You reap what you sow

A day olive picking for Human Rights opened my eyes to how Palestinian farmers feel about the ongoing conflict.

olive harvest 88 (photo credit: )
olive harvest 88
(photo credit: )
I don't get up at five o'clock for love or money. Love, because it can wait until a more suitable hour of the morning; money, because I've got enough to see me through till at least lunchtime most days, so it's hardly on my mind at such an inopportune hour. However, since we'd signed up for this trip to harvest olives with Rabbis for Human Rights, we found ourselves trudging through the park at just such an ungodly hour. Wondering what the rabbis would make of the way our human rights had been so cruelly compromised by being forced up so early, I scowled my way to the minibus and the gaggle of well-meaning souls gathered around it. We got our briefing - I paid scant attention to the words being spoken - it was all pretty obvious, I reckoned. Turn up, pick olives, don't fight with settlers, don't throw rocks at the soldiers, try not to get kidnapped by Hamas militants, go home. That turned out to be the long and short of it, and we bundled aboard the bus, iPods on, eyes closed - and woke up in a Palestinian village called Turmusiya near the settlement of Shiloh. Once there, we were herded onto the back of a pickup truck which drove us at breakneck speed towards the olive groves. As we flew over the rock-strewn road, literally clinging on for dear life, I began pining for my pinstriped days in the Square Mile. However, the sun was shining brightly in the sky, the self-righteousness was brimming in our hearts, so I cast aside any feelings of recherch de temps perdu, and got stuck in. After all, the olives weren't going to pick themselves. And, it turned out, the Palestinian farmers weren't going to pick them either. Which left only us. Feeling like a Chinese cockle-picker, albeit on terra firma and nowhere near Morecambe Bay, it occurred to me that the whole thing could just be a front for a bit of free labour. As the morning progressed, and the much-touted hordes of marauding settlers failed to materialise, I started to believe in my cynical theory. The army were doing their job, just as Amir Peretz had promised they would - sitting on a nearby hill, protecting us, ensuring the harvest could proceed unimpeded. We picked olives for two hours, quickly learning the tricks of the trade from those farmers who could be bothered to join in, and then we were summoned to eat breakfast. The whole of the extended family who owned the crops sat down under a tree, where a veritable feast had been laid out for us. Or, to clarify, for the menfolk at least. The women were relegated to their own circle, with a distinctly less mouthwatering array of dishes to eat. The food was pretty standard farmer fare - breads, salads, dips - but the cheese was something else. Deep-fried and salted to perfection, I would gladly have handed them over Jerusalem and the outer suburbs in return for a couple of kilos of this manna from heaven. Which is why it's pretty lucky I'm not involved in final-status negotiations on the Israeli people's behalf. We worked and chatted with the Palestinians in equal measure until about one o'clock. The only worry was the threat of settler attack, which - whilst none occurred when we were there - evidently had taken place countless times before. We were taken to see evidence of hacked-down trees, plus the well that the farmers had dug and the settlers had apparently defiled soon after. It was a case of preaching to the converted, however - we needed no convincing that those settlers who took the law into their own hands merited nothing but contempt. It is beyond me how seemingly religious people such as our settler friends can justify the wanton destruction of other people's property in such a way - it goes against all of our teachings and moral codes. But that, as I said, was a given - hence we had all given up our time to come and aid the Palestinians in gathering their crops before the settlers could come to disrupt the harvest. What turned out to colour my day indelibly, however, was nothing to do with the settlers and their actions. Instead, a 10 year-old's t-shirt ended up being the focal point of the time I spent in the fields - and did nothing to convince me to come back and help out again. As we took another unnecessary break from picking olives, Nic, Josh and I found ourselves quickly surrounded by six of the family's children. The self-styled leader of the kids was a cocky, confident boy of ten - proudly sporting a Hamas t-shirt as he spoke of his admiration for Hassan Nasrallah. He then boasted of how he threw stones at soldiers, before declaring that all Jews are bad, though found it hard to say to our faces that he tarred us with the same brush. Out of the mouths of babes, indeed. For all the polish and slick presentation of the older generation of his clan - singing their desire for peace with us, calling us "brothers" and so on, the words of their offspring spoke volumes. As did the fact that the parents had decided to allow their son to wear such a provocative t-shirt as this, when they knew a truckload of Israelis were coming to give up their time and help them with their work. Akin to my parents letting me wear an NF hoodie in front of a black family who'd come to help us clean for Pesach. Whilst the actions, and lack of basic respect, of one particular family hardly represent Palestinians as a whole, it left a bitter taste in our mouths - Nic and I had the impression we'd been "mugged off" - effectively working for the same people who voted in a party bent on our destruction. A mitzvah's a mitzvah - I'd have done it all again the next day - but the recipients weren't looking so good in our eyes as we discussed our feelings later on. Once we'd finished our work, we went to meet the other volunteers in a field a couple of miles away. They were ensconced in some serious picking - a far more professional operation than the one we'd been fortunate enough to end up in, and we watched in awe at the speed of branch plucking that was occurring. When they'd finished, we got word that the third group were embroiled in a stand-off with a group of settlers who were accusing them of trespassing on settlement land. We rushed over in our bus to bolster the numbers, a frisson of excitement present that there could be imminent action, but the police had already intervened and defused the situation. Spitting blood, our comrades boarded our bus, recounting tales of gun-toting settlers swaggering around, harassing the farmers and making their lives a misery. I didn't doubt them for a minute, but when Josh told them the tale of the boy in the Hamas t-shirt, one of the more vocal women on the bus said "Well, if they'd seen the settlers' behaviour today, it would have turned anyone into a Hamas supporter." Which summed it all up. Apparently one swallow makes a summer with this lot - and it's perfectly acceptable to the casual observer for kids to sport t-shirts of a party dedicated to Israel's destruction, on the back of an unfortunate verbal run-in with a couple of bad apples from the settler side. A bit too trite for my liking, a bit overly sympathetic, a bit over the top. But, to be honest, the settlers aren't my people, the radical left aren't either. I'd just come to up, down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton (or olives) - and leave the rabble-rousing to the others on the bus.