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Activist rabbi aids West Bank farmers amid Israeli settler violence

Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights says Israelis can't differentiate between Palestinian terrorists and victims

US-born Israeli Reform Jewish rabbi Arik Ascherman, a member of the Israeli human rights organization Rabbis for Human Rights helps Palestinians during the olive harvest at a grove outside Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on Nov. 9.

US-born Israeli Reform Jewish rabbi Arik Ascherman, a member of the Israeli human rights organization "Rabbis for Human Rights" helps Palestinians during the olive harvest at a grove outside Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on Nov. 9. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 13, 2023 05:16 AM GMT

Updated: November 13, 2023 05:20 AM GMT

Stooping under the weight of his body armor but uncowed by the threat of violence, Rabbi Arik Ascherman guards an olive grove in the occupied West Bank, protecting Palestinian farmers from rising Israeli settler violence.

"There is no excuse, there is no explanation, no justification for what Hamas did" in its October 7 attacks on southern Israel, said the 64-year-old, a veteran activist with the Rabbis for Human Rights group.

"But the average Israeli today is not prepared or willing to distinguish between Palestinian terrorists and terrorized Palestinians," he added, alluding to reports of a rise in settler attacks since October 7.

"It's an all-out war between two peoples," said Ascherman outside the village of Taybeh, as farmers whacked olives weeping with oil onto pinstripe tarpaulins skirting the tree trunks.

"Nobody at this point is willing to help Palestinians, out of our pain and our anger."

Nearby his comrades -- even if they are only a handful -- prove him wrong. They are posted as lookouts, prepared to face off with settlers who may descend at any moment to harass and fight the farmers.

"Over the 28 years I've been doing this, I generally did not see myself as marginalized," said Ascherman, who has long campaigned against settler violence in the West Bank.

"There were always a significant number of Israelis who at least passively supported and agreed with what we were doing," he said.

"Today that's evaporated. There's almost no support."

'Our fear has doubled' 

Since Hamas militants stormed southern Israel five weeks ago, killing some 1,200 people -- mostly civilians -- according to Israel, there has been a dramatic rise in assaults by Israeli settlers on Palestinians living in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Before October 7 there were an average of three incidents of settler violence per day, according to the UN, but since the outbreak of the war, it has risen to seven.

In late October, a farmer 14 kilometers (nine miles) north of Taybeh was killed by settlers whilst tending his olive trees, according to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

"Since the war has begun there has been a growing number of incidents in which violent settlers have been documented attacking nearby Palestinian communities while wearing military uniform and using government-issued weapons," B'Tselem said.

The Israeli military said it appeared "an off-duty IDF (army) soldier participated in the event", adding it had launched an inquiry.

"Our fear over the settlers has doubled since (October) 7," said 63-year-old Palestinian Sameer Abedalkareem, his family working on trees in the nearby village of Dura al-Karia.

"We haven't been able to go to our land, because settlers and the Israeli army shoot towards us."

The sprawling vistas of gnarled olive trees planted in the ochre earth of the West Bank have been the site of clashes between farmers and encroaching settlers for decades, with the disputes hinging on access to land.

For Palestinians, the hardy olive, which thrives in tough conditions and can live for hundreds of years, is a symbol of their rootedness in the territory, where an estimated 10 million trees grow.

But this year's harvest coincided with the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas.

"Before, the olive-picking month was like a festival, but today it's nothing like that," said Abedalkareem's wife, 60-year-old Suad Mahmoud.

"Olives are very important to us, and without them, we couldn't live," she said.

"It's the most basic thing in our lives."

'Another front' 

In response to the Hamas attacks, Israel has launched a land, sea and air assault on the Gaza Strip, killing upwards of 11,000 people in the narrow Palestinian territory according to its Hamas-run health ministry.

In the West Bank, more than 180 Palestinians have been killed in settler attacks or increasing army raids, according to the Ramallah-based Palestinian health ministry. The figure includes some militants.

The UN says in almost half of settler incidents since October 7 "Israeli forces accompanied or actively supported the attackers".

"From our perspective, it's like the settlers are trying to open another front," said Dani Brodsky, Rabbis for Human Rights's director for the occupied Palestinian territories.

"We pray for peace and we hope things will get better and we're willing to put the work in," he said, wearing a padded lacrosse glove to soften blows he may take if settlers show up.

Ascherman turned to the Old Testament to explain the current plight of the Palestinians in the West Bank, citing the scripture when Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish faith, protests God's wrathful decision to wipe out the city of Sodom to punish the sins of its residents.

"How dare you, God, sweep away the innocent with the guilty?" Ascherman said.

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