Olive tree sabotage plagues Palestinian farmers
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Olive tree sabotage plagues Palestinian farmers

Extremist settlers seen as prime culprits in rampant vandalism throughout West Bank, with some 7,000 trees said cut down since start of 2018

Palestinian farmer Mahmoud Abu Shinar stands next to destroyed olive trees, near the West Bank village of Turmus Aya, north of Ramallah, on October 22, 2018. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
Palestinian farmer Mahmoud Abu Shinar stands next to destroyed olive trees, near the West Bank village of Turmus Aya, north of Ramallah, on October 22, 2018. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Palestinian farmer Mahmud Abu Shinar surveys two rows of severed olive trees — something he says has become a sadly familiar sight.

He didn’t see who took a chainsaw to them at night, but he blames residents of an Israeli settlement a few hundred meters away.

“We came on Sunday and were shocked that all these trees were cut down,” Abu Shinar said.

“I called the landowner. They came and the (Israeli) army and security forces came too. But of course it was useless.”

Olives are perhaps the most well-known and abundant Palestinian product, with trees lining valleys and terraced hillsides throughout the West Bank.

Left-wing Israeli and international activists pick olives alongside Palestinians in farmlands near the village of Burin in the West Bank, on October 22, 2018. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

The first rains after the hot summer months are the signal for farmers to begin harvesting their crop, but it can come with risks.

In many places, farmers say they face intimidation and violence from nearby extremist settlers and call in support from foreign and Israeli supporters, including Jewish rabbis, to protect them and their crops.

Some of the incidents are seen as attempts at revenge following Palestinian attacks on Israelis, even if the farmers targeted were not involved.

In other cases, say rights groups, there is little motivation other than just to destroy Palestinian property.

Some rights groups have distributed video footage of such incidents in a bid to pressure Israeli authorities to act.

Left-wing Israeli and international activists pick olives alongside Palestinians in farmlands near the village of Burin in the West Bank, on October 22, 2018. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Israeli settlers charge that their crops have also been damaged by Palestinians, including an incident in May when around 1,000 grapevines were destroyed.

More than 7,000 Palestinian-owned trees have been vandalized so far this year, according to the United Nations.

In the whole of 2017, it was less than 6,000, the year before only 1,600.

‘They want the land’

Abu Shinar said that in recent weeks around 200 trees had been destroyed in fields he works on near Ramallah in the central West Bank, costing thousands of dollars in lost earnings.

“They want the land,” he said of the settlers he believes carried out the sabotage. “Who else would come and commit a crime like this?”

Palestinian farmer Mahmoud Abu Shinar stands next to destroyed olive trees near the West Bank village of Turmus Aya, north of Ramallah, on October 22, 2018. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

The body that represents West Bank settlements said there was also an increase in attacks on Israeli-owned farms, labeling it “agricultural terror.”

Israeli police said they were “investigating a number of incidents when damage was caused to olive trees.”

“There have also been a number of complaints made by Jewish owners of fields of damage caused to olive trees.”

Patrols have been stepped up, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

But rights groups charge that Palestinian crops have long been vandalized by settlers without any serious effort by the authorities to stop it.

A person displays olives picked by Israeli and international activists working alongside Palestinian farmers in farmlands near the village of Burin in the West Bank, on October 22, 2018. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

A few dozen kilometers north of Abu Shinar’s trees near the city of Nablus, a small group huddles under a tree, picking through the leaves for olives.

Just 10 meters (33 feet) away stands an abandoned house daubed with Hebrew graffiti, while the Israeli settlement of Har Bracha is over a hill.

Israeli forces patrol the area, with one soldier telling the Palestinians they are “there to help.”

But the farmers said that two days earlier settlers had run down and damaged trees. They claimed the army is often slow to react and sides with settlers.

They have called on international and Israeli supporters to attend the picking season to help protect them against the attacks.

‘Consider us traitors’

British pensioner Caroline, who declined to give her full name, said she had been coming each year for a decade to work with Palestinian communities close to “particularly difficult settlements.”

Left-wing Israeli and international activists pick olives alongside Palestinians in farmlands near the village of Burin in the West Bank, on October 22, 2018. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

This year, she said, she went with a female farmer to her land near a settlement, but the army blocked their path.

“When she eventually got into the groves, 100 of her trees had been chainsawed down by settlers. There weren’t even any olives for us to pick,” she said.

Rabbi Gil Nativ makes sure to wear his kippa skull-cap as he picks olives to show Palestinians not all Jews support the expansion of settlements and extremist violence.

“Some (Israelis) consider us traitors,” said Nativ, who volunteers for the Rabbis for Human Rights organization.

“For me the main principle of the Jewish faith is all men are created in the image of God and all human beings are descendants of the same Adam and Eve.”

Yigal Dilmoni, CEO of the Yesha Council which represents Israeli settlements, said in a statement to AFP that they “deplore all acts of vandalism and purposeful destruction of property.”

He highlighted a series of Palestinian attacks on Israeli settlements.

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