by Lior Sheffer
In October, 2007, I participated in an olive harvest in a small Palestinian village south of Hebron, called Susia. Right next to it there is a settlement by the same name. My past personal acquaintance was with the latter.
In March 2002, I was a ‘Tzoer’
(cadet) in the IDF’s officer's course. On the evening of Passover that month, a suicide bomber went into Park Hotel’s Passover Seder and exploded. In response, operation ‘Defensive Shield’ was launched. The IDF took over all Palestinian-controlled cities of the West Bank. Needing manpower, the IDF deployed the cadets to the West Bank. I ended up guarding and patrolling Susia for about a week.
While in Susia, I came face to face with a population I only read about in the newspaper. The settlers described life in Susia as ‘pastoral’ and laid back. However, the longer I stayed, the more ‘slips of tongue’ I heard. They commented about harassment by the surrounding villagers, the Jewish right for this land, and that Palestinians illegally took the land and that the settlers' mission was to ‘Judaize’ the area.
Obviously, they never said a word about the Palestinians that died in the area over the last two years. Or, about the standards of living in the neighboring villages compared to the running water and electricity in Jewish Susia.
The settlers’ point of view on things in South Hebron was the one taken by the military. The commander of the platoon we replaced talked about the neighboring villages as ‘threats’, ranging from ‘violent’ to ‘dangerous’. Our mission while patrolling the Jewish Susia perimeter was to keep the local population away from the settlement.
This is what we did. We walked around the place day and night looking for ‘intruders’, who always were lone shepherds with their sheep or goats. There was a specific guard post overlooking Palestinian Susia where we spent a lot of time. Primarily, our interaction with the Palestinians happened at that post.
Less than 100 meters away was an olive grove that belonged to the locals. Seeing a couple of patrolling soldiers was enough for them to turn back quickly. Besides shouts and threats made by us, we never had any real confrontation. Had it happened, we had the authority to fire on our own will. The atmosphere at that time was one in which such an event would have hardly been regarded critically by commanders.
By the end of the week, my feeling was of disgust and dismay at the settlers' behavior, and the way they harness the military for their racist and fundamentalist aspirations.
Tongue-in-cheek, I told a fellow cadet and friend of mine that my next visit to Jewish Susia would be riding a bulldozer.
When a friend told me of the olive harvest in Palestinian Susia, I knew I had to go. Packed with over 50 volunteers, the bus made its way toward Susia. Again, I saw the scenery I had seen for the first time, five years ago. I felt excitement and anxiety upon seeing the two sides of Susia.
When we pulled over across from Jewish Susia and met with the local people from Palestinian Susia, we split into small groups to harvest different olive groves. A couple of minutes later, I found myself making my way toward the same olive groves above which I was standing as a soldier, preventing Palestinians from approaching.
We started working. I kept sneaking peeks at Jewish Susia, seeing soldiers observe us from the same post I patrolled. Youssef, whose family's olive grove we were harvesting, told me they have not been able to harvest these areas for the last couple of years because of their fear of the settler and military reaction. I stood beneath the olive trees realizing, I drove people from this place just five years ago.
Finally, I was taking an active stand towards the occupying apparatus I was once part of.
I know that the harvest in Susia, along with its display of good will and cooperation, is an exception to the general rule in the West Bank. No one can foresee the day where this sort of activity will be the norm.