Monday's Jerusalem Post reported that Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had condemned the recent chopping down by extremist Jewish settlers of thousands of olive trees cultivated by Palestinian farmers as "a criminal act." In his first public statement, after taking over the chairing of the cabinet following Prime Minister Sharon's incapacitation, Olmert said that the acts were "a terrible thing which should not be countenanced... This must be prevented; the perpetrators must be apprehended." To which Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz chimed in with more detailed information, estimating the number of olive trees chopped down recently at over 2,000. He said he had appointed a team to investigate the problem. The team is headed by the Coordinator of Activities in the Territories, Maj.-Gen. Yusuf Mishlav, who already submitted a preliminary report last Thursday. It recommended the beefing-up of the security forces in the relevant areas and the paying of compensation for the damage caused the Arab farmers. These "criminal acts" have been repeated for a number of years at this time of year which is the height of the olive picking season on which the Arab farmers and their families depend for their primary income. SOUNDS PROMISING? That depends on whether one takes Olmert at his word, or whether one files it away as simply "more words" which will not be followed by any effective actions. This is not another bit of inappropriate cynicism at a time when the country is being exhorted to support Olmert with Prime Minister Sharon fighting for his life in Hadassah University Hospital. The events on the ground and the shock, feigned or sincere, emanating from the cabinet must be seen against the background of last year's events in Judea and Samaria and especially of the report submitted by attorney Talya Sasson last March on the manner in which over 100 "unauthorized illegal settlements" had been set up throughout the territories, which Sharon had promised President George W. Bush to vacate. It turned out that those illegal settlements had been set up in collusion with a number of government agencies, including the Prime Minister's Office and the army's military government which formally controls those territories. Nothing has been done in the past 10 months under Prime Minister Sharon, who set up the Sasson inquiry, to implement its recommendations. The question is whether Acting Prime Minister Olmert is merely playing the same game Sharon played, or whether there is a glimmer of the beginnings of a new game vis-a-vis the extremist settlers. The involvement of olive trees, one of the main staples of the dirt-poor mountain subsistence farming practiced by the Arabs in the West Bank, lends the entire affair much greater symbolic importance than merely another case of the harassment of the poorest elements of the occupied Palestinian population. Most Israelis are familiar with the popular song built around the biblical verse (Deuteronomy 20:19) "for the tree of the field is man's life." Few are familiar with the entire verse, however, which forbids the chopping down of the enemy's fruit trees in wartime. "When thou shalt besiege a city a long time in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them, for thou mayest eat of them; and thou shalt not cut them down." When the late Likud prime minister Menachem Begin formed his first government in 1977 and appointed the then agriculture minister Ariel Sharon to take charge of the intensified Israeli settlement drive in the occupied territories, he took great pride in the claim that none of those settlements came at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian farming population. When some Palestinian farmers represented by Israeli lawyers went to the High Court of Justice in 1980 claiming that the new settlement of Kedumim was being built on lands confiscated from them on the spurious claim that it was critical for Israeli security, the High Court found for the farmers. Begin, ever the stickler for legal formalities, bowed to the High Court's decision and ordered the settlement moved to another site. Begin's successors have been less sensitive to legalities and to the moral aspect of the treatment of the indigenous Palestinian population. I would suggest that the question of whether or not Olmert's verbal castigation of the extremist settlers and their harassment of the Palestinian farmers actually leads to action against the settlers and to compensation to the farmers, be used as a litmus test for the government's policy vis- -vis the illegal settlements and the eventual division of the West Bank between Israel and an autonomous or independent Palestine. It is no problem for the authorities to identify the settler perpetrators of what Olmert has called "criminal acts." Nor is it a secret what should be done to prevent their recurrence: either trying the perpetrators in court, or at the very least expelling them from the territories and preventing their return. Both are within the powers of the military government. What is needed is the political will to restore a semblance of morality to the unavoidable continuation of the 38-year-old occupation. The writer, a former managing editor of the Post, is a veteran commentator and political science lecturer.