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Israel targets Arab farmers. Palestinians worry that West Bank olive crop will be next victim of Army's campaign to squash uprising

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Israel is putting a new spin on an old tactic designed to contain the Palestinian uprising, now in its 10th month. Since the uprising began, Israel has used ``collective punishment'' such as curfews to penalize entire communities for the deeds of young stone-throwers and anti-Israeli demonstrators.

Now the tactic is being applied through restrictions on agriculture. If used widely, the measures could devastate the economy of the West Bank.

Marketing restrictions imposed by the Israeli Army hobbled this year's harvest of the West Bank's $6 million plum and $18 million grape crops.

Palestinians are watching anxiously to see whether Israel will also disrupt the olive harvest, beginning in October. An expected bumper crop could be worth $125 million and provide 30 percent of the West Bank's income.

``If the olive producers face any picking, pressing, or marketing restrictions, it will be a disaster for the farmers and for the West Bank economy,'' says Adnan Obeidat, a specialist on West Bank farm cooperatives.

Israel is unlikely to choose to bring the entire industry to its knees, given the probable negative public relations fallout and the need to preserve a merchant middle class in the territories, several West Bank sources concede.

``If they do it everywhere, it will attract too much international attention, but in one or 10 villages, who cares about it?'' a West Bank economist says.

Economic sanctions used by Israel to break the intifadah began with punitive measures against merchants who observed commercial strikes. They were expanded to include restrictions on the flow of outside money to the territories. The stiffest sanctions have been new collective punishments, including cutoffs of fuel and food to several refugee camps and Arab villages.

Israel's focus is now on efforts to disrupt the marketing of agricultural goods that constitute the backbone of the West Bank and Gaza economies.

``The Israelis are targeting the economic infrastructure to break the spirit of the uprising,'' the economist says.

Many villages in the northern West Bank depend exclusively on revenues from olive production. In a sector that generates 1.5 million man-hours of work, already serious unemployment problems could be exacerbated if Israel closed down some or all of the West Bank's 280 olive presses.

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