AWARTA, West Bank –
Once the month of Ramadan is over, just before the first rain, Palestinian farmers harvest their olive groves.
The importance of olives to the Palestinian economy cannot be overestimated. They are the single biggest crop for Palestinians and hold important cultural significance – especially as they symbolize land ownership.
As such, the olive harvest has become a major point of contention between Palestinian farmers and Jewish settlers.
|Miri Yehuda / NBC News|
|A Palestinian family works during the olive harvest near the Palestinian town of Awarta, in the West Bank.|
Every year, there are reports of violence against the Palestinian farmers as settlers intimidate them and even beat them and steal the olives.
But Palestinians have found an unlikely ally in their efforts to continue their harvest – a group of Jewish activists, "Rabbis for Human Rights," put themselves in harm's way to help protect Palestinians during the annual harvest.
Helping to guarantee access to lands
"Rabbis for Human Rights" is an NGO that operates on donations, mainly from outside Israel.
During the annual harvest, rabbis and other volunteers coordinate with Israeli security forces and the local Palestinian population to help guarantee Palestinians access to their trees during the harvest. Their sheer physical presence helps reduce the number of violent acts of theft and vandalism during the harvest season.
"It's difficult for me as a rabbi to say this," said Rabbi Yehiel Greiniman of Rabbis for Human Rights, "but I believe there are people who say they do things in the name of the Torah when in fact they go against it. I want to able to tell my children and grandchildren that I acted against wrongdoing."
The rabbis go out with Palestinian families on a daily basis, help pick olives, and when they detect a threat by Jewish settlers, they call the army or Israeli police for help.
|Miri Yehuda / NBC News|
|Rabbi Yehiel Greiniman takes a few minutes to pray while working with Palestinian olive farmers.|
Since the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) began in 2000, the Palestinian economy has taken a major downturn as a result of the many Israeli checkpoints and closures that restrict ordinary Palestinians from travelling anywhere for work.
"We're happy. Since the rabbis started their activities over three years ago, we can get to our land and work it," said Abu Niaz, a Palestinian farmer from the village of Awarta.
"The rabbis are different from the settlers," he added. "They help us, make it possible for us to stand up, not try to get rid of us like the settlers."
According to the World Bank, up to 100,000 families depend on the olive harvest to some extent for their livelihoods.
In 2006, thanks to a case brought before the Israeli Supreme Court by Rabbis for Human Rights on behalf of five West Bank villages, the court ruled that the Israeli army must not close off areas in a way that prevents Palestinians from working on their land. The court even added that the military should take steps "to prevent the settlers from interfering with Palestinian farmers from working their lands, and realizing their rights to freedom of movement and freedom of property."
During the month or so of olive picking, the rabbis publish an appeal for people to volunteer and help out in protecting the Palestinians. They provide transportation for the volunteers and are in touch with locals Palestinians in order to assess where protection is needed.
It's heartwarming to see the connection between the Palestinian families, the rabbis and the volunteers that work with them. But this gratitude is rarely discussed. It seems they believe this is a basic right, one that doesn't require a "Thank You."