It is ritual of autumn, like homecoming or leaf peeping in more decorous parts of the world: Come fall, Palestinians go out to harvest their olives. And Israeli settlers come down from the hilltops to stop them.
“There! There! All these olive trees were burned,” says Bureen mayor Ali Eid, with an angry gesture that takes in a hillside once colored with the dusty green of ancient trees, and now charred after the settlers had come through. “We have lost more than 16,000 olive trees by cutting or burning since 2005. Every year is worse than the year before.”
The Israeli military concurs. The current harvest is the most violent in years, with settler attacks on Palestinian property largely to blame. A senior officer in the command responsible for the West Bank told TIME more than 50% of Israeli forces there are working the groves. The deployment comes on order of the Israeli supreme court, which six years ago instructed the military to safeguard Palestinians as they harvest the berries that have been the mainstay of the West Bank economy for generations. (See pictures of what life is like in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.)
But Palestinians, who tend to live in the valleys of the strikingly beautiful West Bank, complain that the Israeli military continues to favor the settlers, who build on the hilltops. And the scene just outside Bureen gives weight to the charge. The rows and rows of trees set alight there stand just yards from an Israeli military checkpoint on Highway 60, the West Bank’s major road. Its steel and concrete watchtower commands a clear view of the scene of a crime that locals say has gone unpunished. “There is no justice here,” says Atef Abu Al-Rob, a field reporter for B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. “When [Palestinian] kids attack cars, they respond. When 100 settlers attack, they don’t respond.” (See how the West Bank settlements are built with Palestinian labor.)
Much as the Palestinian cause was defined for years by terror attacks, settler violence threatens Israel’s international image. Already burdened with the label of occupier and colonizer for building on Palestinian land taken in the 1967 war, Israel’s settlements are the hinge on which peace talks have swung shut. The Palestinian Authority says it will refuse to talk while Israelis build homes on the land that would form their half of a two-state solution.
The international attention serves to amplify bad behavior that human rights advocates call routine. “Greetings from the hills” was the message spray-painted in Hebrew on the scorched outbuilding of a girls’ school near Nabulus earlier this month. Two weeks earlier a mosque was set afire outside Bethlehem; the Hebrew graffiti there insulted the Prophet Mohammad. “We have our share of lunatics, no doubt about it,” says Daniel Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, which represents the West Bank settlers. “It’s the single issue that causes us the most damage, but first of all I oppose it on moral grounds.”
Bureen, a village of 3,500 just south of Nablus, nestles in a valley surrounded by settlements and “outposts,” the nascent settlements not technically authorized by the Israeli government, and often populated by militant young Israelis. Last year, someone cut 81 of the olive trees that Bureen resident Akram Omran relies upon to support his family. This Aug. 31, as the olives ripened, another 17 trees were cut. His neighbors heard branches falling and voices speaking Hebrew. Omran phoned the Israeli authorities, but “of course they didn’t do anything,” he says.
Omran is down to 45 trees, and fears the worst. Like the stumps of the others, they stand near the settlement called Yizhar. The word means “oil” in the ancient Hebrew that harks back to the Bible that settlers say promised them the West Bank, which they call Samaria and Judea. “There are clashes here between Palestinians and Israelis, no doubt about it,” says Abraham Binyamin, a softspoken social worker who acts as spokesman for the 200 families in Yizhar. “There is a conflict here over to whom this land belongs. It’s mutual and sometimes it goes to violence.”
New houses are going up on the hilltop, and legally so (in Israeli eyes), now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ended on schedule the construction freeze President Obama demanded as a condition of talks. For a month now the prime minister has vacillated over renewing the freeze, but the settlers speak with an assured calm. “The settlement movement is not willing to give up,” says Binyamin. “It’s not only the West Bank, it’s much broader. It’s the fight for our Jewish identity in the area.” He does not deny attacks on olive groves, but prefers to describe earlier attacks on settlers. He says the future will be determined in part by whether Europe recognizes “the Muslim invasion,” and in part by Israeli society, itself split on the question of settlements.
The view from the hilltop is stunning. Binyamin’s smile is knowing. “I’d love to sit in the valley,” he says. “We’re caught up in a conflict of people against people. I hope the guy from Bureen will have a good future. But all my efforts will be to assure that his future won’t be here. Because this land belongs to the Jewish people.” With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Bureen source–TIME