Uprooting of olive trees brings bitter harvest for Palestinians


Hundreds of olive trees have been destroyed and olive groves set on fire, apparently by Israeli settlers trying to make the lives of their owners impossible, writes MARK WEISSin Jerusalem

PALESTINIANS PROTESTING against the uprooting of olive trees by West Bank Jewish settlers yesterday blocked the main 443 motorway to Jerusalem before being dispersed by Israeli border police using stun grenades.

“As long as the Palestinians are being assaulted by the settlers, especially during the olive harvest, and as long as Palestinians’ lives are disrupted, the lives of Israelis will also be disrupted,” said a member of the local popular committee which organised the protest.

The action came a day after representatives of Israeli human rights groups urged the army to act after more than 450 olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers were vandalised in the West Bank over the last few weeks, coinciding with the start of the annual olive harvest.

The Palestinians accuse militant Jewish settlers of damaging their crops and claim the Israeli security forces fail to provide adequate protection despite similar attacks in previous years.

Representatives of the settlers claim that similar damage done to their olive trees by Palestinians is largely ignored by the media.

Dozens of olive trees were set ablaze at the weekend in the Palestinian village of Qaryut, south of Nablus. Last week Palestinian farmers from the village of Farata in the northern West Bank discovered that the olives from more than 100 of their trees had already been picked. In both cases they blamed settlers.

The annual olive harvest, which traditionally begins after the first rain of the season, has become a point of friction between Palestinian farmers and settlers.

With more than nine million olive trees in the West Bank, the crop is a vital source of revenue, providing a lifeline for many poor families. In a good year the harvest can generate €77 million in revenue.

However, Palestinian agriculture minister Waleed Assaf noted that agriculture now provided less than 6 per cent of West Bank GDP, compared to 28 per cent 20 years ago, because of Israeli land confiscation, bypass roads for settlers, the security barrier fence and wall, and restricted access for Palestinian farmers trying to reach their land.

Following complaints about settler vandalism, the Israeli security forces have stepped up protection and sent soldiers to guard some of the main groves situated close to settlements during the harvest. Most of the vandalism, however, occurs at night when the troops are absent and perpetrators are rarely caught.

The Israeli Yesh Din human rights non-governmental organisation said that of 162 attacks on Palestinian trees since 2005, only one case had led to charges. Representatives of four Israeli human rights groups told army legal advisers this week that the situation was an emergency and more vigorous action must be taken to protect the olive harvest.

Yesh Din says that this harvest season it has documented 17 incidents involving the vandalising of some 500 trees, attacks on harvesters and the theft of crops by settlers. “These incidents reflect the ongoing failure by the security forces to protect the Palestinian population and its property,” it says.

In an effort to deflect criticism of their inaction, police released a video clip, shown extensively on Israeli TV channels, showing undercover officers disguised as Palestinian shepherds arresting three settlers who attacked them in a West Bank field.

Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann from Rabbis for Human Rights, who participated in the meeting with the army officers, told The Irish Times that most of the attacks occurred in the area between Ramallah and Nablus or in the southern Hebron hills, close to militant settler outposts.

“The Torah forbids destroying fruit, even in a time of war. It is incomprehensible how someone who claims to be a religious Jew could do such a thing.”

He noted that in 2009 Israeli border police were positioned around the militant Havat Gilad outpost during the olive harvest and attacks in the area fell to almost zero.

However, according to Benny Katzover, a veteran settler leader and the chairman of the Samaria residents’ committee, more olive trees and vines owned by Jews are vandalised by Palestinians than vice versa. He says such attacks are ignored by the media, which focuses on damage done to the Palestinian harvest.

“Last year there was hundreds of thousands of shekels of damage and we made dozens of complaints to the police. In the end we had to guard our fields ourselves, set up observation posts and carry out ambushes, and then, of course, we were accused of acting like a militia.”

Mr Katzover said the settler efforts resulted in three Palestinians being prosecuted, but the deterrence effect was much more significant.

This week the settlers urged Jews in the West Bank to use video cameras to document Palestinian vandalism and what were termed attempts to fabricate settler attacks.

A video clip was posted on YouTube purporting to show Palestinians, who later complained to the police against settlers, allegedly chopping down their own olive trees. However, Palestinian farmers denied the settler claims, saying the trees the settlers documented were not the same ones that were felled.

Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi called for international observers to protect Palestinian olive farmers. “Given Israel’s support for the settlers and its refusal to allow the Palestinian Authority to provide protection through the occupied territory, the Palestinian people require international intervention to ensure their security,” she wrote in a letter to diplomats.

Robert Serry, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, said he was alarmed over the reports of settler attacks on Palestinian farmers and the destruction of hundreds of their olive trees.

“Israel must live up to its commitments under international law to protect Palestinians and their property in the occupied territory so that the olive harvest – a crucial component of Palestinian livelihoods and the Palestinian economy – can proceed unhindered and in peace,” he said.