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Rabbis form human shield to protect olive harvest in West Bank

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a member of Rabbis for Human Rights, helps Palestinians during the olive harvest outside Ramallah in the West Bank
Rabbi Arik Ascherman, a member of Rabbis for Human Rights, helps Palestinians during the olive harvest outside Ramallah in the West Bank - Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

A group of rabbis and Israeli volunteers are risking life and limb to protect this year’s olive harvest in the West Bank, amid soaring tensions over the war in Gaza.

Rabbis for Human Rights, an organisation set up in 1990 during the first intifada, has been working for decades to build ties with Palestinian communities threatened by violent Israeli settlers.

As the war in Gaza rages, there has been a surge in violence in the West Bank, making the job of collecting olives, a cornerstone of the territory’s economy, riskier than ever.

Rabbi Avi Dabush heads the charity and has continued his work despite being displaced from his home at Kibbutz Nirim, one of the communities that was hit hardest during the Hamas massacres on Oct 7.

“We won’t go home for at least another year,” Mr Dabush told The Telegraph.

The war and the tensions it has sparked makes him and the organisation even more determined to continue its work in spite of the new challenges the war has brought, he said.

Before Oct 7 there was an average of three incidents of settler violence per day, according to the UN. But that has risen to seven.

A Palestinian woman working during the olive harvest at a grove outside Ramallah in the occupied West Bank
Palestinian women work at an olive grove outside Ramallah in the occupied West Bank - Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

“We too are victims of their violence,” Mr Dabush said. “A year and a half ago when we were planting, 15 masked settlers came from Givat Ronen, attacked volunteers, set the cars on fire.

“The volunteers are really putting themselves at risk. In this case we are trying to protect the farmers but they are also at risk,” he said.

“Four years ago we had a rabbi, 80 years old, and the settlers came from Yitzhar, set the field on fire and hit him with iron bars. He was hospitalised for a few days.”

Other volunteers have had arms and legs broken and suffered head injuries.

The charity works near some of the most radical and dangerous settlements.

The Bedouin village of Burim, near Nablus, is surrounded on one side by the settler community of Itzhar, and on the other Givat Ronen, considered a violent outpost.

Instead of 100 volunteers a day going to help Bedouin communities with the olive harvest, only about 10 can reach them, with the rest either displaced, at home taking care of children whose schools have closed, or too afraid of the rising tide of violence.

A UN report claimed “more than one in every three settler-related incidents since October 7 involved settlers using firearms to threaten Palestinians, including by opening fire”.

Palestinian farmers in the West Bank have come under attack from Israeli settlers
Palestinian farmers in the West Bank have come under attack from Israeli settlers - Issam Rimawi/Anadolu via Getty Images

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have imposed a series of roadblocks and curfews to limit movement around the occupied West Bank as flare-ups continue, meaning the group could only access the farmers it helps for around seven days of the month-long harvest period this year.

“From Hawara to the north now, it is pretty closed by the army so it’s hard to reach these areas,” Mr Dabush said.

While there are some in Israel who do not understand why Mr Dabush and his volunteers put themselves in the firing line to protect the Palestinians and Bedouin communities, there are many who are determined that humanitarian work should continue.

“As an Israeli, there are people who really think this is important. And yes, there are people who really think that it’s helping the enemy. We are faith based and based on human rights principles, the Jewish morality, so we are determined in that.”

Rabbis for Human Rights also works with shepherds in the Jordan valley, who are increasingly need food and medical supplies.

“We started humanitarian work which we don’t usually do. Farmers and mayors from these villages like Burin and Kusra told us they need help in medical goods and also with food, so we started every week to bring food support and first aid.”

With road closures for security operations a frequent occurrence, moving from village to village is harder and more dangerous than ever.

‘Our work is even more urgent’

Recently, a Bedouin farmer was killed by a settler while tending his olive trees. “We feel that our work is even more urgent, though it’s always urgent, so we are even more driven,” Mr Dabush said.

This week, Israeli rights group Yesh Din, said “settler violence has intensified in the past month under the cover of war”. It has “manifested primarily in the armed invasions of settlers into Palestinian villages and preventing Palestinians from harvesting their olive crop through violence and intimidation”.

Another of the rabbis, Anton Goodman, spoke about the graffiti he had witnessed in the West Bank including “death to Arabs”. He said: “There are violent settlers trying to abuse this [time] to create more hatred and violence and we are here to do the opposite.”

The IDF said the uptick in violence was coming from both sides. “Since the October 7th massacre, there has been a significant increase in terrorist attacks in Judea and Samaria, with over 550 attempted attacks occurring since the beginning of the war,” a spokesman told The Sunday Telegraph.

“The IDF conducts nightly counterterrorism operations to apprehend suspects, many of them are part of the Hamas terrorist organisation. In addition, as part of the security operations in the area, dynamic checkpoints have been put up over different places.”

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