YASUF, West Bank — Jamal Atayni perched atop a ladder and picked olives with fast and practiced fingers. Harvesting his crop is a race, not only against the season but, increasingly, against nearby Jewish settlers willing to steal his tools, burn his trees and attack his pickers.
These steep, rocky groves have long been a friction point between settlers deepening their hold on swaths of the Israeli-
occupied West Bank and farmers who have worked the land for generations. While many settlements work to avoid escalating tensions with Palestinians, autumn is when some of the most extreme settlers launch harvest harassment campaigns.
At Atayni’s olive grove, the picking continued with family members posted uphill as lookouts. With Atayni’s children and a group of volunteers finishing lunch, Yehuda Schwartz of Rabbis for Human Rights, a liberal advocacy group, was on the phone with other volunteers working nearby. An Israeli army patrol had appeared, asking the group of farmers and activists to clear out before trouble with settlers started.
“It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse,” he said, hanging up, as the workers around him stood up to remount their ladders.
A week before, a band of young settlers had rushed a group of Palestinian farmers and Jewish volunteer pickers near the neighboring settlement of Yitzhar, according to Israeli army reports. With faces covered by scarves, they shouted and swung iron bars, breaking the arm of an 80-year-old Jewish human rights activist.
It was one of several attacks on olive pickers in the first months of the harvest, according to United Nations monitors, who have documented two injured farmers, more than 1,000 trees damaged and several tons of stolen fruit. The attacks are occurring at an accelerating rate, continuing the spike in vandalism and violence over the last three seasons.
The Israeli legal advocacy group Yesh Din said farmers have reported 45 harvest-related run-ins with settlers since the harvest began, ranging from graffiti painted on cars to attacks with sticks and rocks.
Both Israeli and Palestinian activists say most of the attacks go uninvestigated by the Israeli army, which is deployed across the West Bank. And most go largely unremarked by Israelis, who are deeply split over the presence of more than 125 settlements in the Palestinian territories.
That indifference evaporated briefly after the Yitzhar attacks, when some of the settlers turned their ire on Israeli army patrols sent in response. In several incidents over two days, settlers cut the tires of army vehicles, threw rocks at the patrols and pulled open the door of a jeep to berate an officer for their presence. When soldiers later took a young man involved into custody, settlers disparaged the military for arresting him during the Sabbath.
The public backlash was swift in Israel, where the military is revered (and where widespread conscription means many families may have a child on one of those patrols). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately condemned the attack, as did his political rival, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, who is now trying to cobble together a governing coalition in parliament.
One Yitzhar leader apologized to the military and blamed the violence on “out-of-control” teenagers living outside the village. Like others, he said the attacks are mostly carried out by groups of itinerant, semi-homeless teens known as the “Hilltop Youth.”
“What control do town leaders have over teenagers who drift?” asked David Ha’Ivri, a member of the regional settlement council that includes Yitzhar.
Settlers say the “agricultural terror” goes both ways. Each week, Yitzhar resident Ezri Tubi, 49, publishes a record of purported Palestinian violence against settlers collected from seven regional settler councils throughout the West Bank. In the last two weeks of October, his tally included three physical attacks, 18 firebombs, two arson attacks and dozens of rock-throwing incidents. Some incidents show up in official police reports, he said, but many are never reported.
“People drive around wondering when the next stone or molotov cocktail will hit their car,” said Tubi, who can see the nearest Palestinian houses from his bedroom window. “My 8-year-old daughter comes into my bed every night because she dreams of an Arab under her bed.”
The harvest skirmishes are a subplot of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and any interaction between the two populations in the West Bank can be fraught with tension.
Overall, Ha’Ivri said, day-to-day relations between settlers and Palestinians in the area are calm and occasionally warm. Most settlers have no interest in antagonizing their neighbors, and when the most extreme settlers do, they are often responding to the Jewish peace groups who come stir up trouble, he said.
It is unlikely the backlash against Yitzhar will have much effect on a settler movement as old as the occupation itself.
Settlers have enjoyed broad support from the right-wing government led by Netanyahu, whose recent pledge to annex parts of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, would formalize existing settlements and encourage new ones. Permits for new construction have climbed in recent years. The European Union recently condemned Israel for advancing more than 8,300 building permits in 2019, the most since 2013.
That surge has come since the election of President Trump, who has shrugged off long-standing bipartisan opposition in the United States to settlement expansion.
Israeli public opinion over settlements has remained stable in recent years. In a typical survey taken last December, 46 percent of respondents said settlements help Israel; 42 percent said they harm it. Right-wing and religious residents were overwhelmingly supportive and left-wing residents overwhelmingly opposed. Centrist respondents were split.
“Views on the settlements have been steadfast for years,” said pollster Dahlia Scheindlin, who conducted the survey.
But the movement itself has evolved dramatically since the first hilltop houses, many of them on military outposts, appeared in the 1960s and ’70s. Some of the communities are now established cities, bedroom suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where Israelis flock for the cheaper housing more than ideology or religious zeal. Even many Palestinians assume these “bloc settlements” would fall within Israel’s borders in some future peace deal.
In the Jordan Valley, settlement activity is industrial agriculture, with turkey farms and sprawling date palm plantations taking over the land and water that nearby Palestinian communities rely on.
“It’s the biggest colonial enterprise anyone can imagine,” Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said on a recent visit to Fasayel, a village surrounded by tanks full of water being diverted to surrounding Israeli agriculture.
Deeper in the West Bank, on the settlement frontier, settlers are often more zealous. Especially at harvest time.
Moshe Yehudai, a founding member of Rabbis for Human Rights, has been coming to pick the fruit for 20 years. He has seen rocks thrown and trees burned, but never anything like the screaming band of masked men who came running down the hills on that recent Friday.
“Everyone ran, but I couldn’t,” he said in an interview from his home near Tel Aviv. “I told them, ‘I’m 80 years old. I could be your grandfather.’ ”
One struck his head with an iron bar, Yehudai said. His arm took the next blow. The men ran, and he stumbled down the slope until the Palestinian farmer found him and called an ambulance.
For Yehudai, the harvest was over early. But he knows there will be another.
“I won’t go back this year,” he said. “But next, I will be there. And it will be the same.”