"Where are we going?" I asked Arik, as we drove out of Jerusalem in his beat up Subaru, with three other volunteers: an older gentleman and a newlywed couple.
I was beginning the New Year of 5769 with a practical mitzva: serving as a "human shield" between Palestinian families, trying to harvest their olive trees in the West Bank, and Israeli settlers, trying to prevent them. My old friend, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, had invited me to come with him - to help in a small grove of trees in the southern West Bank. I hadn't asked for details; scores of volunteers were being assigned daily to olive groves throughout the West Bank - depending on the readiness of Palestinian owners, the weather and the permission of the Israeli Civil Administration. I was happy to be a foot-soldier, and help out wherever I was needed.
"We'll be in Hebron," answered Arik, driving slowly past the Beit Jala checkpoint.
Hebron?! Why hadn't I asked before? A year ago I had visited the old city of Hebron, home of the ancient Tomb of the Patriarchs, burial site of Abraham - the Father claimed by Judaism and Islam. For weeks after, I was haunted by images of humiliation. The Arab bazaar shuttered; Israeli combat soldiers patrolling its eerie, silent streets. Hebrew graffiti, signed with a Star of David - "Policeman, Soldier: I hate you; Death to Traitors" - scrawled on a rusted door. Two Palestinian girls with book bags hurrying to school, heads down under a barrage of foul language from Jewish pupils outside Beit Hadassah. I wondered if I could still get out of the car and go back to Jerusalem.
"We are going to help the Jabari family," Arik continued, as we drove through the rocky hills. "They only have a few olive trees, but their land is next to the fence of the Jewish settlement in Hebron. Only once in the last seven years have they been able to harvest their olives. In other years, the settlers kept them from reaching their trees and took their olives. We are opening the harvest there, so that doesn't happen." As we drove deeper into the Hebron hills, my dread mixed with the joy of a bright, crisp fall day. The clean greens and browns were stunning. The yoreh, first rain, had poured down just two days before, washing the dusty trees and ancient rock terraces after a dry summer, and signaling the start of the olive harvest.
Into my head popped the new jingle of the West Bank settlers' media campaign to convince secular Israelis of their own historic connection to the land of the Bible: "Judea and Samaria - the story of every Jew." Just yesterday in synagogue we had read Genesis 22, about Abraham walking over these Judean hills with his son Isaac, on his way to carry out the divine command: "Take now thy son, thine only son, Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah and offer him there for a burnt offering." Yes, guilt, sacrifice and incomprehensible requests from God were part of every Jew's story. Especially in these hills.
"We want to go in quickly, harvest the olives and leave," Arik continued, as we reached the yellow security gate of Kiryat Arba. "We have informed the Civil Administration of our plans. Under a 2006 High Court order, the police are required to allow the harvest and protect the Palestinians. They don't have to let us help, however. If any settlers come to disturb us, don't interact with them; just keep working. Our goal is to help the Jabaris harvest their olives."
Seeing an Israeli car driven by a bearded rabbi in a knitted kippa, the security guard raised the gate and waved us through. Leaving the biblical landscape behind, we entered a land of well-maintained streets and trim parks, landscaped in the style of any successful development town in Israel. Arik phoned his contact person from the Palestinian-Jewish organization, Ta'ayush.
"They and the Anarchists will be working with us today as well," Arik informed us.
My dread returned. The Rabbis and Ta'ayush were committed to non-violent discipline; but the Anarchists, young Israeli Jews, known for their weekly confrontations with the Border Police, as they protested the route of the separation barrier, might not bow their heads in the face of provocations. I thought of my two teenage boys still sleeping at home, and hoped they would not be getting a call this afternoon to come visit their 52-year-old mother in the hospital.
We passed out of another security gate, bumped over potholes on the main Palestinian road and turned up a steep dirt path into the Jabaris driveway. We were in Hebron.
THE TA'AYUSH leader gave a quick briefing among the brambles outside the Jabari home. Don't answer to provocation, take the phone number of our lawyer's contact person, watch the kids - they'll try to steal the olives. I wanted to ask more questions: what if the police don't protect us, what if there's a mob, how far from here to a hospital? But the group was off - 20 scruffy activists, a few members of the Jabari family, a TV news film crew, and a couple of Palestinian residents of Tel Rumeida - tramping along a run-down stone terrace toward our goal. Six lone olive trees squeezed between the fence of Givat Ha'avot, a Jewish settlement in Hebron, on the hill to our left and the main road to Kiryat Arba on our right. A crow cawing broke the pre-Shabbat quiet of Friday, as we spread worn burlap bags next to a brick path under the trees and began to pick.
In moments, five settlers - women and men - materialized along the path and sauntered over to the trees. One of the Palestinians, a settler and a couple of anarchists whipped out cameras and began filming. Not long ago, the Israeli organization B'tselem had begun providing cameras to Palestinians - to document human rights abuses around their homes in the West Bank. Now the settlers were answering in kind, turning the battle of olives into a battle of narratives. How many anarchists does it take to harvest olives, I thought? Two to pick, and three to document the experience for the BBC.
