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Israeli, West Bank Arabs’ divergent lives revealed in olive harvest

In two Palestinian villages in Israel and the West Bank, the olive harvest has come to symbolize their differences. In this Palestinian town of Qarawat Bani Hassan, Tayseer Mahmoudi sees picking 60 acres of trees as a break from his life slipping across Israeli checkpoints to work as a welder.
In two Palestinian villages in Israel and the West Bank, the olive harvest has come to symbolize their differences. In this Palestinian town of Qarawat Bani Hassan, Tayseer Mahmoudi sees picking 60 acres of trees as a break from his life slipping across Israeli checkpoints to work as a welder. McClatchy

Mohsein Assi was standing on a ladder, raking plump purple olives off a silver-leafed tree, when his phone rang. A worker at his clothing factory had sent him photos of pants and shirts and wanted his approval.

Assi, 39, is from Kafr Bara, an Arab Israeli village a half-hour’s drive northeast of Tel Aviv. Year-round he owns and manages a textile factory in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Every fall, though, over three long weekends, Assi stuffs his Land Rover with tarps and sacks and drafts his wife and six children to help him pick the fruit that will be pressed into the year’s olive oil supply.

“I love it, picking olives,” said Assi. “We – the Arabs – we know that the time of picking the olives, it’s not a season. It’s a holiday.”

Ten miles away, in the West Bank village of Qarawat Bani Hassan, Assi’s cousin, who asked to be identified as Tayseer Mahmoudi, though that’s not his real name, prepared for the harvest by sipping tea made from the wild sage that grows around his olive trees. He’d returned the day before from three grueling days of welding in Israel – a job he gets to illegally because he has no permit to enter Israel, the reason he asked to use a pseudonym. He’d cleared a month for harvesting his olive trees and dreamed of the day he could live off the land.

“I don’t look at the money,” Mahmoudi said. “I come here to relax.”

As recently as 70 years ago, life for olive farmers in Kafr Bara and Qarawat Bani Hassan in the West Bank was largely the same, but today the harvest reflects the growing disparities between Palestinians who live in the West Bank and their more prosperous brethren who hold Israeli citizenship and grapple with a divided loyalty to people and country. These differences have been thrown into sharp relief amid a gruesome month of violence that’s claimed the lives of 11 Israelis and at least eight Palestinians, both assailants and demonstrators.

War divided community

Kafr Bara and Qarawat Bani Hassan were once a single farming community whose residents lived in the West Bank mountains in winter and moved to the coastal plain that became modern-day Israel during the summer wheat harvest. After Israel’s 1948 war for independence, the villagers who remained in Kafr Bara became part of Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority, while those in Qarawat Bani Hassan became Jordanians, until Israel occupied the West Bank during the Six-Day War of 1967.

Being part of Israel transformed life in Kafr Bara, today home to 3,500 people. The nascent state confiscated nearly half the village’s land and gave it to new Jewish communities – and the village’s farmers were forced into working in the Israeli economy. Minutes from Israel’s main highway, it became a transportation hub. Today, elegant stone-faced villas line neatly paved roads. Banana trees spread their glossy leaves over the sidewalks. Dozens of trucks park outside the town’s homes. It has one of the highest rates of university degrees among Arab Israeli villages.

The village’s farmland totals just 350 acres, mostly small family patches of olive trees and some cash crops such as avocado, according to town council head Mahmood Assi.

Over the border, the 5,000 residents of Qarawat Bani Hassan live in cinder-block homes along steep, narrow, potholed streets with no sidewalks. In the first years after Israel took control, villagers worked in Israel, roads were paved and the village was linked to water and electricity. Qarawat Bani Hassan seemed poised to follow Kafr Bara away from farming and toward prosperity.

All that changed after Palestinians tried to shake off Israeli rule with violent revolts in 1987 and 2000. In 2002 Israel erected a security barrier roughly along its border with the West Bank. Today, only 15 residents have permits to work in Israel; another 150 work in Israeli settlements, according to the mayor, Amar Rayan. The rest of the residents work in manufacturing, as shopkeepers or as farmers on the village’s sprawling 3,700 acres.

Arab Israelis such as Mohsein Assi, who pick rain-fed trees by hand, are living relics in Israel. Reuven Birger, a retired olive specialist at Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture, said the only way to make a living from olives in Israel was to plant trees 10 times more densely than they naturally grew, irrigate regularly and invest in expensive picking machinery. This intensive farming is responsible for most of the $60 million olive oil industry in Israel, he said.

In the West Bank, Assi’s – and Mahmoudi’s – methods are the norm. The annual harvest there is worth about $200 million. Fair-trade olive oil exporter Nasser Abufarha said that about 150,000 West Bank families relied on olive trees as a safety net against an economy hobbled by Israeli restrictions and Palestinian mismanagement.

