AWARTA, WEST BANK // Israeli settlers have felled more than 1,000 olive and almond trees that have been cultivated for generations by Palestinians, say villagers in this verdant hamlet.
“They’ve destroyed 150 of my olive trees and 300 of my almond trees,” said Fouzan Awwad, 53, a father of six and a member of one of the 23 families who have farmed this area in the West Bank hills east of Nablus. Some of the olive trees were more than a century old.
“This is my income, and now it’s gone.”
Mr Awwad, like many of Awarta’s 7,000 residents, say the felling of their trees that started late last month is an attempt by Israel to seize more of their land.
They also see it as a part of a campaign by ultranationalist Jews to intimidate Palestinians by raiding their villages, damaging their property and spray-painting bigoted graffiti on homes, mosques and churches.
The incident comes as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, struggles to revive the dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“This is a terror campaign,” said Xavier Abu Eid, spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organisation negotiations department, which is based in Ramallah.
“All this shows that whatever Israeli officials have been saying in holding the settlers accountable have failed. Their impunity continues to reign.”
Both Israeli and Palestinian rights groups criticise Israeli authorities for not doing enough to prosecute Jews who carry out such attacks against Palestinians.
In the first 10 days of June, Israelis destroyed nearly 2,500 Palestinian olive trees in the Nablus area alone, Jibrin Al Bakri, the governor of Nablus, told the unofficial Palestinian news agency Maan last month.
He and other officials fear such incidents are escalating. During the first 10 months of 2012, settlers damaged or destroyed about 7,500 Palestinian olive trees across the West Bank, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“This is big, very big,” Ghassan Dhouglas, a Palestinian Authority official who monitors incidents involving settlers in the northern West Bank, said of the destruction of Awarta’s trees.
Residents of the neighbouring settlement of Itamar began cutting down Awarta’s groves late last month, said the village’s mayor, Sami Awwad. That affected an area forming close to 10 per cent of the village’s agricultural land, but he said Israel’s military prevented villagers from intervening during the destruction. Two years ago, the settlement extended its perimeter fence to enclose the recently destroyed tract of farmland.
“We repeatedly asked [the Israeli military] for permission to see what was happening, but we were only given permission to see it by 11pm [on Wednesday],” he said. “By then, it was too late. We thought they only destroyed 300 trees, but when we saw it, we realised it was over 1,000.”
On Thursday, Israel’s military briefly detained members of a television crew working for the pan-Arab Al Jazeera network as they attempted to film the aftermath of the incident.
An Israeli military official confirmed the felling of olive trees in the area. But he declined to comment because, he said, the incident was under investigation by Israeli police. Micky Rosenfeld, the Israeli poice spokesman, said he was not aware of the incident.
The olive industry supports 80,000 families and contributes about 14 per cent of agricultural income for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories, according to UN statistics published last year. The olive tree also is a nationalist symbol for Palestinians.
Half a million Israelis live in settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which are illegal under international law and a serious obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Awarta residents accuse Israel of using the brutal murder in March 2011 of five Itamar residents – three children and their parents – as a pretext to grab more land. That attack was carried out by two young men from Awarta, both of whom were convicted of murder in an Israeli military court and sentenced to five life sentences.
“The objective with all of this is to continue expanding onto our land,” Mr Awwad said.
Shortly after the 2011 attack, Itamar, home to more than 1,200 settlers, not only extended its perimeter fence but also built set up dozens of wildcat mobile homes outside the settlement.
Last month, the Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now reported that Israeli authorities had advanced plans to build 675 more housing units in Itamar.
Mr Awwad said that Israel’s military last month declared the land on which the destroyed trees stood a “closed military zone”.
Community leaders in Itamar declined to be interviewed. But one resident, Ely Akim, 30, who works at a Jewish religious school in the settlement, said residents began discussing two months ago whether to cut the trees.
“It was a decision that was made for security reasons,” he said.
source: The National