by John Murphy, Sun Foreign Reporter
KAFR QALIL, West Bank
The day is hot and dusty on this West Bank hillside, but 53-year-old Fuad Amer moves with the energy of a man half his age, stripping the fruit from his olive trees in giant handfuls, plucking others from the high branches with a surgeon's care.
His enthusiasm is understandable. This is the first time in four years that Amer has been able to harvest his olives.
Last year, he says, Jewish settlers set fire to his olive grove and destroyed his harvest. Before that, gun-toting settlers forced his family from the grove when they started picking. Israeli authorities, trying to avoid further confrontations, ordered him to stay away, Amer says, and the settlers helped themselves to his olives.
But this season, an Israeli high court decision granting Palestinian farmers protection from settler violence means that Amer will be able to harvest the olives from his 60 trees.
Hundreds of Israeli soldiers and police are patrolling stony hillside groves near Jewish settlements in the West Bank, vowing to keep the peace. Palestinians, usually fearful of Israeli authorities, are welcoming their presence.
"We are happy that the army is here. We feel like we're being protected," said Amer, who has been harvesting his olives within shouting distance of the hilltop settlement of Bracha. So far, he says, there have been no problems.
Since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, conflict, destruction and fear have hurt the annual harvest. Jewish settlers from hilltop communities in the West Bank have attacked and harassed pickers and cut down olive trees. Several Palestinian farmers have been killed by settlers.
The Israeli army and police have done little to stop the violence, critics say. Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization, reported that 90 percent of cases of settler violence against Palestinians go unsolved. While police closed most cases, citing lack of evidence, in many instances officers failed to conduct an investigation or lost the case files, the study said.
In 2004, after Jewish settlers prevented many Palestinians from picking their olives, several Palestinian villages and two Israeli rights groups - the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Rabbis for Human Rights - filed a court petition to enable farmers to harvest their crop.
In June, Israel's high court ruled unanimously that the army must grant Palestinian farmers access to their olive groves at all times and protect them from settlers.
"Our policy is to allow Palestinians to get every last olive from every last tree, even if that tree is in the middle of a settlement," said Capt. Adam Avidan, a spokesman for the Israeli military's civil administration in the West Bank.
Still, this year has not been without problems. In recent weeks settlers set fire to two olive groves, Palestinian farmers say, and Israeli police arrested 10 settler youths - carrying knives, saws and brass knuckles - suspected of attacking and beating Palestinians harvesting olives, according to an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Some Palestinian farmers have turned to Israeli groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights for help. The group organizes Jewish volunteers who harvest the olives and serve as intermediaries between Jewish settlers and Palestinian farmers.
In Jit, a Palestinian village in the West Bank, a half-dozen volunteers picked olives alongside a Palestinian farmer just down the hill from the Jewish settlement of Kedumim. When an armed guard from Kedumim arrived and ordered everyone to leave, the volunteers stepped in, refusing to budge. They said the farmer had permission from Israeli authorities to harvest.
The settlement guard fumed.
"I decide where you can go," he said, vowing to return with the Israeli army to remove them.
But the Israeli army confirmed that the farmer and the volunteers were allowed to harvest.
Zakaria Sada, a Palestinian villager from Jit who works with Rabbis for Human Rights, recalls when families would gather in the fields near the settlement to picnic and pick olives. It was a time to relax, he said. But no longer.
"Now you are afraid when you pick the olives. You always have to look behind you to see where the settlers are," he said.
Settlers say it is necessary to keep Palestinian farmers far from their communities for security reasons. Palestinians say that the settlers' true goal is to push them off their land. Keeping the peace between the parties is a complicated task.
In Kfar Qalil's olive groves, it appeared as if a military operation was under way. Police patrolled the road leading to the hilltop settlements. Israeli soldiers arrived to keep an eye on farmers. Volunteers picked olives and gave regular updates by mobile phone to their organizations about any disturbances.
On a recent afternoon though, all was quiet.
Ahmed Kenna, 17, stood at the top of a ladder tugging at branches heavy with olives. It was his first time back in his family's fields in four years. Last year, his family was chased and his grandmother beaten, he said.
Working beside him was Joshua Corber, 24, a yeshiva student and volunteer for Rabbis for Human Rights.
"I think it's very important to show Arabs that there are Jews who sympathize with their cause," Corber said, as he tugged olives from the branches. "It's an important step for coexistence."
For Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, scenes of Jews and Arabs working together are the beginning - not only of a more peaceful harvest, but perhaps a greater understanding between two peoples.
"I call it the dialogue of the olive groves," Ascherman said. "There are fancy, high-paid junkets that go abroad to bring Palestinians and Israelis together in dialogue. They're important, but it's a much deeper dialogue when average Israelis and average Palestinians spend a day together, shoulder to shoulder, harvesting the olives."