Settlers, hands off the olive trees

The government must protect Palestinian farmers from settler violence.

palestinian olive trees  (photo credit: AP)
palestinian olive trees
(photo credit: AP)
There were a number of media reports last month about Jewish settlers in the northern West Bank cutting down hundreds of Palestinian olives trees. I believe these reports are true. In fact, it is almost impossible to keep track of how many times such heinous acts have been perpetrated against innocent Palestinian farmers. I recently joined a group from Rabbis for Human Rights on a mission to the South Hebron Hills. Our purpose was to aid farmers there who were cultivating their fields in preparation for the planting of olive trees. Olives represent 60 percent of Palestinian crops. We wanted to protect these Palestinians from marauding settlers who, we had reason to expect, might prevent them from working their lands - or worse, replicate what the ruffians from northern Samaria had been doing. Most of the Palestinian fields in the South Hebron Hills area have already been expropriated by the government for settler use under the guise of creating "security zones" on what now have become state owned lands. There seems to be a coordinated plan by the government, IDF, civil administration and Jewish settlers to make the South Hebron area "Arab Free." This effort includes the destruction of houses, tents and caves. It apparently involves sealing wells, uprooting orchards, poisoning grazing fields and preventing Arab residents from farming their land and tending their livestock. These measures appear to be carried out as if to exhaust the local Palestinian population, to further impoverish them and to run them off their land without compensation. IN THE South Hebron Hills, Israel's High Court delineated which of the few remaining fields could be cultivated by Palestinians. These extend to the valley below the villagers' tent city, which lies between the settlement of Sussiya and the ancient city of Susya, including the ridge opposite the settlement. On our trip, we encountered harrowing Jewish religious fanaticism. Even with the legal ruling of the Supreme Court and with the Palestinians coordinating with the IDF as to where they could plow, the villagers were afraid to begin work until we arrived. Upon our arrival, they began plowing. Within minutes, about 60 settlers from Susya appeared, rifles slung over their shoulders, descending upon the few Palestinians working their fields. We alerted the army which sent some soldiers to arbitrate between the settlers and the villagers. After initially talking only with the settlers, in order to avoid a confrontation - instigated solely by the residents of Susya - the army declared the area a closed military zone. As we tried to explain to the soldiers what was agreed to, dozens of teenagers from the settlement approached the Palestinians and unleashed a string of verbal attacks that were nothing less than blood-curdling. They called an elderly Palestinian women "whore," "pig," "dirt" - vowing - "we will finish you off!" Finally, an army commander came, informing the Arab villagers that all work would have to cease until maps of the area could be produced that outlined exactly where they could plow - despite the High Court's ruling and the initial coordination with the army. The officer tried to negotiate a compromise that would limit the Palestinian lands to be cultivated and that would exclude the ridge near Susya out of "concern for the safety of the settlers." This was a spurious claim, as these villagers have never been even remotely involved in acts of terrorism. Even after the maps arrived clearly indicating that the Palestinians could plow on the ridge in question, the army had to remain in order to prevent the settlers from continuing to harass them. However, the settlers won the day, as their delaying tactics basically cost the Palestinians a day's work. After the destruction of olive groves in the north, one would have expected the army to protect the Palestinians and to apprehend the criminals who destroy their property. This never happens, nor are perpetrators of virtually all settler violence against Palestinians ever arrested and tried. In contrast, Palestinian violence committed against Jews has the army immediately closing off Palestinian towns and villages and arresting dozens of suspects. MOST DISTURBING from my point of view is that these settlers parade around as proud religious Jews, posing themselves as defenders of the faith. But, even a cursory reading of Jewish texts tells us: "When you besiege a city for a long time... you must not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them" (Deuteronomy 20:19). We returned home with the sad feeling that the next day, with no Israeli delegation present, the settlers would continue their bullying of Palestinians with impunity. In this way they would be exposing the nature of their so-called Judaism - foreign to everything I believe as a religious Jew. My Judaism teaches me something quite the opposite of theirs, and apparently of our government's too: "There shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells amongst you" (Exodus 12:39). Postscript: As I write these lines, 140 trees were cut down in the Palestinian village of Burin.