KKL-JNF foresters have discovered that a number of palm trees planted along the banks of Nahal Harod, situated in the northern Jezreel Valley, have been severely mutilated.
It is believed that the palm trees were cut open so that their fronds could be used as part of the four species used during Succot.
"Fifteen trees were cut in exactly the same way. We don't have any proof or suspects, but we believe that there was an intent to steal the lulav branches from the trees. It happened very shortly before Succot. There's no other reason we can think of that cuts like these would be made in such a systematic way," Gill Atsmon, Keren Kayemet L'Israel - Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) regional director, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
The four species comprise an etrog, or citron, willow branches and myrtle branches which are held together and waved in a special ceremony during Succot, along with the frond of a date palm.
Religious Jews take the biblical commandment to obtain and use a set of the four species during Succot very seriously, but in previous years the chief rabbis have issued proclamations decrying the theft of palm fronds and reminded Jews of the Mishnaic ruling that "a succa constructed with stolen palm branches is not kosher."
In the past, individuals caught cutting and stealing the branches were fined thousands of shekels.
Atsmon said that KKL-JNF is "worriedâ€¦ it's very sad that someone would steal for a religious holiday," and went on to condemn the needless vandalism of Israel's trees. "This is a mortal injury to the trees. Their treetops were damaged, an injury that will almost certainly cause the trees to wither and die. It hurts to see horrific vandalism like this," Atsmon said.
The timing and the manner in which the palm trees were cut support the theory that the intention was to use the cuttings for lulavim, Atsmon said, noting that "The trees were decimated in a wild and barbaric manner. The injury was identical in all of the trees; all of the trees' branches were cut from their tree trunks, seemingly to expose the palm branches to the sunlight so that they would receive a nice green color just before the holiday when these criminals would return and cut the remaining branches."
"This uncontrolled cutting has created a situation in which many of the trees have lost all of their branches, and there were even cases in which whole trees were ripped from the ground," KKL-JNF said in a press statement Thursday.
While the mutilation of trees with the aim of obtaining their branches is not an unknown phenomenon, it is rare in comparison to the harm caused to wild palm trees and willow trees in areas throughout the country because of palm trees' use as roofing for outdoor Succot and the willows' use as part of the Four Species.
The KKL-JNF claims that the damage to the wild palm trees in numerous areas, specifically the area surrounding the Kinneret, the Jordan and Beit She'an valleys, had left these regions virtually stripped of these types of trees, once a significant part of the regional landscape. The KKL-JNF also asserts that the headwaters of the Yarkon River, along with Ashdod and Ashkelon, have also been almost totally stripped of all date palm trees.
As a result of this vandalism, the KKL-JNF has announced that it is planning to reinforce supervision of its forests close to the Succot holiday and distribute roofing materials for Succot at various sites throughout the country to combat this phenomenon. The distributed branches are the remains of the trimming routinely conducted in the forests to protect the trees.
"We've had similar incidents before with cedar trees and cypress trees being stolen for use over Christmas. We'll just have to try to increase our presence in the area to guard over the palms, like we do at Christmas with the other trees." Atsmon said.
KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler said in response to the vandalism: "These trees were planted a few years ago in an effort by to rehabilitate Nahal Harod. We rehabilitated the banks of the stream, planted fruit trees and forest groves, constructed and upgraded picnic areas for the enjoyment of the area's visitors, paved hiking and cycling trails."