Seth Freedman
The Guardian
October 28, 2010 - 12:00am

With the olive harvest in full swing across the West Bank, reports are flooding in of settler attacks on Palestinian farmers trying to gather their crops. Acts of arson, sabotage and theft all make for great copy, and rightly so: the atrocities committed by Israeli extremists in the name of nationalism and religion must be condemned.

However, focusing solely on the settler violence paints a distorted picture during the two-month-long harvest. At the same time as settler vandals pillage the property of their Palestinian neighbours, hundreds of Israeli volunteers gather in solidarity with the farmers every week to assist them in their work. These selfless individuals cannot single-handedly right the wrongs of the occupation or bring back to life the Palestinians' scorched and uprooted trees, but they can – and do – offer a vital alternative to seeing all Israelis as vicious, racist thugs.

Organisations such as Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and Humans without Borders (HWB) tirelessly organise groups of Israelis and internationals to aid the farmers, and in doing so break down suspicion and distrust on both sides of the border. I accompanied a group of HWB volunteers on Friday to see firsthand the way in which Jews and Arabs come together under a banner of peaceful coexistence, and was more heartened by the experience than any other I've had in Israel/Palestine in a long time.

There was no hidden agenda – just a simple, stated aim of providing free labour for farmers near Qalqilya who, due to military orders, can't do an honest day's work in their own fields. Their olive groves are out of bounds, thanks to the route of the separation wall that bisects their land in typically heartless fashion, and the army would grant only three members of the family permission to cross the fence to access their crops – far too few to get the job done.

Into the breach stepped the HWB group, made up of 20 young Israelis; some native-born, others immigrants from the UK, America and Australia. Meeting at an ungodly hour at Arlozorov train station in Tel Aviv, they had given up their weekend to perform the ultimate mitzvah (commandment): love thy neighbour – though religion was far from the prime motive for the majority of the volunteers. Instead, their own brand of Zionism – one which promotes, rather than tramples on, the human rights of all inhabitants of the region – was the catalyst for their quest.

They worked for hours in the scorching heat, completing endless cycles of laying down tarpaulins, raking the fruit free from the sagging branches, bagging up the fallen olives and moving on to the next tree in the line. Despite working alongside the farmer and two of his sons, the focus was on the harvesting rather than turning the day into a mutual love-in between Israelis and Palestinians; such dialogue-heavy events might have their slot in the activist calendar, but this was neither the time nor the place.

After all, time is money to the farmers, and getting the olives to market as fast as possible can be the difference between the family business sinking or swimming from one year to the next. As the group sat down to break bread with their Palestinian hosts after six straight hours in the field, the relief was palpable on the farmers' faces; they expressed their gratitude both verbally and via the banquet laid out for the volunteers, recognising the difference the extra hands on deck had made to their task.

For the Israelis present, the day was not about proving their self-righteousness to either themselves or others, but rather an opportunity to both remind themselves of the effects of the occupation on ordinary Palestinians as well as to humanise the "unseen other" by way of such everyday interaction. While higher-octane events such as violent anti-wall protests in Bil'in and Nil'in are more attractive to some, seemingly mundane actions such as olive-picking provide far more clement conditions for true peaceful solidarity between the two sides to flourish.

For every door that the hilltop hooligans slam shut between Israelis and Palestinians, another one is opened by the likes of RHR and HWB. Their efforts are worth their weight in gold, both for the practical assistance they provide, but also for the opportunities for mutual understanding and discovery that they offer all who participate, Jew and Arab alike. The activists' efforts are as much the true face of Israeli interaction with Palestinian farmers as those of the settlers.


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