KAFR QADDUM — A rifle-toting Israeli soldier pointed to a dozen of Palestinian farmers heading to their olive grove in the northern West Bank.
"They are a security risk," he said, ordering the villagers off a hillside just outside Qedumim settlement in the northern West Bank, reported Agence France-Presse (AFP).
As delighted settlers watched on, soldiers forced the Palestinian farmers from nearby Kafr Qaddum village off their land.
"It has become worse," said British activist Hellela Siew, 64, who has travelled from Britain for the past six year to take part in the annual Palestinian olive harvest.
In recent weeks, settlers have stepped attacks at Palestinian farmers across the West Bank at the beginning of the annual olive harvest.
Worse still, Israeli soldiers often turn a blind eye the settler attacks.
"Soldiers usually watch the settlers attack, then kick people out and declare it a closed military area," said Jamal Juma, a Palestinian with the Stop the Wall Campaign.
The West Bank economy largely depends on the annual olive harvest.
"The production of olive oil is absolutely central to the Palestinian economy," European Commission representative John Kjaer.
This year’s harvest is expected to contribute 123 million dollars to the Palestinian economy, or 18 percent of the territories’ total agricultural production.
The United Nations says up to 100,000 families depend on the olive harvest to some extent for their livelihood.
But many farmers are cut off from their olive groves by the Israeli separation barrier and Jewish settlements, and need special permits to access their fields through barriers that only open at set times.
Foreign activists have joined the Palestinians in picking up their olive harvest and defend them against settler attacks.
"We do this because we want to defend Palestinians’ rights to their land," said Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, of the Israeli Rabbis for Human Rights which organizes volunteer teams to work in olive groves.
"As a last resort we stand between Palestinian farmers and the settlers," said Grenimann, who was born in Australia.
Around him, half a dozen volunteers plucked olives — some with their fingers, others using small plastic rakes — which they dropped onto tarpaulins laid out on the rocky ground.
German activist Lukas Mall denounced the Israeli treatment of Palestinian civilians.
"They say Israel is a democracy, yet they prevent Palestinians from picking olives," said Mall, 24, who was among the volunteers turned back from a hillside near Qedumim.
As the army pushed the group away, Kafr Qaddum Mayor Mohammed Abu Nimer led villagers and Palestinian activists in chanting "This land is our land, the settlers are thieves. All we want is peace and our land."
"They don’t want peace, they want trouble," said Mall, as settlers Esther Karach glared at the Palestinians.
Picking olives with an energy that belied his 75 years of age, Israeli volunteer Jonah Ben Tal hopes that his help would counter the shame he feels for the way his country treats Palestinians.
"I don’t really see it as helping Palestinians, but I help myself. At least I can look myself in the mirror," he said.