The Sydney Morning Herald
October 23, 2008 - 8:00pm

AT around 10am last Saturday, Abed Hashalmoun, 45, a Palestinian news photographer who lives in the West Bank city of Hebron, followed a group of Israeli and international peace activists on an exercise to help local Palestinian farmers harvest their annual olive crop.

Hashalmoun was accompanied by his brother Nayef, 55, a photographer for the Reuters news agency, and several other Palestinian journalists and television news crews.

The harvest was taking place in an olive grove near Tel Rumeida, a suburb of Hebron that is under the strict control of the Israel Defence Forces and has become notorious for housing some of the most extreme Israeli settlers in the West Bank. According to Nayef Hashalmoun, the harvest had begun peacefully.

"It was a beautiful morning, and there was lots of enthusiasm for the harvest. People seemed happy," Nayef told the Herald .

As the media separated among the olive trees to follow different groups of farmers, Nayef Hashalmoun says four Israeli settlers aged in their early 20s approached from Tel Rumeida.

"They followed my brother [Abed] who was a little way away from us, on his own, and where there were no other journalists."

Abed Hashalmoun says he was unaware the settlers were approaching him, and was simply photographing harvesters at work when he was struck on the head from behind.

"Then one of the settlers held me, while the others were kicking me and punching me," Abed said.

Forced to the ground, Abed says the attack continued for several minutes, and one of the settlers took his camera.

"They were shouting at me, calling me an Arab dog, an Arab son-of-a-bitch, kicking me."

Nayef Hashalmoun says he and several other journalists and peace activists went to his brother's aid, managing to film part of the attack.

When Janet Benvie, 53, a British member of the Christian Peace Teams organisation, asked for the return of Abed's camera, she too was assaulted and pushed to the ground by the settlers.

"Eventually the IDF intervened and stopped the situation getting worse," Nayef says.

"But their attitude was just to shoo the settlers away. One soldier gave Abed some water while an ambulance was called."

Abed was taken to hospital for observation and released later the same day, but pictures of the attack have dominated both Israeli and Palestinian media during the past week, provoking outrage from both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, described the settlers as "thugs who interfere with the olive harvest which constitutes an important sector of the Palestinian economy".

The Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, denounced what he called "settler terrorism and their barbaric actions against Palestinian farmers".

The four settlers involved in the attack were placed under house arrest.

Baruch Marzel, an American-born Israeli who lives in Hebron and who is a leader of the far-right Jewish National Front party, told the Herald the four Jewish settlers were acting in self-defence in response to extreme provocation.

"I walked by this area about half an hour before this so-called 'attack' happened," Marzel said. "And I was attacked with stones, I was abused. Every week we are subjected to this provocation by Arabs, and by the anarchists and the left-wing extremists who are paid by the European Union to come with their cameras and make us look like we are to blame."

Marzel says that when an Israeli judge viewed the videotape of last Saturday's attack on Abed Hashalmoun, he was quick to point out that it had been "heavily edited".

"This was a fight. A fight between two groups of people. It was not an attack. They were kicking and punching Jews as well and what everyone has seen is a disgraceful distortion of the truth."

Marzel says that because the incident took place on a Saturday, the Sabbath, Jews were unable to use cameras to film it. "If we had a film, we could make it show the opposite," he said.

Nayef Hashalmoun, who is also the director of the Hebron-based al-Watan Centre, a Palestinian non-governmental organisation that promotes non-violent conflict resolution, rejects the allegation that he or anyone else associated with the Palestinian farmers provoked the settlers.

"Every day during these olive harvests we see our olive trees being cut down, or large buckets of harvested olives stolen, or turned upside down and the olives scattered over the ground.

"This is what we have to contend with. This is why we have people who want peace - Jews, Christians and Muslims - coming here to try and stop the violence from occurring."

In isolation, the incident at Tel Rumeida is a worrying enough sign of continuing tensions between Jews and Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza.

Yet since the beginning of the year there has been an 80 per cent rise in the number of violent incidents initiated by right-wing activists against Palestinians - and also against IDF soldiers - compared to last year.

Last week three Palestinian men were killed in the West Bank in what Palestinian political leaders claim were the result, in two cases, of attacks by Jewish settlers, and in the third case, the result of IDF gunfire.

Jews have also been the victims of recent attacks from Palestinians. Between July and September, three Israelis were killed and dozens wounded in three separate incidents involving Palestinians deliberately driving vehicles directly into crowds of people.

Earlier this month, several days of violent clashes between hundreds of Arabs and Jews erupted in the ancient port of Akko in northern Israel after an Arab drove his car into the heart of a Jewish neighbourhood on Yom Kippur - the holiest day on the Jewish calendar - when driving a car is virtually banned.

Dr Mustafa Barghouti, an internationally respected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, believes hopes of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict prompted by the current round of US-backed negotiations are fading.

A cardiologist who earned a Masters in Business Administration from Stanford, Barghouti, 54, says that despite criticism within Israel of attacks against Palestinian farmers, there seemed to be no genuine political will to end Israel's 40-year military occupation of the West Bank.

"How can Israel be moving towards creating an independent state for Palestinians when the rate of settlement growth in the West Bank has continued to increase in the last 12 months, not decrease? The annexation of the West Bank continues."


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017