Malik Maher, 15, clambered up the side of a terraced hill to his family’s olive grove like a mountain goat, occasionally pausing to laugh at the foreigners puffing below him.
But he stopped short as he came within sight of the caravans parked just a couple of hundred yards away and spotted two Israeli soldiers.
Two days earlier, a group of angry teenage boys descended from those caravans, an extension of a nearby Jewish settlement, and chased his family, including his 75-year-old great-grandmother, out of their grove.
“They pelted us with stones and chased us with sticks, so we ran away,” said Malik.
This year’s olive harvest, critical to farmers’ livelihoods as well as a traditional time for family gatherings in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank, has been the most violent ever for clashes between farmers and Israeli soldiers and settlers.
The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has urged his people to plant a million trees in protest while begging the Israeli forces to protect them, while the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak has condemned the radical Israeli settlers as “thugs”.
The violence has gone beyond the olive harvest. Israel’s attorney-general has called for an investigation into recent settler riots, in which scores of Palestinian cars had tires slashed and Muslim graves were defaced with paint after the Israeli army razed an illegal settler outpost.
“Whoever expresses himself in such a manner belongs in jail. We’ve had enough of all this violence. Verbal violence that brings physical violence – and we will not abide this,” the outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, told his cabinet recently.
But in the middle of Malik’s grove was an unexpected peacemaker – a lanky, long-bearded Israeli rabbi who has made it his mission to lead Jewish volunteers into the West Bank to shield Palestinian farmers as they bring in their crops. He speaks to the soldiers in calm but firm Hebrew, and they turn away after issuing a warning – another day’s work for Arik Ascherman, executive director of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights movement.
“I want to give credit to the security services, they are being more active this year against these attacks. But it’s a real tide of settler violence this year and they are just overwhelmed,” said Mr Ascherman, 48, who has been running the olive harvest campaign since 2002. “I’ve been beaten by security forces. I’ve been attacked by settlers. I’ve had my car stolen by Palestinians – it’s equal opportunity out here in the West Bank. But I think it’s a risk worth taking.
“As a Jew, as a rabbi, as an Israeli and as a Zionist, it’s the right thing to do.”
The spike in violence is blamed on a radical Right-wing Israeli fringe which has recently begun a campaign of protests to counter progress in peace talks, in which Israel is expected to halt settlement growth in return for a Palestinian crackdown on militant groups.
The most radical of this Israeli fringe are blamed for setting off a pipe bomb in front of a Left-wing Israeli professor’s home in September and for offering rewards for the assassination of liberal Israeli activists.
Their latest target appears to be the olive harvest, as Palestinians attempt to access land near Jewish settlements or the security barrier.
Just a mile away from Malik’s family home, dozens of Israeli soldiers had inserted themselves between a group of Palestinian farmers and Jewish residents from the nearby settlement of Kedumim. Nearby, Shosh Ilan, a 70-year-old grandmother, paraded her grandson who lost a leg during a Palestinian shooting attack six years ago. “There is no balance between what they’re saying and reality,” she scoffed, arguing the settlement was built on government land and the grove is theirs. “It has nothing to do with taking things from the Arabs.”
This time the soldiers were successful in pressing the two sides back.
Many other times in recent days, they have failed. At least 20 serious clashes have been recorded between settlers and Palestinian farmers since the olive harvest began in early October.
The fringe movement has even Israel’s settler leaders taken aback and frustrated. “We really condemn any manifestation of violence and we call on law-enforcement officers to punish the culprits,” said Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council which represents the settlements, though he argued that the confrontations are often the result of “deliberate provocation by Palestinians and Left-wing organisations, Israeli and international.”
The Israeli volunteers – some of whom refuse to work with international volunteers seen as radically anti-Israel – beg to differ. Aid agencies estimate some 2,000 Israeli volunteers helped with last year’s Palestinian olive harvest.
“Friends ask me if I’m afraid to go to the West Bank and I say I’m afraid when I see the settlers,” said Netanya Ginsburg, 69, a volunteer from Rabbis for Human Rights, pausing from stripping olives from a branch.
“One day I had a pot of animal urine and feces thrown in my face. I’ve been threatened by kids who wanted to throw stones at me,” said the South African-born retired librarian, who has been in Israel 45 years.
“But our policy is non-violent, not physical, just verbal. Arik believes in helping these people and that’s good enough for me.”