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In Mideast, is plowshare mightier than sword?

HEBRON, West Bank — Palestinian farmer Azzam Jaber doesn't have much good to say about the Jewish settlers in Kiryat Arba who live on the hillside above his tomato fields.

For years, the settlers and Israeli soldiers have waged a low-intensity war to drive Jaber and his extended family from their farmland outside the ancient city of Hebron, which has become a magnet for extremist Jewish settlers.

Bulldozers have rumbled through the valley to raze unlicensed Palestinian homes. Settlers have stolen and burned the black tubing that carries water to Palestinians' crops. Israeli soldiers have arrested Jaber four times for trying to protect his land.

So it came as a surprise when settlers quietly came to Jaber this year and asked whether they could buy his tomatoes. All of them. For three times the going rate.

"It was quite attractive," conceded Jaber, who joined his relatives in selling vegetables to Jewish settlers for the first time.

The lucrative business deal is the product of a biblical commandment that calls on Jewish farmers to leave their fields untended once every seven years.

Many Israelis take the commandment, known as "shmita," seriously. Some believe that Jerusalem's first Jewish temple was destroyed because Jewish farmers ignored God's demand that the land be left idle.

Leaving fields fallow periodically may make agricultural sense, but in the modern world of globalization, forcing Israeli farmers to abandon their crops once every seven years doesn't make good business sense. So rabbis have developed a complex set of alternatives that they say honors God's commandments.

The most popular solution requires some creative license: A Jewish farmer in Israel can "sell" his land to a reliable, non-Jewish businessman, dubbed a "shmita goy."

Once the land is "sold," the rabbis say, it's no longer holy Jewish land, and Jewish farmers can continue to work it as usual.

"It's not the ideal solution," admitted Ze'ev Weitman, the rabbi who oversaw this year's shmita land sales. "We cry that this is the only solution we have. We don't like it, but we don't have a better solution."

Weitman and team of 10 researchers spent seven months scouring the country and lining up thousands of Israeli farmers to take part in a $17 billion land deal that, almost overnight, made a Druze businessman one of the largest private landholders in Israel, if not the largest. The Druze are a small religious community that's an offshoot of Shiite Islam's Ismaili sect.

The Druze businessman, a reserve colonel in the Israeli army, now ostensibly controls more than 400,000 acres of Israel, about 8 percent of the country.

To ensure that nothing goes awry, Weitman hired a law firm to draft contracts that require the "shmita goy" to sell the land back to its original owners next year.

"They can trust in God, but we have to worry about the farmers," said Ofer Schweizer, the attorney who handled the contracts.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews view the contracts as worthless fiction and refuse to buy anything from farms that use this process.

In past shmita years, Israelis who embrace a strict interpretation of the commandment have bought produce in the Gaza Strip. But now that Gaza is controlled by the militant Islamic group Hamas, Israel's chief rabbi has declared that Jews shouldn't buy anything from farmers in the isolated coastal strip.

Gaza's borders are closed to exports anyway, and that's forced observant Jews to find new alternatives and led some of them to the Palestinian farmers in the West Bank who've been battling Jewish settlers and the Israeli army.

In agreeing to sell to the settlers, Jaber and his relatives rely on their own convenient fiction: They're not selling directly to the settlers, they said, but to a Palestinian middleman who set up the deal.

The transaction is so sensitive that those involved were reluctant even to talk about it. The Palestinian middleman agreed to talk only if his name weren't used, and one Jewish buyer repeatedly hung up the phone.

Other settlers in the area who refuse to do business with Palestinians scoffed at the idea of buying from Arab neighbors this year.

"Why should we give them parnassa (a means of making a living)?" said David Wilder, a spokesman for Jewish settlers in Hebron. "Why should we feed them?"

Jaber and his family have no illusions that this year's deal will lead to better relations with the settlers or an end to the campaign to drive them from their fields.

"They are not coming here to establish good relations with us," said Nafez Burqan, who supervises Jaber's land.

"God spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai, telling him to speak to the Israelites and say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest period, a sabbath to God. For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards, and harvest your crops, but the seventh year is a sabbath of sabbaths for the land. It is God's sabbath during which you may not plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards. Do not harvest crops that grow on their own and do not gather the grapes on your unpruned vines, since it is a year of rest for the land."

_ Leviticus 25:1-5