“A lot of families retain a major portion of their crop for their extended family,” Abufarha said. “And it provides extra income, especially in the winter, when opportunities for other income are less.”

This year’s olive harvest took place against a backdrop of violence in Israel and the West Bank; some of that conflict has seeped into Arab Israeli society, as when Kheir Hamdan, 22, wielded a knife at a police car in his village of Kafr Kanna in northern Israel. Security camera footage appeared to show officers shooting Hamdan without warning, violating protocol. Hamdan’s death triggered a wave of protests across Arab Israeli villages.

In the Arab Israeli town of Taybeh, north of Kafr Bara, Arab-Israeli demonstrators torched the car of a Jewish driver; the driver survived because a town resident dragged him out of his car. Police arrested more than 40 Arab Israeli protesters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at first suggested revoking the citizenship of Arab Israelis who agitated against Israel. He later backpedaled.

“Do not be swept away by propaganda and incitement,” he urged Israeli Arabs. “You are citizens with equal rights and equal obligations, and the first obligation of any citizen is to respect the law.”

Alienation and frustration

Jafar Farah, the director of the Mossawa Center, which advocates for Arabs in Israel, said the current Israeli government had alienated Arab citizens. However, he said young Arabs in Israel were also frustrated at a sense of narrowing opportunities. A 2012 Bank of Israel report found income gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens widening.

“The youth confronting police in Kafr Kanna don’t see any political or economic future,” Farah said.

In Kafr Bara, Assi is removed from these conflicts. He built his clothing factory in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Emmanuel to take advantage of inexpensive Palestinian labor without the risks of working in a Palestinian village.

“Israelis are afraid of letting merchandise from (Palestinian West Bank) villages out through the checkpoints,” Assi said. “So in the settlement, I supervise better, and I have cameras, and so we have no problems in Israel. This is our country too, and we are careful.”

On his daily drive into the West Bank, Assi sees the difficulties his extended family and other Palestinians face. Asked whether he thought of helping them, he was at a loss.

“How?” he asked. “They didn’t ask for help. Or we have no way to help them. We are Palestinians inside Israel.”

Across the border, Mahmoudi feels the conflict every time he dodges the border. He learned Hebrew working for 15 years as a welder in Israel – until Israeli soldiers denied him entry in 2010 after an anonymous tip. Mahmoudi said he never learned who said what about him, despite hiring a lawyer and a private investigator. When he lost his permit, he closed his workshop in Israel, opened one in his home village and began slipping his metalwork and tools across the checkpoints; every job is an elaborate dance.

“All my work is in Israel,” he said. “Here, in the territories, there is no money.”

Mahmoudi said he was caught once sneaking into Israel and sentenced to three and a half months in jail. Another time he was caught with a false identity. His wife, Iman – also a false name – said it was brutal to watch him go.

“We are afraid when my husband goes to Israel,” she said. “Maybe the Israelis will catch him, will shoot him. When we see him back in the house, we are relieved.”

Harvesting 4 acres vs. dozens

Mohsein Assi’s children study in Israeli schools and universities. Harvesting olives on four acres is obviously a sideline. Assi’s eldest son, Adam, said working in the olive groves was a substitute for his daily run. Assi’s other two sons wore headphones as they worked, dropping olives onto tarps and funneling the fruit into sacks. The work was slow and pleasant in the fall breeze. Assi said he and his family would probably use most of the oil squeezed from the olives themselves, though he might sell a few cans.

The work in the Mahmoudi olive groves was harder. The land was endless. Mahmoudi and his brothers own about 63 acres together, planted in ancient terraces. Trees grow on hillsides so steep that no tarp could catch all the olives. Instead, Mahmoudi’s wife picked one side of the tree olive by olive while he raked down the other side with his fingers. His 73-year-old mother-in-law clambered into a tree beside them. Mahmoudi said he had a second stretch of olive trees near the adjacent settlement of Revava. The settlement annexed part of his land; to access the rest, he must coordinate each visit with Israeli soldiers.

Once a month, Assi visits his cousin in Qarawat Bani Hassan and the two men talk about work nonstop. Asked whether he envied his cousin, Mahmoudi said he accepted his fate.

“If the case was that Mohsein and the others were working and I couldn’t eat, it would be different,” Mahmoudi said. “But I look at myself. We have money, thank God. I have work, and there’s money in it like gold.”

Mahmoudi said the profits from the olive oil he’d produce could total up to 20 percent of his yearly earnings. He hoped to retire from metalwork soon and rely on his olives for an income. It’s a pastoral dream Assi could never hold.

The olive harvest ends in late November in the West Bank and Israel. Assi already has returned to his work in his factory; Mahmoudi will resume playing cat-and-mouse with Israeli authorities in the coming days.

Prodded further, Mahmoudi conceded his life was a challenge. “He lives,” Mahmoudi said of his cousin. “I don’t live.”

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