In the Olive Groves

There are many ways to love Israel.  One is by demanding that she be her best, that she live up to her (and my) highest ideals.  On the first day of my recent trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, we saw Rabbi Arik Ascherman and Rabbis for Human Rights in action, loving Israel in exactly that way.  To tell that story, though, I also have to tell you some things that hurt my heart, because they weren’t Israel or Israelis at their best.

We’d gone out to the land of a Palestinian farmer west of Nablus, to help him and his family pick olives.  The olive harvest stretches over 2 months and it’s a traditional family work-and-holiday time; the kids go out to the olives after school and everybody helps out.  You pick by raking the olives off the branches onto a tarp spread out below each tree, or simply by stripping them off with your hands. Here’s a family harvesting olives in a traditional way that we saw all over the West Bank:

Palestinian family harvesting olives

And here’s me up in an olive tree (the women of the family used a ladder, but the young men had climbed the tree and I couldn’t resist):

Reb Deb in an olive tree, harvesting

We hadn’t been there 10 minutes when Arik took a call: A Palestinian farmer nearby was being chased off his land by the Army.  Off we went: 3 American women from the tour, Arik, and our driver Zakaria Sada (Zaka-REE-ah), who is the RHR Field Coordinator and lives in the nearby village of Jit (jeet).

After an adventure involving a “flying road block” (a temporary roadblock set up by the Army requiring that anyone driving on the road be stopped and questioned — I’ll write about that later), we arrived at the land of the Kadumi family.  Mr. Mahmoun Kadumi and his 4 brothers grew up in the village of (Kafr) Kadum, where he completed high school; then he went to Amman, Jordan, for University and remained there, raising his 6 boys and 5 girls and working in the business world.

Every year he takes a 10-day holiday to come from Amman, via the Allenby Bridge, and organize the family olive harvest.  It’s not for sale, just processed into about 150 kilos of oil plus some cured olives for his family in Jordan and here in Kadum.  They have 47 trees and it takes 5-7 days to harvest, plus processing time.  When we arrived on Tuesday morning, he and his son had been trying to harvest their olives for 2 days, and had been chased off both days by Israeli soliders shouting at them.  The second day, someone called the International Women’s Peace Service, which was working in the area, and they called RHR, and Arik came to sort it out.

If you look at the map, you’ll notice that the Palestinian Arab (here, that’s redundant) village of Kadum is cut off from the nearby Arab metropolis of Nablus by a line of Jewish Israeli (also redundant) settlements:  Gat Kedumim, Giv’at Shalem, Mitzpe Kedumim, Kedumim, Mitzpe Yishay, and Kdumim East, each occupying a hilltop.  I *think* that the Kadumi family land is just below and west of Mitzpe Kedumim — I’ve marked it on this map, and here are two green markers showing what I think are the corners of his property.  One of the problems is that there aren’t any street signs out here, and in fact the main road into Kadum, on which I believe his property lies, is blocked off just east of his land by huge blocks of stone, because it runs right between Mitzpe Kedumim and Kedumim; so we had to get there somehow through back roads and I can’t reconstruct the route.  I remember hearing Zakaria on the phone as we were driving there, talking about this very problem.

Here’s the view looking over the Kadumi olive trees, east toward what I think is Mitzpe Kedumim.
Kadumi olive grove looking (probably) east to Mitzpe Kedumim

You need to know that in a landmark 2006 ruling, in which RHR was one of the principal petitioners, the Israeli High Court ruled that the IDF (the Israeli Army) must not only allow Palestinian farmers access to their land, but must come up with a specific list of restricted “Red Zones” where prior coordination was required between the Army and the farmers, so that the Army could be on hand to prevent friction between Palestinians and Israeli settlers, which as far as I could tell meant to protect Palestinians from Israeli harassment.  Prior to this ruling, access was often restricted on “security grounds,” meaning that rather than protecting the access rights of Palestinian landowners, the IDF would usually “solve the problem” by refusing to allow the Palestinians into their fields and olive groves.   Since 2006, Palestinians had much more access to their own land for plowing, planting, harvesting, pruning, etc.  (Here’s an RHR update from the field on November 8, 2010, which talks about a family from the same village, Kafr Kadum.)

So the Army itself has decided where there are Red Zones, requiring prior coordination, and which are Yellow Zones, where landowners can come and go freely.

