On October 17, while he was attending the funeral of a cousin, Jamil Nassan, 70, received a call from the IDF’s local liaison officer. The news was not surprising, he said; his olive trees had been vandalized.
Nassan, a Palestinian resident of Mugheyer near Nablus, an area under Israeli control, got into his old four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi and went to survey the damage: 140 mature olive trees had been cut down, the stumps pale and sickly in the afternoon light.
The trees are located in a gentle, soft-soiled valley beneath the outpost of Adei Ad.
Walking through the grove, Nassan put his finger on the spots where, he claimed, settlers had drilled into the bases of the trunks, inserting a chemical that desiccated the trees; he ran his palms over the newly severed stumps.
“Sometimes they call this deep pruning,” he said bitterly.
The damage to the trees can be translated into dollars and cents: Each tree gives roughly three liters of oil, meaning that 420 liters were lost, totaling 8,400 shekels ($2,150), at the local rate.
But Nassan — an American citizen, who is partially supported by his son in Chicago, a dentistry student, and other family members — said he does not believe that the vandalism is punitive in nature. “The Israeli,” he said of one specific settler whom he called Boaz and who, he claimed, had fire-bombed his car several years ago, “does not want to make me lose money. He wants to take me away from my land. That’s why he cut the trees.”
There are 7.2 million Palestinian olive trees on 129,000 acres of West Bank land under the army’s control. For Palestinians, the fruit often puts food on the table, and it symbolizes, above all else, their rootedness to a contested swath of land. From the army’s perspective, the vandalizing of the trees “can undermine the strategic stability in the region,” said Captain Barak Raz, the spokesman for the Judea and Samaria Division.
Raz spoke of an enduring post-Intifada calm, punctuated by far more Palestinian violence against Jews than vice versa, but added that agricultural vandalism, especially prevalent during the wheat and olive harvests, is both “disturbing to the commanders on a personal and moral level” and a factor that could tip the balance of the calm in the region.
The IDF says 50% of Palestinian agricultural land is dedicated to olives, and that the 100,000 Palestinian families support themselves from the proceeds.
The vandalizing of trees, like the desecrating of churches and mosques, is an extreme act perpetrated by a small minority, numbering somewhere between “a few dozen and 100” people, continued Raz.
This year has been especially violent. Thus far during the harvest, which the army has specified as lasting from October 9 to December 2, more than 450 trees have been vandalized; and the fruit has been stolen from an additional 200, according to Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the director of external relations and special projects of Rabbis for Human Rights, which helps daily with the harvest. The army puts the number of vandalized trees at 300.
Ascherman said this season’s harvest — the most festive time of year for Palestinians — began with “a wave of vandalism” worse than anything he had seen since the landmark 2006 Supreme Court ruling, which determined that the IDF was required to protect Palestinian farmers during the harvest season “down to the last olive.”
Prior to that ruling, and especially during the years of the Second Intifada, the IDF would enforce a military closure on groves near Israeli settlements, barring the Palestinians from their land — both for their own protection, from settlers, and to ensure the safety of settlers, who were plagued by ambushes on the roads and infiltration into their homes.
Justice Dorit Beinisch, the author of the unanimous decision, ruled that the army could close off small patches of land in order to protect Israeli civilians, but outlawed the practice of barring Palestinians for their own good. “In order to protect Palestinian farmers, the military commander again chose to act against them, even when they are the victims of the attack,” she wrote.
Justice Salim Joubran concurred and called the closures “akin to the granting of a prize for violence.”
Since then, Ascherman said, access to land has dramatically improved.
The IDF partitions the agricultural areas under its control into three zones: Red, Yellow and Blue, which represent areas where coordination with the IDF is either mandatory, or recommended, or unnecessary. In the Red zones, soldiers escort Palestinians into the most sensitive areas in the West Bank — within the security fence surrounding Itamar, for example, where residents of a neighboring village murdered five members of the Fogel family in 2011; and into the Jewish enclaves in downtown Hebron, where there are daily scuffles between Israelis and Palestinians.
