palestinian olive trees .
(photo credit: AP)
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his first public statement on security matters since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fell ill last Wednesday, called the cutting down of Palestinian olive trees a "criminal act" that needed to be treated with "full force."
"This is a terrible thing being perpetrated by a group whose roots and agenda we can identify; we cannot countenance such a thing," Olmert said in reference to right-wing extremists suspected of cutting down the trees. "This must be prevented; the perpetrators must be apprehended."
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, during his security briefing to the cabinet, said that recently more than 2,000 trees had been chopped down in Judea and Samaria, and that he was setting up a team to investigate the problem.
Mofaz said he directed the security forces to beef up their presence in areas where this was a recurring problem, and to swiftly arrest those responsible and pay compensation to the Palestinian owners for the damaged orchards.
According to a cabinet statement, Mofaz said that the destruction of the trees was "a very severe and disturbing phenomenon that reflected a wide-range of malicious acts against the Palestinian population."
Mofaz established a committee 10 days ago to investigate. Last Thursday, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Yosef Mishlav, appointed by Mofaz to head the investigating committee, presented initial findings of the situation to the defense minister.
According to security officials, the findings showed that not only were thousands of olive trees uprooted or cut down, but that Palestinian farmers were also harassed while working their land.
On Sunday, Mofaz ordered law enforcement personnel in the West Bank to concentrate their efforts on beefing up security presence in the problematic areas, increasing arrests of suspects and encouraging Palestinians to file complaints and ensuring that those involved are brought to justice.
In addition, Mofaz ordered the investigating team to study ways of compensating Palestinian farmers who have incurred losses because of the criminal acts against them.
Security officials were unable to divulge further details regarding the amounts to be paid to Palestinian farmers, saying that it was too premature to estimate the costs involved.
On Friday a Palestinian resident of Yata complained to Judea and Samaria Police that assailants had uprooted 102 olive trees in his plot in Tawaneh in the southern Hebron Hills. The Palestinian claimed that settlers from the Maon Farm were involved, a claim that was denied by settlers. Judea and Samaria Police launched an investigation.
Meanwhile on Sunday night, police arrested a Jewish settler from one of the communities in Samaria after an olive tree branch was found in his car. Police said the suspect would be brought before the courts on Monday morning, where they will seek his remand.
After hearing the briefing, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz said that the state must find an "urgent response" to the issue. Mazuz said that in the past he had turned a number of times to the defense minister, internal security minister, chief of staff and police commissioner about the problem.
Mazuz said that the excuse that there was a lack of resources needed to deal with the problem was not acceptable, and that the issue needed to become a high priority. He said this problem was symptomatic of a wider problem of not effectively implementing the law in the West Bank against Jewish lawbreakers.
Mazuz said that those cutting down the trees needed to be caught and tried, the Palestinian tree growers needed to be compensated, and - if necessary - civil proceedings should also be brought against the wrongdoers.
Margot Dudkevitch contributed to this report.