Why has the Sharon-Ben-Eliezer-Peres government collapsed? Because of a small olive.
It started like a children’s tale: Once upon a time there was a small olive in a Palestinian village. It grew and ripened on a branch of an old tree in a grove on the top of a hill. “Pick me! I want to give my oil!” the little olive pleaded.
But it went on ripening, and the pickers did not come. They could not reach it, because the settlers had set up two mobile homes on the hill, and the whole area became a “security region” of this outpost. When the owners of the grove approached, the settlers cursed them, beat them up and started shooting. This happened at dozens of locations all over the West Bank.
The villagers called the IDF, which now controls all the Palestinian territories. But the army did not come to protect them. Many of the army officers are themselves settlers. The army considers that its job is to defend the settlers, and does not like the idea of confronting them. When the army did interfere, it was to drive the villagers out of their groves near the outposts.
In their plight, the villagers called on the Israeli peace organizations. They found them willing.
The Israeli “peace camp” consists of two parts. One, centered around “Peace Now,” is connected with the Labor party, which was a pillar of the government. The party chief served as Minister of Defense and was, therefore, responsible for all the iniquities committed in the Palestinian territories.
The other part of the peace camp consists of many radical groups, each active in its chosen sector. “Gush Shalom” is a political and ideological center. “Taayush,” an Arab-Jewish Israeli group, is aiding the besieged Palestinian population. “B’Tselem” collects and publishes data, as does the “Alternative Information Center.” “Physicians for Human Rights” does a wonderful job in the medical field, while the Women’s Coalition for Peace and Bat-Shalom combine human rights activities with a feminist agenda. “The Committee against House Demolition” initiates the rebuilding of homes destroyed by the army, and “Rabbis for Human Rights” is acting on behalf of the (unfortunately, tiny) religious community that does not follow the fanatical nationalist banner. “Machsom Watch” reports and tries to prevent abuses at the checkpoints. “Yesh Gvul” helps soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories. “New Profile” is active in the same area. The list is long. Activists of different groups frequently cooperate, and many belong to more than one.
The activists of these organizations volunteered to help the villagers. They went out to pick olives and to defend the villagers as a “human shield.” They were joined by European peace activists, who come in shifts to help the occupied Palestinian population. On some days there were dozens of Israeli and international activists in the groves, on Saturdays there were hundreds. They were dispersed in different villages, went up the hills and were attacked by the settlers. In dozens of incidents, the settlers started shooting into the air and at the ground around the olive pickers.
During long weeks, the public did not hear anything about these events. There is a conspiracy of silence in the media concerning the very existence of a radical peace camp. “Peace Now” is considered somehow as belonging to the national consensus, and therefore its actions are (scantily) reported. The actions of the more principled and energetic forces (“The Deep Left” in the words of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who abhors them) were not reported at all, unless there was bloodshed.
But slowly, reports about the War of the Olives began to infiltrate the media: about the settlers driving the Palestinians away and robbing them of the olives they had picked; about settlers who picked the olives in the groves themselves after driving the owners away; about settlers setting fire to groves; about the former Chief Rabbi, who announced that Jews are justified in taking away the fruits for which the Arab villagers had toiled, because God has given the fruit of the Land to the Jews.
The conspiracy of silence was finally broken when a group of famous writers organized a token olive picking. The media, which had ignored the devoted work of the hundreds of anonymous activists, were happy to join celebrities like Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and Me’ir Shalev. The olive picking became part of the consensus.
The settlers have never been popular with great parts of the public. The anger grew when it became known that the poor in Israel were deprived of large sums of money in order to fatten the settlements. The anger was mixed with anxiety for the soldiers, who were frequently beaten by the settlers, while risking their lives to protect remote, half-empty settlements. The stories about the cruel harassment of defenseless olive pickers were just too much. They evoked repulsion and loathing even in the Silent Majority.
This had an indirect impact on Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, too. He noticed the changing public mood and decided that it is now in his and the party’s interest to leave the government. He was feverishly looking for a pretext. Public opinion polls indicated that the settlers are now the most unpopular group in the country. He decided, therefore, to break up the government on the point. He suddenly demanded that the government take away money from the settlements and give it to the pensioners.
This was only a pretext, but it shows that a great part of the public is fed up with the settlements. At long last, the settlements have become the central object of controversy. While Ariel Sharon is trying to set up a government based on the settlers and their allies on the extreme right, the Labor Party, now in opposition, will be compelled to present an anti-settlements program. Thus, the slogan of a small, “marginal” minority is becoming the program of a large camp.
This is an example of the working of the “small wheel” doctrine formulated by us decades ago: A small wheel with a strong independent drive turns a bigger wheel, which turns an even bigger wheel, and so on, until the whole big machine starts operating. That’s how a small political group, with an independent and determined agenda, can drive decisive political processes when the timing is right.
We still have a long way to go. The danger of fascism is still hovering over this country. However, it has now been proven that things can be moved in the opposite direction.
Perhaps the small olive on the hill is mightier than a one-ton bomb.
URI AVNERY has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation. Avnery is featured in the new book, The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent.