settlers throwing rocks 311.
(photo credit: Btselem)
As the annual olive harvest got under way last month around the West Bank, the
issue of vandalism and violence against Palestinian property has returned to the
public eye. This year, there have been dozens of incidents in which Palestinian
trees have been damaged or ruined. Judging by past experiences, police are
unlikely to successfully investigate and indict the perpetrators.
problem is not a new one to Israeli officials. For a moment in January 2006, it
looked like government and law enforcement agencies had decided to treat the
vandalization of Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank seriously. The press
reported that the defense minister had called the phenomenon “a scandal,”
explained that “a state of law and values cannot accept such actions” and
established a “combined investigation team” with the IDF, the Israel Police, the
Shin Bet and others; the defense minister also reinforced the presence of
security forces at “disaster- prone sites” and ordered an “effective and
expeditious arrest policy.”
At the cabinet meeting about the subject,
then-attorney-general Menahem Mazuz called it a “grave and serious phenomenon”
and said that “all of the security and law enforcement bodies must mount a
determined struggle” against “this grave phenomenon." The deputy prime minister
said that cutting down olive trees was “a criminal act, and we must prepare to
confront it with full force and without hesitation or compromise....
no way can we accept it. It has to be prevented, they must be
The day after that cabinet meeting, 110 olive trees were cut
down on private land near the Palestinian village of Burin. The police
investigation was closed on grounds that the attack was committed by an “unknown
Since those strong declarations of January 2006, all the
aforesaid senior officials have left the positions they held then: one to the
opposition, one to retirement and one to handle the criminal files in which he
himself was implicated. The only thing that has remained steady and permanent
since that time is the level of the law enforcement agencies’ ongoing failure to
confront the phenomenon of vandalization of Palestinian trees in the occupied
SINCE 2005, the Yesh Din human rights organization has
documented 127 cases of cutting down, uprooting, stealing or vandalizing nearly
10,000 fruit trees belonging to Palestinians (and those are not all of the cases
that occurred during that time).
The findings from the organization’s
monitoring of the way the enforcement agencies handled those events were
published last week. Most of the police investigations into those incidents have
long since-ended and the cases have been closed, almost all on grounds of
“unknown perpetrator” and “lack of evidence.”
The fact that only a single
indictment out has been filed against a person suspected of involvement in
vandalizing, uprooting and stealing olive trees - one out of 127 documented
cases - indicates the investigators’ failure in their investigation.
settler elements vandalize Palestinian trees, it is not a trivial neighbors’
dispute, and its damage is far greater than the immediate economic harm to the
livelihood of the families who live off the trees’ fruit. It is an ideological
crime, the purpose of which is to deter the land owners from cultivating their
land and to take control of that land by using the Ottoman land laws that are
valid in the West Bank.
In its response to one of the reports about the
matter, the police noted the difficulties the investigators faced in their work:
The crimes are committed “in many cases at night” by “individual criminals.”
Indeed, just like in other cases of grave ideological crimes, the criminals do
not make the work of the law enforcement officials easy. They are briefed, they
cover their tracks, and in the few cases when suspects are arrested, they
maintain silence under investigation.
The police’s excuses could be
accepted with understanding if we didn’t know that the law enforcement bodies in
the territories know how to penetrate Palestinian terror cells, collect evidence
and file indictments against people involved in serious crimes. The truth is
that the law enforcement system’s failure in the matter of tree vandalism is
only one aspect of that same system’s ongoing and permanent failure to enforce
the law for crimes committed by Israeli citizens in the territories against
Palestinians and their property.
The Judea and Samaria Police District is
poor in resources and manpower.
That poverty is not a decree of fate, but
the result of decisions on budget allocation. The IDF, whose forces are deployed
throughout the territory, does everything it can to evade its responsibility to
protect the Palestinian civilians and their property against Israelis. As the
outgoing commander of the Judea and Samaria division learned personally, an
officer perceived as acting against settler violence becomes the victim of an
aggressive smear campaign.
Since most of the Israeli public pays no
attention to what happens beyond the Green Line and to the country’s shirking
its duties toward the Palestinian civilian population, it is no wonder that the
recent indictment, like the unequivocal statements and clear decisions by the
heads of the Israeli administration in January 2006, remain an exceptional and
solitary examples of governmental attention to the phenomenon of the
vandalization of trees.The writer is the director of research at the
Yesh Din human rights organization.