Israel — Thick black smoke billows from the olive grove under the gaze of Israeli soldiers as Palestinian farmers use branches to try to beat out the fires lit by Jewish settlers.
It’s olive harvest time in the occupied West Bank.
The firebombers swooped down from Havat Gilad, a wildcat Jewish settlement unauthorised even by the Israeli government.
Encircled by barbed wire, the makeshift dwellings glower down on the surrounding Palestinian olive plantations from a hilltop in the northern West Bank.
“We were gathering the olives when the settlers arrived. One of them started a fire,” says olive grower Shaher Tawil.
He points to a bearded man wearing a T-shirt and a Jewish kippa or skullcap, now safely behind an Israeli military barrier.
“When we saw the flames, we called the fire service but the soldiers wouldn’t let them come any closer to prevent clashes with the settlers,” the old man says.
The young Israeli conscripts, visibly embarrassed and restricted by their uniforms in the oppressive midday heat, finally let the fire-truck through after about an hour, by which time the flames have already been well-fanned by the wind.
At last the fires are put out, as again the soldiers look on.
Tawil says that last week settlers from Havat Gilad harvested the fruit of 800 trees belonging to his family.
“Every year they steal our olives and burn our trees,” he says.
The Havat Gilad settlers are among the most hardline in the West Bank and believe they have a God-given right to land they know by its Biblical name of Samaria.
For them, the villagers in whose midst they have set up home are not “Palestinians” with a right to a state alongside Israel but “Arabs” who are interlopers on Biblical Jewish land.
The settlers are wont to quote a saying by one of their spiritual and ideological gurus, the late rabbi Mordechai Elyahu.
“This land is the birthright of the people of Israel. If a gentile plants a tree on my land, the tree and its fruit are mine.”
A few hours earlier, in the village of Azmut near the northern West Bank city of Nablus, a group of youths from the settlement of Elon Moreh, four kilometres (two and a half miles) away, dispersed Palestinian olive harvesters with shots in the air, witnesses said.
The settlers said they had come under attack first.
“We began the harvest at 7 am. At 9 am while we were having breakfast, they turned up with these automatic weapons,” said Pauline Marechal, a 57-year-old Frenchwoman.
“They began firing in the air. The children were screaming and crying. The settlers were chanting: ‘Out. Out’,” said Marechal, an activist with the Palestinian solidarity group, Darna, which helps villagers with the olive harvest each October.
“Every year, it’s the same thing,” she said. “They come with their ladders and their tea urns and they steal the olives.”
A report released by aid organisation Oxfam on Friday said attacks and other acts of harassment by Jewish settlers against Palestinian olive farmers “are common and often increase during the time of the harvest.”
The group said that the olive sector, “which contributes up to 100 million dollars (71.4 million euros) in yearly income for some of the poorest Palestinian communities, could bring a brighter future for the Palestinian economy, provided its full potential is realised.”
It said that about 45 percent of farmland in the West Bank and Gaza is given over to olive cultivation, with approximately 10 million trees.
The Israeli army says it does all it can to protect Palestinian olive growers. So far this year there have been no casualties at least. But neither have the police made any arrests.