In the West Bank, a quieter form of oppression has been plaguing Palestinians for a long time. Their olive groves are surrounded by soldiers, and it's forbidden to harvest the olives – this economic and social violence has gotten far worse since Oct. 7.
HEBRON – It was after Friday prayers on October 13th of last year, and Zakaria al-Arda was walking along the road that crosses his property's hillside to return home – but he never made it.
A settler from Havat Ma'on — an outpost bordering Al-Tuwani that the United Nations International Law and Israeli law considers illegal — descended from the hill with his rifle in hand.
After kicking al-Arda, who tried to defend himself, the settler shot him in the abdomen. The bullet pierced through his stomach, a few centimeters below the lungs. Since then, al-Arda has been in the hospital in intensive care. A video of those moments clearly shows that neither al-Arda nor the other worshippers leaving the mosque were carrying any weapons.
The victim's cousin, Hafez Hureini, still lives in the town of Al-Tuwani. He is a farmer, and their house on the slope of the town is surrounded by olive trees — and Israeli soldiers. On the pine tree at the edge of his property, settlers have planted an Israeli flag. Today, Hafez lives, like everyone else, as an occupied individual.
He cannot work in his greenhouse, cannot sow his fields, and cannot harvest the olives from his precious olive trees.
Rooted to the land
"It's for security, they tell us, but we haven't done anything wrong, we haven't threatened anyone," says Hureini. "What security are they talking about, whose security? We are unarmed, they are armed. We live on our land, they want us to leave. They are protected by the army, we are ignored."
Hureini is afraid to walk on his own land, the little that remains for his family that owned thousands of hectares before 1967. Hureini doesn't want anything back. He doesn't want weapons to defend himself. He would just like to live in peace, free, on what he has left.
The olive trees represent what remains
But today, he lives cloistered in his home, watching the soldiers watching the hills — and the soldiers watch him back. The olives he should have already harvested are rotting under their trees. He uses the word "violence" to describe what's been inflicted on his land, on his olive grove.
This is a violence inflicted on dozens of communities of farmers, not only against something that offers them a living, but of sharing a moment of the autumn harvest, which is an intimate, private gesture that marks the Palestinians' connection to their land.
"The olive trees represent what remains, even if they drive us away from them," Hureini "They can forbid us from tending to them, burn them as they like to do. But the olive trees' roots of are here, like ours."
Olive trees are also the most important product in the West Bank, and this year, according to Abbas Milhem of the Union of Palestinian Farmers, they should have yielded $70 million, but the harvest has been banned almost everywhere, with dramatic consequences for some 100,000 farmers who live off the fruit of their land.
In past years, the olive harvest was coordinated by local Palestinian authorities and the Israeli army. Agreements included a schedule of specific dates when Palestinian farmers could reach their lands, harvest the olives, and work the land. In many communities south of Hebron, the dates when work was permitted this year were scheduled just a few days before the attack on October 7th. An attack that changed everything.
Since then, all permit requests have been rejected. The farmers who tried to reach their crops anyway were attacked by settlers. Most were left without work.
June 3, 2013 - Nablus, West Bank, Palestinian Territory - Palestinians try to put out fire in an olive grove which witnesses say Jewish settlers from Yitzhar settlement had set fire to.
Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, has documented 99 settler attacks against Palestinian farmers in recent weeks. Last year, there were 38. In 18 cases, according to the organization, it was the soldiers themselves who prevented the harvest. One of these cases saw a farmer shot and killed by an off-duty soldier, who was immediately released and resumed service a few days later.
The failed harvests are another source of tension in the West Bank that has been around for years. But it has been greatly exacerbated in recent weeks, after the start of the war, after it had been growing worse during the first months of Netanyahu's far-right government.
At the beginning of last month, Netanyahu, who fueled the expansion of settlements in the West Bank during his long years of leadership, condemned the violence of the settlers, saying that a handful of extremists were damaging the country's reputation.
However, it was one of his most controversial ministers, Bezalel Smotrich, supported by settler communities, who led a campaign to prevent the olive harvest under the pretext of security. In a letter to Netanyahu, Smotrich publicly requested to ban Palestinians from harvesting olives near settlements in the West Bank, urging the government to create full-proof security areas around communities and roads to prevent Arabs from entering. The echo of Smotrich's project quickly spread in far-right WhatsApp groups.
The settlers have a clear goal: to expel Palestinian residents from the West Bank.
About ten days ago, Israeli newspaperHaaretzreported a message from one of these groups: 'Attention, this is not a harvest, this is the next murder. On Route 505, 200 meters east of the Migdalim junction, the "harvesters" are a few meters from the road.'
The message included a location that provided the exact place where right-wing extremists believed they had spotted Palestinians harvesting olives.
Impunity towards the actions of the settlers prompted U.S. President Biden, last October, to declare that the United States was considering the possibility of denying visas to violent settlers.
During the latest meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also reiterated the call for urgent measures to curb the violence of extremists. These settlers have a clear goal: to expel Palestinian residents from the West Bank, pushing for formal annexation from Israel.
The most radical wing of these groups, the movement known as The Youth of the Hill, believes it is their right to be in the West Bank, that no one else is entitled to this land, and that Palestinians must leave, by force if necessary.
Sep. 5, 2011 - Nablus, West Bank - Israeli soldiers patrol in a field as villagers try to extinguish fires in a olive grove and fields which according to the local Palestinian villagers was started by settlers
A bulldozer arrives
Mohamed Abdelrahman Al Jabareem is a 49-year-old farmer. He used to live in relative peace in the village of She’b Al-Batem, until the day he saw a new Israeli outpost being installed on the hill in front of his house. Then his troubles began.
One night, the settler living in the outpost walked from the top of the hill to Mohamed's home and destroyed the irrigation pipes. Mohamed drove him away, but a week later, the settler returned and destroyed his water tank. Calling the police did nothing except provoke more anger.
Five days later, the armed settler returned with four others, beating Mohamed and breaking three of his ribs. Before leaving, they said, "If we come back and find you here again, we'll kill everyone."
So Mohamed sent his wife and children away, and like many other Palestinian farming communities in the area, he began taking shifts guarding the land. Still, it wasn't enough. Two weeks ago, the group of settlers returned with a bulldozer and demolished his house.
Today, Mohamed is without water and therefore without work. Nothing remains of his farm. He is far from his family, who live safely around Ramallah. But he can't bring himself to say he is without a home.
That's why every day, he walks on the rough terrain of the hills of Hebron, among the stones and rocks that he knows by heart, organizing what's left. He looks out of the glassless window and watches the settler on the other side of the hill living next to the water tank in the outpost, which is a step away from a new settlement.
"All that remains for him is to take away this scrap of land," Mohamed says. "But it's mine, and I won't leave."