Stooping under the weight of his body armor but uncowed by the threat of violence, Rabbi Arik Ascherman guards an olive grove in the West Bank, protecting Palestinian farmers from rising 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 Israeli 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 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 extremist settlers who may descend 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 terrorists stormed southern Israel five weeks ago, killing some 1,200 people — mostly civilians — there has been a rise in assaults by settlers on Palestinians in the West Bank.
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. The Shin Bet has reportedly warned Israel’s leaders that rising violence could cause a conflagration in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week warned settlement mayors about a “tiny handful of extremists” carrying out violence against Palestinians that could lead to an escalation in the West Bank, amid concerns from Washington over the phenomenon.
But within hours of issuing that statement, which went further than the premier had gone in the past in condemning settler violence, his office issued an additional quote from the meeting with the mayors in which Netanyahu also told them: “I told President Biden that the accusations against the settlement movement are baseless.” He appeared to be referring to the movement as a whole.
“There is a small extreme minority that does not come from the settlement movement. We condemn them and will deal with them with all the severity of the law,” Netanyahu claimed to have told Biden.
In late October, a farmer 14 kilometers (nine miles) north of Taybeh was killed by settlers while tending his olive trees, according to human rights group B’Tselem.
The suspect in that incident, an off-duty soldier, was arrested and the investigation is ongoing.
“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 alleged.
“Our fear over the settlers has doubled since [October] 7,” said 63-year-old Palestinian Sameer Abedalkareem, whose family was 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 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.”
In response to Hamas’s massacres, Israel has launched a land, sea and air assault on the Gaza Strip, aimed at destroying Hamas’s military and governance capabilities, and has vowed to eliminate the terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates.
There have been frequent clashes in the West Bank since the war in the Gaza Strip began.
Troops have arrested more than 1,570 wanted Palestinians in the West Bank, including some 950 affiliated with Hamas, according to the IDF.
According to data from the Palestinian Authority health ministry, at least 176 West Bank Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, and a few by settlers, since October 7.
The UN says in almost half of incidents of settler violence 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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report