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Settlers target the olive pickers
in the battle for land

by Justin Huggler in Yanun, West Bank

The village of Yanun is an unlikely front line. But the violence here almost daily is just as vital to the future of Israelis and Palestinians as the suicide bombings and battles between tanks and gunmen. It is violence that goes to the heart of the issues over which the Israeli government collapsed this week.

One of the most recent victims was a 68-year-old woman from Bolton, Greater Manchester, beaten by Jewish settlers until she fell to the ground and told: "Next time, you'll get a bullet." Up here, amid the crumbling limestone houses and rolling hills, Palestinian villagers are being attacked almost daily every time they try to harvest their olives.

For many, the olives are their only livelihood but the beatings and shootings are about much more than that. They are about the land and who owns it. For the hills that surround Yanun are covered with new outposts built by Jewish settlers living in the nearby settlement of Itamar built illegally on occupied land under international law, the same as all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The settlers are the ones who attack the Palestinians farming olives.

Similar attacks have been going on in other villages. In Yanun, the Palestinians lost the battle. Unable to take any more, they packed up and left. That, says Daniel Milo, an Israeli peace activist, was what the aggressors wanted: the settlers want all the land here and Yanun is in the way. "The settlements are a cancer, and these are the metastasis [spread]," as Mr Milo put it.

Could Yanun be a taste of what is to come? Increasingly, the far right in Israel talks about "transfer" expelling all the Palestinians from the West Bank. After the collapse of his coalition government this week, Ariel Sharon is reportedly trying to persuade the far-right National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu group of parties, some of whom openly advocate "transfer", to join a new coalition. The Labor leader, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, may have pulled his party out of government in a desperate bid to fend off a party leadership challenge, but it was not for nothing he chose to leave over a row on funding for the settlements, deeply unpopular with his left-wing supporters.

Even America has called on the Israeli government to stop the settlements expanding something Mr. Sharon made clear he does not want to do.

The villagers are back in Yanun now. They agreed to move back after peace activists such as Mr Milo, both Israeli and international, volunteered to come with them as shields.

The generator that used to supply the village with electricity is a burnt-out ruin. The settlers did that, the Palestinians say. Abdal Bani Jabr, a villager in his forties, said the settlers used to ride in to Yanun on horseback in the middle of the night and beat the villagers. Twice, he got a beating. The first time he needed seven stitches above his left eye.

Hani Bani Minyeh, a farmer from the nearby village of Aqrabeh, was shot dead when he went to pick his olives. The settlers who attacked Yanun claimed they were defending themselves from Palestinian militants. That was until this week, when four of the peace volunteers got to experience the violence at first hand.
They went olive-picking with the villagers and were attacked. James Delaplain, a 74-year-old from Wisconsin, was so badly beaten that he finds it painful to stand up. Mary Hughes-Thompson, 68, from Bolton, who now lives in Los Angeles, showed us her left arm covered in black bruises. Two other activists, an Israeli and an Irishman, were also beaten.

When the settlers began threatening them, the peace activists say, they agreed with the Palestinian farmers to go back to the village. The Palestinians left first, so the volunteers would be between them and the settlers. "I remember saying just a few days before,'What can they do to me, they won't attack me at my age'," Ms Hughes-Thompson said.

She saw the settlers attack Mr Delaplain. "I was very afraid for James, I thought I'd got away. Suddenly a young guy stepped in front of me. I was going to say something but, before I could, he hit me. Two others came up and hit me, in the ribs. The first guy kept saying 'You want to be dead? You want to be dead?' "

Eventually the settlers let Ms Hughes-Thompson and the other peace volunteers go. But there is no doubt any more over the violence being perpetrated in Yanun.

Mr Bani Jabr, the villager, said: "I decided to bring my family back when I got a better feeling, after I saw these people [the peace activists] coming here to help. But now, after the volunteers were attacked, I'm afraid to stay here at all."