An Israeli police officer and two helmeted IDF soldiers, carrying M-16s, joined the settlers. Whose side are they on, I wondered, peering out through the olive branches as I picked, trying to make myself busy and invisible. Would they defend the Palestinians' right to pick their trees; or ban them - for security reasons? I stared at the face of one of the young soldiers, standing loosely on the path, expressionless. He couldn't have been more than two years older than my 17-year-old son. Would Shai, due to be drafted next year into the IDF, be standing here next year instead of this boy? How would he behave? I shuddered.
"They're not working, they're filming. They can't stay here!" complained a settler to the soldiers, pointing to some anarchists. No reaction. Fifteen meters away, Arik spoke to the TV reporter. A settler pushed next to him, chanting "Murdererâ€¦ murdererâ€¦ murdererâ€¦ murdererâ€¦" Arik doggedly spoke on. The cameras filmed. More settlers arrived, squeezing in tight among the trees, pressing their bodies close to ours, spraying abuse. "From Auschwitz to Arabs!" A settler thrust his camera in my face. My pulse raced. I continued picking, hoping my face looked calm. Suddenly my pail jumped, slapped from underneath; the olives, painstakingly gathered, spilled on the rocky ground. I whipped around to see a black-bearded man slinking away, a slight smile on his lips. "Hey!" I yelled. No one listened.
Under another tree, a woman with a baby strapped to her breast grabbed the pail of olives held by the newlywed volunteer, and overturned it. Protecting his wife, the young groom removed the woman's hand from the pail. Instantly, settlers swarmed around the couple, pushing, kicking. Scores of police and Border Guards appeared. The newlyweds broke free and fled across the field. A pack of settler men chased the couple to the door of the Jabari home.
Twenty border policemen and police stationed themselves between the settlers and the pickers. "The court says they're allowed to harvest," a policeman growled to a large settler, pushing to get next to our tree. The policeman shifted his body to block the man. I breathed a sigh of relief. "Hey, look out, you'll damage the tree," yelled the meaty settler in a proprietary tone to an anarchist high in the tree, shaking the upper branches. I remembered that the settlers had picked the Jabari's olives for themselves over the last years. A black-haired teenage settler stood, sullen, beneath the tree, watching.
"Homos!" taunted a long-skirted woman in a dusty green head scarf, leaning herself against the gnarled trunk of the tree I was harvesting. A long-haired young man scooped up olives from the burlap on the ground at her feet. "Go back to where you came from!" The young anarchist clenched his jaw and kept his head down. "You have your olives, and we have our children," she wheedled. "In a few years, you will be gone and the right-wing Orthodox will be here! We already have Jerusalem." I felt invaded, claustrophobic; I wanted to smack this woman. "Hey!" I called to the police idling next to us. "Get her out of here!"
"Come along," the policeman chided, escorting her away from the tree. The young black-haired settler tensed his shoulders.
A gray-bearded man, wearing kippa and tzitzit, approached slowly, proclaiming, "Whoever helps Arabs will die this year, God willing!" For a moment our eyes locked; I felt the curse descend on my head, and seep, unwanted, into my body, echoing yesterday's High Holy Day prayers: "On Rosh Hashana it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealedâ€¦ who shall live and who shall dieâ€¦"
I did not come to Hebron to die! I protested silently. The man continued on, circling the five scrawny olive trees we were harvesting, darkly invoking God's name. "Arik, can we leave now?" Reaching for a dusty branch, my hand shook; my adrenaline was draining away. Arik, more principled than I, picked on. Finally, trees bare, he declared our departure. The police stood guard to keep the settlers away from us on our way back to the Jabari home with the olives.
AS THE BOLT to the Jabari's front gate was pushed closed, I took a deep breath. We had succeeded in the olive harvest; the Israeli security forces had, after an initial delay, protected us. We were safe.
Only then, inside the yard, did I find out that the newlywed couple had been taken by the police from the Jabari home, following the settlers' attack, and were being detained at the station in the nearby Jewish settlement in Hebron. One of the anarchists somehow went on-line, and reported that a story had been posted on Israel's leading news Web site, Ynet, of an "attack by a left-wing provocateur" on settlers in Hebron.
As the Jabaris sifted through the meager olive harvest, spread on the bare cement floor, the anarchists sifted through their filmed documentation of the incident, and found footage showing the settlers' attack on our volunteers. Against the advice of the anarchists, who warned that the settlers would stone our car, we drove into the settlement to the police station to deliver the evidence (which had been carefully copied onto a memory stick) and release the couple.
Uneasily, I waited in the car with another volunteer, surveying the quiet street for any sudden movement; ready to duck, or gun the car into motion. Suddenly, the black-haired teenage settler, who had stood silently by my olive tree, approached. His hands were empty, but his eyes darted from side to side. He paused, his face next to the open window. The blood thumped in my ears. "I'm sorry," he mumbled, and slipped away. I stared after him. I wanted to call him back, to make sure I had heard right, but he was gone.
Arik and the newlyweds got into the car. We drove out the Kiryat Arba gate back into the landscape of our forefathers and I realized that, although we had succeeded in helping the Jabaris harvest their olives, the settlers had won this battle of narratives. The woman's words echoed in my head: You have your olives; we have our children. In a few years, you will be gone and we will be here.
I wondered where the silent black-haired youth will be in a few years. If Judea and Samaria are the story of every Jew, we are all living a tragedy.
The writer is a member of the board of directors of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and is working on a book about visions and divisions in Israeli society.
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