MAZRA AL-GHARBIYEH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad joined West Bank farmers to pick olives Wednesday and slammed assaults by Jewish settlers on the harvesters as “terrorism.”
Fayyad rolled up his shirt sleeves and climbed up a ladder to help an old woman pluck olives from her tree in Mazra al-Gharbiyeh, a village north of the West Bank city of Ramallah which is surrounded by Jewish settlements.
His visit was “a clear message that we are here to stay,” the Palestinian premier said.
“The settlers being here in itself is illegitimate. And on top of that they engage in acts of violence against our citizens, particularly at this time of year when they pick olives, with all that the olive tree signifies to our people,” Fayyad told Reuters.
“This is nothing short of terrorism by the settlers.”
Fayyad said the olive tree was not only a source of income for most Palestinians, but more importantly a “symbol of the determination of the Palestinian people to stay on their land and to preserve and defend it.”
About 300,000 Jews live in settlements built by Israel in occupied West Bank land captured in the 1967 Six Day war.
Settlement expansion has seriously obstructed U.S.-sponsored peace talks. The Palestinians say they cannot achieve a viable, contiguous state of their own alongside Israel if the territory they secure is riddled with Jewish settlements and outposts.
Palestinians, the United Nations and Israeli leaders have expressed concern in the past month about an increase in violence by hardline Jewish settlers, who believe they have a divine right to the land.
The violence is seen partly as a warning to the Israeli government that some settlers will not go quietly if Israel agrees to return West Bank land as part of a peace settlement of the 60-year-old conflict.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday “the assaults by hooligans in the area … deserve condemnation,” but Israeli troops could not be everywhere to protect harvesters.
Israel had deployed forces to permit the harvest to proceed in peace, Barak told Israeli Army Radio. But Palestinians say the army does little to stop settler assaults and often breaks up clashes by forcing the farmers to leave the area.
An editorial in the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz on Wednesday said Barak was offering a “dubious excuse” for what it considered criminal failure to uphold the law.
Settlers had been “stealing the land of powerless farmers for decades” and were not averse to stealing their fruit as well. “This year, as every year, fairly small groups manage to reach the olive groves, where they beat, steal then return home safely,” the paper said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas Sunday condemned settler attacks and pledged to fund the planting of a million trees to make the rocky West Bank terrain greener.