As Olive Harvest Begins, Israeli Soldiers Prevent Palestinians From Reaching Their Groves

I reproduce without comment an article in Haaretz by Amira Hass, dated 17 October 2021

Amira Hass

When it isn’t the settlers who try to directly disrupt Palestinians’ olive picking, it’s the Israeli army that prevents it from taking place

Israeli soldiers detaining Mohammed al-Khatib, who had come with others to harvest olives, near Salfit in the West Bank.Credit: Matan Golan

Mohammed al-Khatib from the village of Bil’in uses every opportunity he has to talk to soldiers, in Hebrew. Even after they beat him, laid him on the ground and detained him, even after one of the soldiers imperiously placed his foot on Mohammed’s back, which is what happened last Monday near the West Bank town of Salfit.

“I like talking to young soldiers, explaining the occupation to them,” he said. “‘What do you mean by occupation,’ they ask, ‘you Palestinians can do whatever you like.’ And I tell them: ‘Don’t you believe me that a Palestinian cannot build on his own land? Look it up on the internet. Don’t just listen to your officers.’” He was talking to Haaretz two days after being detained for a much shorter than is usual under the circumstances described below.

Khatib has forgotten how many times he’s been arrested for his activity in the popular committees fighting against the separation barrier. The reason for his arrest this time was picking olives. Groups of volunteers are spreading out across the West Bank these days to help with the olive harvest, especially in areas that are prone to violence by Israelis living in adjacent illegal outposts.

Since the beginning of this year’s harvest season, October 3, until October 16, Israeli citizens in the West Bank have sabotaged the harvest 18 times either by direct physical attacks on farmers, or by cutting and breaking trees or stealing the crops.

Volunteers who came to harvest olives near Salfit in the West Bank found the area taped off and declared a closed military zone.Credit: Matan Golan

Among the volunteers is a group called Faz’a, established a year ago. Khatib was one of its initiators. The group strives to revive the tradition of volunteerism and mutual aid that characterized Palestinian society in the 1970s and ’80s.

When it isn’t the settlers who try to directly disrupt the olive picking, it’s the army that prevents it from taking place. This is what happened last Monday at a grove in the al-Ras area near Salfit, north of the settlement of Ariel. Just over a year ago, an illegal outpost called Nof Avi was established there. Since then, the owners of the grove can only view their plot from a distance. Now that the olives are ripe, volunteers were called to joining the farmers, on the assumption that large numbers would protect the latter from Israeli violence and allow for a speedier completion of the harvest, before the olives might be stolen.

When the volunteers arrived at around 8:30 in the morning, they were surprised to find “a hysterical number of soldiers,” as Israeli activist Gil Hamerschlag told Haaretz. The soldiers stretched a tape between some posts they had driven into the ground. To the tape were attached several notices, in English and Arabic, declaring the area a closed military zone. According to activists who were there, the soldiers did not present them with a signed closure order (this was presented in court the following day). In any case, the activists took care to remain outside the marked area, deciding to walk to the grove from another direction. This too was prevented by the soldiers.

Khatib says that he didn’t expect the area to be closed. “It’s true that on top of the hill there is a settler who has taken over the hill. But we were coming to protect something legal, like olive picking, against something illegal, the violence of settlers. If the army were truly worried about the safety of that settler, why didn’t they place the soldiers around the illegal structures of the outpost? Why prevent the olive picking? It all revolves around a decision by the commander.

“The previous day we picked olives in the groves of Beita. For that we had to go through an outpost [Evyatar]. The army didn’t bother us and there were no problems. In other words, the decision about whether there is quiet or not is in the hands of the military commander. We come to pick olives; we’re not interested in tensions. It’s not a provocation, but we refuse to coordinate with the army in advance in order to reach a private grove, only because a settler has taken over Palestinian land. Because of this one outpost, the land has not been ploughed all year in that grove; it’s full of thorns.”

Khatib arrived there a bit late, saying that he didn’t see the tape marking off the “closed military zone.” He saw soldiers denying access and joined the other activists. Khatib, who studied law, says that during his detention “one officer told me that if there is a closure order, that means it’s Israeli land. He knows nothing about the law. What logic! The settler is the one breaking the law, I’m abiding by it, and you claim that I’m the transgressor.”

