Palestinian olive harvesters from the West Bank village of Kufr Kalil, escorted by security forces and members of Rabbis for Human Rights, spent a quiet morning in their orchards on Wednesday, one day after they were threatened by soldiers who chased them back to their homes.
"It was very quiet today," Rabbi Arik Ascherman, head of the human rights organization, told The Jerusalem Post. "The army and police did their jobs."
Wednesday's harvesters belonged to one extended family that owns 50 dunams of orchards near the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha and a neighboring illegal outpost. According to Ascherman, since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, family members have either been beaten or their olives stolen before they had the chance to pick them.
Last year, the harvest was lost to bad weather.
This year, the family decided to pick their olives early, to prevent them from being stolen again. They began work on Saturday. The harvest is not due to begin in most areas of the West Bank until after the fast of Ramadan and Id el-Fitr at the end of October.
Ascherman is cautiously optimistic that the Palestinians will be able to harvest their entire produce in light of a High Court ruling handed down several months ago ordering the army to provide protection for the harvesters, who have frequently been beaten by Jewish settlers who claim the Palestinians are coming too close to their homes.
"The commanders with whom I've spoken are very aware of the High Court ruling," said Ascherman. "But I'm still not sure that they can enforce it."
Regarding Tuesday's incident in which soldiers chased away the harvesters, Ascherman said "it shows that even when we make arrangements with senior officers, these things can still happen with soldiers in the field."
Khaled Jneidi, head of the Palestinian Olive Council, was upbeat about this year's harvest. "I feel there is a genuine desire to get through the season smoothly, as well as possible and not like in previous years," he told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview.
According to Jneidi, the fact that the separation fence has cut off many villages from their orchards on the "Israeli" side caused many problems in the past. For example, the olive harvesters do not necessarily own the land on which the trees grow. In the past, the army has not allowed these harvesters through the fence gates. This year, in the Jenin area, an agreement was reached whereby the village council granted a document to the harvester attesting to the fact that he had the right to harvest the trees. The certificate was also stamped by the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture and the area commander.
Jneidi said he hoped to extend this arrangement to the Tulkarm area in the coming days.
Jneidi said he was not happy with the support of Israeli human rights activists. "I don't want too much hoopla," he said. "I want [the settlers] to get used to seeing the harvesters come with their children, without people from Tel Aviv. I want things to be natural. The harvest should be a festive occasion. I don't want to see one flag or another being waved."
According to the agreement hammered out in the High Court ruling, Palestinian olive pickers have the right to harvest their trees wherever they are located. However, the army has designated certain areas as "red," where the danger of clashes with neighboring settlers is the most severe. In these cases, the harvesters may only enter with security protection and they must coordinate with the army regarding harvesting days. Other areas are designated as "blue." These are high risk areas where it is preferable but not obligatory for the harvesters to enter with army and police protection. On the other hand, the harvesters are entitled to ask for protection wherever they work.
If they do, they must also coordinate the harvesting days with the security forces.