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Destruction of Olive Trees Fuels Israeli-Palestinian Distrust - 2003-11-07

Israeli settlers in the West Bank have destroyed olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers in several areas in recent weeks, just as the farmers were preparing to harvest their crops. The issue has caused quite a stir among Israelis and Palestinians. Irris Makler visited one olive-growing area of the West Bank near the village of Ein Abus and filed this report.

Palestinian farmers from Ein Abus climb the steep, stony hills to their olive groves. The fruit is ripe, but they have not come until now because of threats from the Jewish settlers on the ridges above them - from the settlement of Yizhar and the illegal outpost it has spawned.

They have not tended these trees in almost a year. The only reason they dare to come today is that they are accompanied by Jewish volunteers from a group called Rabbis for Human Rights. Rabbi Arik Ascherman is one of its founders.

"We can't even see the mother [main] settlement from here," he said. "Here, it's a new outpost. In fact, they've just added this week new pre-fabs [pre-fabricated houses]. They don't even have a name for it yet. We just call it Hill Number 725."

Rabbi Ascherman came here a week ago to document Palestinian allegations that their olive trees had been cut down. He was attacked and beaten by a group of Jewish settlers.

"I got hit by a stone. I was kicked, threatened with clubs, pushed, etc, etc, etc.," he said "Some of them actually took my 'kipah' and said, 'You're not worthy of wearing a 'kipah,' the Jewish head covering. I felt sad that what we call this 'chilul hashem', this desecration of God's name was being done by people, most of them, in the name of religion."

Israeli grandmother Dalia Bones was also there.

"They came down from the mountain with big sticks and stones," she said.

Mrs. Bones says she confronted the settlers, and prevented them from assaulting a Palestinian farmer. But most disturbing for her was the reaction of the farmer whose trees had been cut down.

"He was an old man. He came up, and he started to hug the trees, and he was crying there and it was just horrible," she said. "It was a horrible sight."

Now, on their second visit to the area, the farmers and volunteers climb the hill on the other side of the village, watched from the ridge above by settlers armed with electric cattle prods and automatic rifles.

In the fields in between, Israeli policemen and soldiers stand guard.

When the farmers and their supporters reach the orchard, they find these trees have also been destroyed. They have been hacked in two.

The owners Amer Mustapha and Fawzi Hussein are in shock. The destruction looks fresh. Journalists manage to count more than 200 ruined trees.

"This is worse than losing a child," said Amer Mustapha. "You can have another child, but you can't replace these trees. A man may be bad, but an olive tree never can [be]. He says this is an offense against God."

The olive trees are one of the few remaining sources of income for many Palestinians, who have been prevented from reaching their jobs in Israel, or even in other parts of the West Bank, by Israeli security rules. And this type of olive tree is not easily replaced. A newly planted tree will take at least 10 years to become productive.

Fawzi Hussein, 53, is almost hysterical with grief and rage. He shouts at the Israeli police and soldiers in Hebrew, which he learned when he worked in Tel Aviv for 23 years.

Mr. Hussein says, in 23 years, he never saw Jews do anything like this. He says this is not Jewish behavior, and the people who killed his trees are not Jews, not even humans. He says only animals would do this, and God will punish them.

A soldier tells Fawzi Hussein not to be upset about the trees, because he couldn't have picked his olives anyway.

The soldier pulls out a map that he says shows that these trees were not to be harvested. Mr. Hussein and the other farmers are not impressed.

Mr. Hussein says this is his land, and he picked the olives last year, and he asks what has changed. The soldier has no clear answer, and the farmers are moved on.

The nearby settlement of Yitzhar put out a statement saying officials there do not know who destroyed the trees, but saying they are 'happy' that Palestinians will no longer have any reason to come to the area near the settlement. The Israeli Settlers Council, overall representatives of the settlers throughout the West Bank and Gaza, issued a similar statement, and accused Palestinians of using the harvest to gather intelligence for planning attacks.

Both Israel's president and prime minister have issued statements on the attacks on the olive trees. President Moshe Katsav said the struggle with the Palestinians must be conducted with 'good sense and integrity,' and urged Israelis to distinguish between ordinary Palestinians and terrorists. A statement from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office says he views the situation with 'utmost gravity,' and has 'ordered the security forces to take all possible measures to apprehend those responsible and bring them to justice.'

A spokesman for the West Bank Israeli police says there will be a full and serious investigation.

Police spokesman Doron ben Amo says police attention to the rights of Palestinian farmers has reduced the number of attacks in olive groves this year. He says they were worse last year, and included attacks on farmers, including one incident in which a settler killed a young Palestinian man.

Mr. Ben Amo argues that, due to better coordination between police and farmers, the olive picking has been largely without incident this year. But that is little consolation to the farmers whose trees have been destroyed.