Thousands of attacks, only one indictment

It is no wonder that the recent indictment remains an exceptional example of governmental attention to the phenomenon of the vandalization of trees.

settlers throwing rocks 311 (photo credit: Btselem)
settlers throwing rocks 311
(photo credit: Btselem)
As the annual olive harvest got under way last month around the West Bank, the issue of vandalism and violence against Palestinian property has returned to the public eye. This year, there have been dozens of incidents in which Palestinian trees have been damaged or ruined. Judging by past experiences, police are unlikely to successfully investigate and indict the perpetrators.
The problem is not a new one to Israeli officials. For a moment in January 2006, it looked like government and law enforcement agencies had decided to treat the vandalization of Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank seriously. The press reported that the defense minister had called the phenomenon “a scandal,” explained that “a state of law and values cannot accept such actions” and established a “combined investigation team” with the IDF, the Israel Police, the Shin Bet and others; the defense minister also reinforced the presence of security forces at “disaster- prone sites” and ordered an “effective and expeditious arrest policy.”
At the cabinet meeting about the subject, then-attorney-general Menahem Mazuz called it a “grave and serious phenomenon” and said that “all of the security and law enforcement bodies must mount a determined struggle” against “this grave phenomenon." The deputy prime minister said that cutting down olive trees was “a criminal act, and we must prepare to confront it with full force and without hesitation or compromise....
In no way can we accept it. It has to be prevented, they must be caught.”
The day after that cabinet meeting, 110 olive trees were cut down on private land near the Palestinian village of Burin. The police investigation was closed on grounds that the attack was committed by an “unknown perpetrator.”
Since those strong declarations of January 2006, all the aforesaid senior officials have left the positions they held then: one to the opposition, one to retirement and one to handle the criminal files in which he himself was implicated. The only thing that has remained steady and permanent since that time is the level of the law enforcement agencies’ ongoing failure to confront the phenomenon of vandalization of Palestinian trees in the occupied territories.
SINCE 2005, the Yesh Din human rights organization has documented 127 cases of cutting down, uprooting, stealing or vandalizing nearly 10,000 fruit trees belonging to Palestinians (and those are not all of the cases that occurred during that time).
The findings from the organization’s monitoring of the way the enforcement agencies handled those events were published last week. Most of the police investigations into those incidents have long since-ended and the cases have been closed, almost all on grounds of “unknown perpetrator” and “lack of evidence.”
The fact that only a single indictment out has been filed against a person suspected of involvement in vandalizing, uprooting and stealing olive trees - one out of 127 documented cases - indicates the investigators’ failure in their investigation.
When settler elements vandalize Palestinian trees, it is not a trivial neighbors’ dispute, and its damage is far greater than the immediate economic harm to the livelihood of the families who live off the trees’ fruit. It is an ideological crime, the purpose of which is to deter the land owners from cultivating their land and to take control of that land by using the Ottoman land laws that are valid in the West Bank.
In its response to one of the reports about the matter, the police noted the difficulties the investigators faced in their work: The crimes are committed “in many cases at night” by “individual criminals.” Indeed, just like in other cases of grave ideological crimes, the criminals do not make the work of the law enforcement officials easy. They are briefed, they cover their tracks, and in the few cases when suspects are arrested, they maintain silence under investigation.
The police’s excuses could be accepted with understanding if we didn’t know that the law enforcement bodies in the territories know how to penetrate Palestinian terror cells, collect evidence and file indictments against people involved in serious crimes. The truth is that the law enforcement system’s failure in the matter of tree vandalism is only one aspect of that same system’s ongoing and permanent failure to enforce the law for crimes committed by Israeli citizens in the territories against Palestinians and their property.
The Judea and Samaria Police District is poor in resources and manpower.
That poverty is not a decree of fate, but the result of decisions on budget allocation. The IDF, whose forces are deployed throughout the territory, does everything it can to evade its responsibility to protect the Palestinian civilians and their property against Israelis. As the outgoing commander of the Judea and Samaria division learned personally, an officer perceived as acting against settler violence becomes the victim of an aggressive smear campaign.
Since most of the Israeli public pays no attention to what happens beyond the Green Line and to the country’s shirking its duties toward the Palestinian civilian population, it is no wonder that the recent indictment, like the unequivocal statements and clear decisions by the heads of the Israeli administration in January 2006, remain an exceptional and solitary examples of governmental attention to the phenomenon of the vandalization of trees.
The writer is the director of research at the Yesh Din human rights organization.