‘We are not in Israel’: Close encounters at the entrance to the Nokdim Settlement

Palestinian man with the handful of olives left on his trees.

A Palestinian family living in Bethlehem but originally from the village of Jeb al Theeb contacted our group of volunteers asking for help in harvesting olives on their land adjacent to the settlement of Nokdim, home to Israeli FM Avigdor Lieberman. For the past ten years they have been forbidden to access or cultivate the land. We immediately agreed to help and at dawn the following day twelve men from the family, young and old, came for the five of us. They showed us a document in Hebrew, dated June 17, 2010, certifying ownership of the property. Equipped with video and digital cameras, we were ready to get involved in helping defend their rights.

As our caravan arrived at their fields, we quickly realized this time would be somewhat different. Unlike past occasions, when the settlements were in view but at a distance, this time we were right in front of the entrance to Nokdim, a long yellow gate with several armed guards on the other side. A continuous flow of settlers passed in and out, and judging from their gaze, they were somewhat surprised to see us. On the land just outside the gate, along the fence of the settlement, the olive trees of our friends were withered dry and neglected. On the hill nearby there was a large outpost with tall trees and permanent as well as temporary housing. In the valley below, yet more outposts.

The enterance to the Nokdim settlement.

We approached the gate explaining to the armed guards we were there to harvest the olives on the land belonging to our friends, showing them the document in Hebrew. One security guard asked, “Is this what you came to Israel to do?” We replied with the obvious, “We’re not in Israel!” We were told to wait while they contacted the military, and in the meantime they began with the usual explanations: “This is our land. It is a closed military zone and you are not allowed access.” One settler on a motorbike exiting the settlement stopped to speak to us and was so infuriated at our presence that his upper lip began to tremble. He said something to the guard in Hebrew and then told us, “I just asked him if I can shoot you.”

Shortly afterwards another settler passed by in his car, lowering the window to speak with us. He asked for our phone number, as he was very interested in setting up a time to meet and talk. It was clear that he saw us as misinformed Europeans do-gooders and wanted to enlighten us on what he believed to be a reality we couldn’t possibly know. He repeatedly referred to ‘the Arabs’, while we stressed that he was in fact speaking of Palestinians. “These Arabs don’t understand that I decided to live here because this is the land of my ancestors. And you people don’t know what you’re talking about. You come here from Italy and do not even speak Arabic. But I know the Arabs. I often go to their houses for coffee.” At this point we objected, “You also live on their land. And the state of Israel uses violence, weapons and military force against the Palestinians.” End of discussion. The settler put his car in gear and sped off.

Tired of waiting around for permission to access their own land, together with the Palestinians we headed toward the olive trees. Just then the IDF arrived. Three of our volunteers, along with most of the Palestinians, were stopped immediately, while the rest of us continued to the fields.

As we proceeded along the dirt road to the olive trees, a car with a family of settlers stopped to ask where we were going. When we told them, the woman replied sarcastically and sardonically: “Hmmm. OK … though I don’t think you’re going to find many olives. Anyway, good luck!” Predictions of a limited harvest were repeated again and again, also by the settlement guards, as if the settlement had nothing to do with it.

Once we reached the trees, we realized that finding any olives at all to harvest was going to indeed be a challenge. We nonetheless began checking the trees but there were simply none to be found. Two IDF soldiers came over and began speaking with the Palestinians. We joined them but were told to go back to the road where the others had been stopped or risk arrest. We stalled as long as possible, not wanting to leave the Palestinians, until they themselves suggested we go back. They continued to speak with the soldiers for a short while, until, they, too, were forced to return near the gate. One of the older men, visibly distraught, showed us a handful of olives, all that he had managed to pick, the only ones left.

By this time, there were a dozen soldiers as well as settlers and settlement guards, all of them armed and chatting together. Two soldiers, asking us to stand back, informed the Palestinians that the document showing ownership of the property would be recognized as valid only if accompanied by a map indicating the precise location of the property, complete with an official stamp from the Israeli authorities. Another tactic in preventing the Palestinians from accessing their own land, as they are forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops, while being suspected of being so devious as to risk arrest attempting to harvest a handful of olives from land they do not own.

Back at our house we offered them tea and continued to talk about the incident, making arrangements to meet again as soon as they had their papers in order, ready to support them in their steadfast defense of their rights.

Israeli soldiers stop the Palestinians from accessing their land.

The Volunteers of the Harvesting Peace Project

Harvesting Peace is an Italian civilian peace intervention project in Palestine to support the olive harvest and the work of Popular Struggle Coordination Committee (www.popularstruggle.org). The project is promoted by Service Civil International – Italy, Association for Peace and Un Ponte Per. Volunteers will be providing international accompaniment for four weeks in the village of Jeb al Theeb near Bethlehem, under threat by the nearby illegal settlements and settlers. raccogliendolapace.wordpress.com

About Stephanie Westbrook

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