KFAR YASSUF, West Bank — The rains have come to wash away the dust of summer from the olives, and so the annual harvest has begun — and with it, another cycle of violence against man and tree.
Mohammad Hamoudah and his wife were picking olives in their grove last week when he saw five or six men darting among the trees, their faces hidden by scarves, carrying sticks and shepherd’s crooks.
“We ran for the car,” said Hamoudah, a Palestinian from this village south of Nablus. The assailants smashed a window with a club. They struck his wife on the leg. “They were savages,” he said.
Hamoudah said his attackers were Jewish settlers; four were later arrested, he said, and when Hamoudah went to the police station to identify them, one of the settlers accused the Israeli police officer of turning against his own people to help the Arabs. “The policeman slapped him to the floor,” Hamoudah said. “I have to say, I respected that.”
There is far worse violence in the Middle East today — in Syria, Iraq and Libya — and so the seasonal clashes in the olive groves of the West Bank can seem peripheral, almost trivial. But not to the Palestinians.
More than 80,000 Palestinian farmers derive a substantial portion of their annual income from olives. Harvesting the fruit, pressing the oil, selling and sharing the produce is a ritual of life. Now, so is losing trees.
Last year, the United Nations reported that Israeli settlers damaged or destroyed nearly 11,000 olive trees and saplings owned by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. The trees were burned, toppled by bulldozers, felled with chain saws.
For Jews, Christians and Muslims, the olive tree is a symbol of peace and a promise for the future. Many of the trees in the West Bank, their trunks twisted and pocked with age, are hundreds of years old.
When Pope Francis brought then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican earlier this year for a “prayer summit,” the three took time to plant an olive tree in the papal gardens.
With the start of the olive harvest this year, Palestinian officials and international monitors have already reported the first incidents: Families chased from their olive grove by settlers slinging rocks. Bags of harvested olives stolen. Hundreds of trees destroyed.
The forecast for this year’s olive harvest in the West Bank is low, due to heavy snows last winter followed by scant rain. Whether the violence will go up or down, nobody knows.
“Every year we have incidents, but last year was one of the worst,” said Nasser Abu Farha, director of Canaan Fair Trade. The company’s olive growers have been supported by grants from European governments and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and its products line the shelves of Whole Foods and other speciality outlets in the United States.
“This is not only the fault of the settlers. The settlers who live in the security zone protected by the Israeli soldiers are the most vicious,” he said, referring to certain areas of the West Bank. “They have a sense of entitlement, that the land is theirs and the olive trees are theirs.”
Micky Rosenfeld, spokesman for the Israeli police, said incidents this year have involved damage to both Palestinian and Jewish olive trees.
“A number of investigations have been opened, and police patrols have been increased to prevent and respond,” he said.
Following the attack on the olive groves in Yassuf, vandals spray-painted the walls and tossed a fire bomb onto the floor of a mosque in nearby Aqraba. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said, “Burning holy places is terrorism and should be treated as terrorism.”
There are now some 350,000 Jewish settlers living in 121 communities in the West Bank, settlements that most of the world’s governments consider illegal under international law because they were built on land occupied by the Israeli military. Many Israeli leaders do not consider the land “occupied,” but “disputed.”
Many Jewish settlers say they want to live on the lands they believe were granted to them as God’s chosen people. Others want to claim the land for Israel. Many just want to own an affordable home. Among their ranks are some hard-core extremists who cut down olive trees, kill sheep and vandalize water wells. The Palestinians believe their goal is to provoke or harass them.
Palestinians and Israeli settlers have been battling for years, but Hamoudah said the fight is one-sided.
“If the settlers did not have the protection of the army,” he said, “they would not dare touch our trees.”
Hamoudah said the only respite from attacks by settlers on village olive groves came during the extreme violence and suicide bombings of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against the Israelis, from 2000 to 2005.
One of his neighbors, Ali Yassin, stopped by to drink a cup of coffee and watch the Hamoudah family shake olives from the tree branches onto a tarp spread around the trunk.
“I come from a big family. We lost a hundred trees earlier this month. Myself, I lost six very old trees,” Yassin said. “What can we do? If we throw stones at them, we will be arrested by our own Palestinian authorities the next day.” Palestinian forces coordinate with Israeli counterparts in some areas of the West Bank where they share responsibility for security.
In 2013, the United Nations recorded 386 assaults against Palestinians and their property by Jewish settlers in the West Bank. There were an additional 50 incidents of vandalism and attacks against Israelis by Palestinians.
Noa Cohen, a researcher with the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din, said her organization tracked a sample of 246 incidents between 2005 and September 2014 after which complaints about attacks in Palestinian olive groves were filed with Israeli police. Only four resulted in indictments.
“The police are not going to the crime scene to collect evidence. They do not ask for eyewitnesses to give their version of the incident,” Cohen said. “They do not look for suspects, and if they do look for suspects, they do not check their alibi. Usually the case is closed due to ‘unknown offenders.’ ”
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.