But the army has not been able to stop the vandalism at night. And neither have the police succeeded in bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Raz said it was “preposterous” to assume that the army can protect every olive tree in the West Bank, but added that “it would be wrong to assume that the army is not acting covertly” to catch vandals in the act. He continued that there were ongoing ambushes and surveillance patrols, and even undercover activity, whereby policemen dress up as Arabs and try to catch the aggressors red-handed.
One regional commander, Raz declared, had even put a tent out in the field and moved his soldiers outdoors in order to better patrol the area.
During a recent harvest-time visit to groves outside the village of Farata, near Nablus, no soldiers were visible in the field.
Ibrahim Salah, 60, once owned 500 trees in this area. Half were burned down in 2009, he said. This year, on October 9, he learned that the fruit had been stolen from 130 of his remaining trees near the outpost of Chavat Gilad. The other 120 did not bear fruit. And so, after living off the land his entire life, he has taken a job working in construction in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva.
“What can I do? I can’t leave my family without food. I need to make a living,” he said, stopping a few hundred yards shy of his grove, afraid to approach any further, and pointing to the trees that almost brush up against the colorful houses of the outpost.
Salah filed a complaint with the police on October 10. “Every year I file one,” he said.
Not far away, near the village of Sinjil and the settlement of Givat Haroeh, Ibrahim Shabana combed his hands along the thin branches of the trees and coaxed the green, black and purple fruit to the floor. The olives were collected in a blanket and sorted by his mother, who left the silver-green leaves behind and packed the olives into hefty nylon bags to be taken to the local press and made into oil.
Shabana was in a good mood, doling out coffee to the foreign volunteers and the Rabbis for Human Rights activists who guarded him and others as they picked. This year, Shabana explained, the harvest was good and his trees had not been touched. His grapes, however, are stolen every year. “I’ve filed hundreds of complaints. But there is no law and no justice here. They take the complaints and put them on the shelf.”
Since 2005, the Judea and Samaria police precinct has investigated 162 cases of agricultural vandalism against Palestinians, according to the numbers collected by the Yesh Din human rights organization. Of those, 124 cases were closed because the police could not identify the perpetrators; 16 were shut on account of a “lack of sufficient evidence”; two were seen as not criminal in nature; five were unspecified; two were “lost” and therefore never pursued; 11 are still under investigation; one has been transferred to the prosecutor’s office for review; and only one, some four years after the crime, led to an indictment in 2011.
Reactions among settlers varies. The head of the Samaria Regional Council disputed all claims of vandalism. “Over the past several years, olive harvest season has become incitement season,” wrote Gershon Mesika on the regional council website. On Monday October 15, he wrote, settlers had “caught in the act” a group of Palestinians and a foreign activist sawing branches off olive trees near the entrance to the settlement of Alon Moreh in order to frame settlers and cause “the world to cry out and condemn the settlers and the state of Israel.”
The video of this act is inconclusive. Palestinians like Ibrahim Salah told me he has stopped pruning his trees because whenever he picks up a saw or some other pruning tool, a settler from Chavat Gilad comes by and films him as though he were damaging his own trees.
Nachum Pechenick, himself the resident of an outpost near Neve Daniel in the southern West Bank and a founder of the Eretz Shalom organization, said that the vandalism often goes in both directions but that the root of it was “a possessiveness over the land” that violated the tenets of both the Torah and the Koran. “If we understood that the land belongs to God then we wouldn’t spill any more blood over it,” he said.
Jamil Nassan was less philosophical.
He stood with his son Motaz on a patch of land that he bought 30 years ago. At the time there was no settlement here. In the entire West Bank there were only 20,000 settlers, as opposed to the 300,000 or so who live there today. “I will work my land till the last day of my life,” he vowed. “Even if they kill me doing it.”
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