Tel Aviv -- Had they been there last month at sunset, most Israelis would not have believed their eyes.In the middle of Havarah, a small village south of Nablus, 63 Israeli men and women, young and old, were standing together with dozens of Palestinian villagers. Jews and Arabs talked together, drank juice offered by the hosts, exchanged addresses and phone numbers. The local children wore stickers brought by the guests, showing the flags of Israel and Palestine. Nobody bore arms.
All of them looked happy, and with reason: they had just finished a hard day's work picking olives. They worked together under the trees. They were together when the settlers opened fire.
All this happened deep inside Palestinian territory, after two years of violent confrontation. A feast of Israeli-Palestinian fraternization in the middle of the bloody attacks.
Since biblical times the olive tree has been the symbol of this country. It has sustained the peasants for many generations -- Canaanites, Israelites, Arabs. Throughout the year, the peasant works in the grove that has been handed down from father to son. During the few weeks of harvest, the whole family picks the olives, which are then brought to the olive press, where the golden liquid is extracted -- olive oil.
A whole family can live on 10 trees. The harsher the occupation becomes, the more it prevents movement and denies livelihood, and the more dependent on the olives the villagers become.
This is what makes the settlers' actions so dastardly. They try to prevent the harvest, to steal the fruit or burn the groves. One Palestinian boy was shot and killed while picking olives; hundreds of others were driven out. Almost every Palestinian village has groves that border on some settlement or "outpost." When the owners approach to harvest, the settlers shoot. The pretext is that when villagers pick olives near a settlement, they can see what happens there and threaten it.
In some cases, the settlers weren't satisfied with shooting, but invaded the groves and stole the olives. The prophets of Israel would be shocked. Daylight robbery. And the army keeps silent.
For decent Israelis, the conclusion is clear: they help the villagers pick the olives. They form a "human shield." During recent weeks, hundreds of Israelis have done just that, answering the calls of the various peace organizations (Gush Shalom, Ta'ayush, the Women's Coalition, a sector of Peace Now, and others.) They were divided among the villages that were in the greatest danger.
My lot was to come to Havarah, a village lying in a valley between two high mountains. Its groves are dispersed on steep slopes covered with rocks and stinging bushes. It was quite an effort just to get there. Here and there, people fell down and were scratched. But everyone arrived.
The owners of the trees took advantage of the presence of the Israelis and worked quickly. Going against accepted practice, they hit the branches with sticks to get the fruit to fall on green plastic sheets spread on the ground. Bad for the trees, but much quicker. Time was short. Everybody worked feverishly, holding the fruit-laden branches and filling buckets and sacks or gathering from the ground.
The groups that reached the top of the mountain found themselves opposite the settlers of Yitzhar, a well-known nest of fanatics, dressed in their Sabbath clothes -- black trousers, white shirts -- and holding their guns. They threatened the pickers, shot into the air and at the ground (one of the Israeli pickers was hit by a clump of earth). The shots echoed between the mountains. Forty minutes later, the soldiers appeared and, after hugging the settlers, demanded that the pickers leave the area.
They explained that the settlers were right and that the pickers were endangering the settlement. The pickers continued their work obstinately. But gradually they were pushed down the slope, closely followed by the settlers, with the soldiers in between.
In Havarah's other groves the work continued without interruption. Cigarettes were exchanged, conversations started, first haltingly, then more vividly, in spite of language difficulties. Before darkness fell, the sheets were gathered and folded, people put the heavy, full sacks on their shoulders or on donkeys and started the descent from the steep slopes, from terrace to terrace. The local boys leapt easily, the guests and the elderly moved more cautiously, holding onto bushes and supporting each other.
The Israeli pickers were happy because they'd combined a political demonstration with a useful act. The Palestinians were happy because they had saved at least part of their harvest.
In the end, an emotional farewell: hundreds of Palestinians -- men, women and children -- waved enthusiastically at the departing Israelis in the village square, the alleys and from the windows -- a whole village. The happy earnings of a day's work.
Uri Avnery, a founding member of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc), was a member of the Urgun and a combatant in the 1948 war. He also served three terms in the Israeli Knesset.