Middle East

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Olive Branch War

Vandalized olive trees in the West Bank village of Burin. (Photo courtesy of Erik Schechter)

Mayor Raed Najar sits in his unheated Burin office, his dark wool jacket buttoned up and a glass of Arab coffee steaming in front of him. Next to him is a twenty-something man in black fatigues — the village Civil Defense officer — who cleans his fingernails with a scissor taken from the mayor's desk.

The problem is a simple one, says Najar. Farmers from his West Bank village fear being shot should they wander too close to the hilltop settlements of Har Bracha and Yitzhar. As a result, the land bordering these two communities has lied fallow for years and, when finally cultivated, is done so by Israelis, who then claim it as their own.

"The settlers then say it's their land because they planted olive trees there," Najar says, his burly, over-the-top fireman nodding in approval, "but we would be there every day if they would let us."

In December, left-wing Israeli activists accompanied Palestinian farmers to a long-abandoned field near Har Bracha — an incident that escalated into a confrontation with settlers (one threw himself between the wheels of an Arab-operated tractor). Soon afterward, orchards in Burin were plagued by mysterious attacks leaving olive trees shorn of all their branches.

But vandals have not just attacked Burin.

According to Israeli police, over 730 olive trees throughout the West Bank were damaged last year and still more have been attacked in January. Radical settler teens top the Shin Bet's list of suspects, but no one has been caught red-handed. Meanwhile, the government, despite howling about law and order, has taken precious few steps to curb the phenomenon.

Feuding Neighbors

Burin is a little patch of Palestinian Authority (P.A.) sandwiched between Yitzhar to the south and Har Bracha to the north. A Palestinian flag flies over the municipal building — not far from an equally prominent, red Popular Front banner — while political graffiti and murals of the late P.A. chairman Yasir Arafat cover the village's winding garden walls.

The population of Burin once reached into the tens of thousands but has since dwindled to 3,500 as most residents have left for Arab countries or the United States. According to a village councilman interviewed by the Israeli human rights group Btselem, many had worked on construction sites in Israel proper, but the outbreak of the 2000-2004 al-Aqsa Intifada killed those jobs.

What's left is farming, and much of that, growing olives.

But the olive tree — whose branch, held aloft by a white dove, represents peace — has been the center of a symbolic and, at the same time, very real conflict between Israeli settlers and Palestinian villagers. The former, charge human rights activists, have repeatedly raided Arab orchards to steal olives and have prevented Palestinians from reaching land near settlements.

"Most of the [Yitzhar and Har Bracha] settlers are religious," says Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who heads the left-wing group Rabbis for Human Rights. "They believe that God gave them all the Palestinians' land."

And they do not distinguish between political sovereignty and individual property claims.

This broad, divine mandate is enforced with violence. In one Btselem report, a 26-year-old talks of an encounter his father, a harvester, had with Yitzhar settlers back in 2000. "My father was beaten in the head with a metal pipe," recounts Ma'amun As'us. "As a result, he was taken to the hospital, where he required ten stitches to close the wounds."

Like so many others, Ma'amun's father never returned to his property, located at what the army calls "points of fiction." Settlers then interpret such absences as further proof the land is not truly Palestinian and go about planting their own olive trees in the fallow soil, literally and figuratively sinking roots there.

Reversing Course

Rabbis for Human Rights have, on several occasions, accompanied Palestinian field workers out to these problematic areas (which, says the groups, accounts for at least 17 percent of Burin's total acreage) in hopes of halting the land expropriation.

Such outings irritate the settlers. In April, for instance, the hard-right news outlet Arutz-7 grumbled that "Arabs and far-left agitators" had flaunted Yitzhar's security by plowing land near a settlement outpost. However, Ascherman sensed that farming near an outpost of Har Bracha in early December might lead to a revenge attack.

"The area hadn't been worked on by Palestinians in years," he says. "Some say eight. Others say 15. Whatever the case, it was a long enough time for the settlers to think it was theirs."

They had even planted saplings, which the Palestinians aimed to plow up.

Sure enough, Ascherman's suspicions were confirmed when, in mid-December, 140 olive trees in Burin on the Har Bracha side of the village were vandalized. Thirty more trees were attacked two days later. Then, at the end of the month, 30 trees were struck on the southern, Yitzhar side and another 30 trees were damaged in January.

All the attacks occurred during rainy days with low visibility or at night.

Three other West Bank villages — Salem, Awarta, and Ayn Abus — have likewise been plagued in 2005 by such vandalism, but no one has ever been caught damaging trees. "It would be fantastic if we had eyewitnesses, but we don't," says Yael Handelman, data coordinator for Btselem.

Counting Trees

A settler official told Worldpress.org that he has toured the affected villages together with an agricultural expert and the commanders of the army's District Coordinating Office and Judea and Samaria Division, and he is convinced that at least some of the Palestinian claims are justified.

"I don't know who did it," says the source, "but I can say that, yes, some trees were vandalized."

However, he insists that the number of vandalized trees has been exaggerated and that some of the trees in question have actually been pruned, their stumps treated by Palestinian farmers. Admittedly, it is an interpretation at odds with what the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.) believes.

Back in Burin, Ascherman and Najar drive out to an orchard where about dozen trees have been cut to the trunk.

"Do these look pruned to you?" asks Ascherman.

Hiding behind the settler leader's skepticism is the fear, supported by angry comments in the Israeli press, that the public will link West Bank outposts (99 in total, according to Peace Now) to the tree-cutting incidents. This, in turn, will pressure the government to live up to its commitment to the Road Map peace plan and take them down.

"If Israeli hooligans are doing this, catch them and punish them," says the settler official. "But don't punish a whole community. No one ever talked about destroying a Palestinian village because terrorists came from there."

But the outposts are not just any community.

Many are illegal according to Israeli law (as opposed to settlements as a whole, which Israel considers legal but most other countries deem a violation of international law), and incidents, such as tree-cuttings and June's theft of military equipment from an I.D.F. post in Yitzhar, contribute to the notion that outposts foster a culture of lawbreaking.

A Fading Issue

When the story of the tree vandalism broke, the authorities took action — sort of.

The liberal daily Ha'aretz reported in late December that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz called for a panel comprising military, police and Shin Bet brass to investigate the tree-felling episode. In addition, the Border Police have assigned a company to crack down on Israeli lawbreakers in the northern West Bank, an I.D.F. spokeswoman says.

But the Shin Bet and army have mostly been pointing fingers at each other.

Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Jan. 10 that the army knows exactly who is responsible for the vandalism but does nothing about it. I.D.F. sources fired back that the domestic intelligence agency has been less cooperative than it pretends to be.

Meanwhile, the fate of Palestinian-owned olive trees have been overtaken by more pressing issues, such as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hemorrhagic stroke and the P.A. election victory of Hamas.

The Prime Minister's Office has not answered questions from Worldpress.org regarding investigation into the crimes and compensation and security for Palestinian farmers. But Mayor Najar is insistent that the ball is in Jerusalem's court: "This is something the Israeli government must solve."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Erik Schechter.