, spokesman of the Binyamin settlers’ committee, said that “the olive season has become high-season for inciting against the settlers by Jewish and foreign far-left activists, who are the real reason for the clashes. The hysterical security operation is totally unnecessary, instead 15 far-left and anarchist activists should be removed from the area.”

It is not only during picking season that the olive groves are a point of contention. Over the last year, following every outpost eviction in the West Bank, settler groups exacted what they called “price tags” by setting Palestinian agricultural areas alight. According to the civil administration, around 450 olive trees were damaged in these events.

    Last updated: 6:03pm, October 22 2009