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Olive Harvest Becomes a Palestinian Casualty


HARES, West Bank — They heard the chain saws and the shouted Hebrew sometime around midnight Thursday and knew that their olive orchards were under attack again, the Palestinian villagers said. Too afraid to leave their homes and defend the trees from the men they assumed came from nearby Jewish settlements, they could only listen and wait for dawn.

Friday morning, the villagers found hundreds of mature olive trees cut down, their raw stumps shining in the weak winter sun, their silver-leafed branches lying lifeless in the mud. This year, the olive harvest, an important ritual of Palestinian culture, is just another casualty of the violence that has raged between Israelis and Palestinians since Sept. 28.

"Almost every day now, the settlers come and uproot trees," said Hussam Daoud, head of the village council. And fruit on the living trees is rotting because the Israeli army has closed Hares, pushing earthen barriers across the two entrances into the town and stationing a jeep at the main entrance. Soldiers there Friday said the village now is a closed military zone, and no one is allowed in or out.

Army spokesman Yarden Vatichai said Friday night that he did not know who cut the trees of Hares. Usually, however, it is the army and not settlers who destroy orchards, he said.

"Many of the attacks . . . are carried out by people who were hiding among the trees," Vatichai said. "Our main concern now is attacks on the roads and on army outposts. Many main routes run by plantations and orchards, and Palestinians are using trees as hiding places. Therefore, we have uprooted many trees in many places, to have a much better view of the road and not allow people to hide."

If settlers cut down trees, Vatichai said, it is a crime for which they can be arrested. However, few Jewish settlers have been prosecuted for destroying Palestinian trees.

In normal times, the olive harvest, which began in mid-October, would be over by now, the oil pressed and bottled and the table olives curing in tubs. But across the West Bank in this abnormal year, Palestinians, fed up with the peace process, have attacked soldiers and Jewish settlers. Angry settlers and the Israeli army, in response, are keeping villagers from picking the fruit, and it is rotting on many of the hundreds of thousands of trees that dot the terraced hillsides.

"It's not a matter of punishment" that Palestinians are kept from harvesting their olives, Vatichai said. The army's closure of Palestinian towns "is because of this ongoing violence, these attacks. There are many places where we don't want Palestinians to go."

The limited olive harvest is an important component of what is rapidly developing into an agricultural disaster for the Palestinians as their confrontation with Israel drags into a third month, said Mohammed Shtayyeh, director of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, a quasi-governmental institution. He and other Palestinians see the attacks on trees as just another aspect of what Palestinians say is Israel's systematic effort to choke the Palestinian economy.

"This is the agricultural season," Shtayyeh said. "This is the season to harvest vegetables, citrus and olives, and we estimate that we already have suffered about $120 million in damage from lost crops."

Crops Rotted During Closures by Israelis

Many of those losses have been caused by Israel's long closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, during which many crops have rotted in the fields and orchards or in the trucks that have been blocked from traveling outside the Palestinian-controlled territories.

But other losses have come from the uprooting and cutting of trees. The Palestinian Authority estimates that 40,000 trees have been destroyed by soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the outbreak of clashes, Shtayyeh said. The army now routinely bulldozes acres of orchards where it suspects Palestinians might hide to launch attacks on traveling Israelis.

For the Palestinians, the olive trees are the most painful loss. Shtayyeh said that the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture estimates the replacement cost of each olive tree at $100. "But I told them they were crazy, that is way too low," he said.

It takes seven to 10 years before a new tree begins to bear fruit, Shtayyeh noted, and in some villages there are old trees that "the villagers call Roman trees, that they swear have been there since Roman times," he said. "When something like this is lost, it is something that you cannot, under any circumstances, value in money terms."

Rituals Embedded in Palestinian Culture

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