Volunteers who came to harvest olives near Salfit in the West Bank found the area taped off and declared a closed military zone.Credit: Matan Golan 

Even though the activists moved away, the soldiers approached them and started pushing them. “I argued with the officer: ‘Why are you pushing us? I have a right to pick olives.’ I heard a junior officer telling the commander that he wanted to arrest two people. He asked for permission and got it. I told them: ‘You can arrest me, but what did I do?’ He said I was under detention. I raised my arms. A few activists came and extricated me, and then a few soldiers pounced on me, maybe five or six, and started beating me. I didn’t feel anything then, but later, in detention, I noticed it was difficult to move my neck. They laid me on the ground facing down, and one of them stepped heavily on my back.” Photographer Matan Golan had the impression that the major, seen in a video running toward the soldier stepping on Khatib, was not pleased with what was happening, and indeed, when he arrived, the foot was taken off Khatib’s back. At this point, the soldiers started lobbing stun grenades at the volunteers.

In responding to Haaretz, the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson stuck to the claim that there had been “a violent disruption of public order near the farm [illegal outpost] of Nof Avi,” and that the volunteers had violated a closure order which was presented to them and had used violence against soldiers. The spokesperson also stated that “the force responded with demonstration-dispersal methods, arresting three suspects. One of them behaved violently toward a soldier and behaved wildly during his arrest, even trying to escape. The soldiers therefore needed to use physical force in order to complete his detention. The conduct of the soldier [who stepped on his back] is unacceptable.”

It was 10 in the morning when soldiers handcuffed Khatib’s hands behind his back, blindfolding him and taking him to the grove, closer to the outpost. Two Israeli detainees, Hammerschlag and activist David Shalev, were already sitting there. Their hands were also cuffed behind their backs but their eyes were uncovered. The two remarked about the different treatment and one of the soldiers removed the blindfold from Khatib’s eyes. After two and a half or three hours, during which the three sat on the ground in handcuffs, soldiers blindfolded all three and put them on a jeep that took them to the nearest police station, in Ariel.

While they were waiting in a detention cell, they heard a police officer talking with one of the soldiers who had arrested them, the only one still there. Their impression was that the officer was instructing the soldier on how to shape the evidence supporting the arrest. Khatib said he stood near the door and heard the police officer explaining to the soldier that violation of a closure is insufficient reason for detention, which is why it should be noted that the Palestinian assaulted the soldiers. Khatib says the soldier said he didn’t assault anyone, only causing a disturbance, and the policeman said that this wasn’t sufficient. Hammerschlag says he heard the officer asking if Khatib had pulled the soldier’s rifle, as a hint of what could be noted in the evidence supporting the arrest (the Judea and Samaria District has not commented on this so far).

An olive harvest volunteer being handcuffed by an Israeli soldier near Salfit in the West Bank, last week.Credit: Matan Golan

After that, the three were split up. The Israelis were taken to Hadarim prison in Israel and Khatib to a detention facility at the military base of Hawara, south of Nablus. Israeli law requires a suspect to be brought before a judge within 24 hours of his arrest. Military law prevailing in the West Bank allows a Palestinian suspect to be held for up to 96 hours without being brought before a judge. In fact, Hammerschlag and Shalev were given the opportunity of being released on some conditions while they were still in Ariel. They refused, claiming they had committed no transgression.

Their refusal to be released immediately made it easier for the lawyer representing the three, Riham Nasra, from the law offices of Michal Pomeranz, to get Khatib released before the 96 hours were up. On Monday afternoon she filed a request for his immediate release, which require the military court’s secretariat to convene a earlier hearing session. This is no trivial matter. Given the abundance of prisoners, attorneys in the West Bank have grown accustomed to a minimum of four days’ detention, without even trying to obtain a release earlier.

On Tuesday, the two Israelis were brought to a court in Petah Tikva. The police asked for an extension of Hammerschlag’s detention and an order prohibiting Shalev from going to the olive grove for 15 days, so that “the investigation could be completed.” Nasra showed a video that proved the detainees’ version. If the soldiers had a video showing the opposite, the police would have been happy to show it. Judge Liat Har Zion concluded that the police could complete its investigation even if the two were released. Nasra immediately sent the minutes to the military court in Salem, in the northern West Bank, drove there and demanded an immediate ruling on Khatib’s release. At 4:30 P.M. a decision was taken to hold a session at 4:45.

Khatib remained at the detention facility in Hawara, participating in the session via video conference. The judge, Lt. Col. Samzar Shagog, said that there was “reasonable grounds to suspect that Khatib had pushed soldiers and tried to enter a closed military zone,” but he released him, with Khatib having to post personal bail amounting to 1,000 shekels ($310).

On Tuesday, at 6:30 P.M., Khatib was released. On Friday and Saturday, he was picking olives in Burin.

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