Police try to make sense of olive wars

Judea and Samaria Police on Monday began investigating claims that Palestinians in the Nablus-area village of Burin hacked down their own olive trees to collect compensation from Israel. This latest investigation follows dozens of incidents over the past five years in which Jewish saboteurs stole into Palestinians' orchards in Nablus-area villages and uprooted or hacked down olive trees. With the Palestinian economy still sluggish after five years of fighting, many Palestinians increasingly rely on farming to earn daily wages. "Something is clearly suspicious in the way these trees were cut," said Supt. Shlomi Sagi, spokesman for the Judea and Samaria Police Department, after police investigators responded to claims from the village that settlers hacked down trees. "We are investigating the claims of both sides." Police have no evidence of foul play by either the settlers or the Palestinians in this incident. However, several factors stumped investigators, according to Sagi. Police wondered why the settlers would trek to the far side of the orchard, the side nearest the Palestinians, to chop down the trees. They also wondered why chainsaw-wielding settlers would give the trees "a grave pruning" rather than cut through the tree trunks. No arrests have yet been made. According to a police source, one of the reasons Palestinians might chop down their trees and blame it on settlers is that "those whose property is destroyed by settlers are eligible for compensation from the state." Sarit Michaeli, spokeswoman for B'tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, said that suspicion of the Palestinians sounded "unusual." She added that B'tselem has never documented any cases of Palestinians receiving compensation for destroyed property. "There is simply no mechanism for giving compensation for damaged property, it does not exist." What's more, added Michaeli, most of those whose trees were uprooted for the sake of Israel's West Bank security fence refused compensation "because they did not want to be seen as collaborators. So why would they now?" In a time of such economic hardship, she also wondered whether Palestinian farmers would damage their own livelihood for ideology's sake. "If this was done by Jews, we see it as a grave matter," said Emily Amrusi, spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria (Yesha). "It opposes Jewish and humanitarian morals." But, earlier Monday, Yesha Council chairman Benzi Leiberman blamed the incident on "provocation from the Palestinians and the left," according to Israel Radio. Amrussi added that "after so many times that we told the police that it could be Palestinian provocateurs, finally they are beginning to listen to us." "We are sick of being known as tree-destroyers," she said.