Arik’s first job was to figure out whether Mr. Kadumi’s trees were in a restricted “Red Zone” or not.  He carries around a stack of maps 2” thick showing every Israeli settlement with its adjacent Red Zones.  First he had to figure out which settlement we were near; then of those 3 or 4 maps, which one showed the road we were on, and how did it match up to our surroundings.  (I finally got Arik to give me the stack of remaining maps, so he wouldn’t have to juggle them while looking through the 3 or 4 he needed.)  Remember, just because Google Maps shows this as a main road doesn’t mean it particularly looks like one; as you can see above, it’s just a road with cracked pavement much like any other.  It didn’t take too long to be completely clear that the Red Zone was on the other side of the road — here’s Mr. Kadumi figuring it out with Arik.
(L-R: Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Mr. Mahmoun Kadumi, Emma Missouri, trip participant and administrator)

Mr. Kadumi also told Arik that someone from the DCO (the District Coordinating Office, the military’s liaison office to interface with Palestinians) had come last year and specified that they had to stay 200 meters from the settlement up on the hill.  It was obvious to us that wasn’t a problem as long as he stayed on his own land.

Mr. Kadumi said to me, as an aside: “We don’t have young men here, it’s only me, my son, his wife…”  His point being, there were no provocations nor even imagined provocations being offered to either the settlers up on the hill or the IDF.

Once all this was established to Arik’s satisfaction, he called the DCO.  It was a long conversation, in Hebrew, including Arik saying a couple of times, “I don’t want to make a problem, but I have to tell you…”  Arik explained later that the DCO acknowledged that it was a “Yellow Zone,” not requiring coordination ahead of time, but the local Army commander was still demanding coordination.  “I told him that’s illegal, and finally he had to agree with me.”

Then Arik put Mr. Kadumi’s son on the phone, and he had a long conversation with the DCO in Arabic, with Arik in the background urging him to repeat the exact boundaries that the DCO and Arik had agreed upon.  His concern was to make sure that the DCO was telling Mr. Kadumi’s son the same thing that he had told Arik.

(Here’s Arik on the phone with the DCO, Mr. Kadumi’s son in the middle, and Mr. Kadumi in the black jalabiyah)

When the conversation was over, Arik — in Arabic — gave his cell phone number to Mr. Kadumi, along with the DCO’s direct phone number, and told him to call if he had any further problems.  Then he asked whether Mr. Kadumi would like some volunteers to help with the harvest.  You could see the wheels turning — not only might it provide some protection or witnesses, but he was already two days behind schedule, and the extra hands would be welcome.  Tomorrow, not today, though, he said; it was noon and almost time to stop for the day.  Though his son and another man who had arrived on a donkey did go up and start harvesting.

I have almost no Arabic, and Mr. Kadumi didn’t seem to know Hebrew, so we talked a little in English.  I wanted him to know that, as a part-time farmer myself (goats and chickens), I understood the time pressure he was under.  So I pulled out my little book of photographs and showed him my goats.  And he got the sweetest little smile on his face.  Not so many goats in Amman, I imagine, but I’m sure he grew up with them; we saw them many places, with long floppy ears like my goats have.

The next day we heard that Mr. Kadumi and his sons and the Israel volunteers Arik had organized were again chased off by the Army, but a phone call seems to have fixed it.

Before we left to rejoin the group, I listened to Arik on the phone for a while having a vehement conversation with someone in Hebrew.  Turned out, when I asked him, that it was Kol Shalom (“Voice of Peace”) radio.  I heard him saying a couple of things that made me very proud, and I herewith translate a few bits of it that I noted down in Hebrew:  “I am *obligated* to say that … This is a country with the rule of law, and we will not cease on this matter… this is our responsibility… because the heart aches…  This is a requirement of the Torah… and if they will not listen to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, then we will have the rabbi of…” and I think here he mentioned a couple of Orthodox communities.

Note that the word “obligated” that Arik used, chayav חיב, is the exact same word that’s used by Jewish tradition for the obligations that mitzvot, commandments, lay upon a Jew.  Arik understands his obligation to speak and act on behalf of human rights as a religious obligation of the highest order, and so do I.  This is tsedek צדק, justice, in action.  This is truly good work.

And it is also truly appalling that without constant monitoring by committed Israelis and Palestinians, the Israeli Army will not fulfill its own obligations as it has outlined them itself.  This was just my first glimpse into why occupation isn’t good for *Israel,* for its moral fiber and for its living up to our own highest values; resisting this kind of moral corrosion is indeed a way of loving Israel.