Olive trees becoming casualties in MideastBy Michael Browning and Larry Kaplow, (This article appeared in different versions in American-Statesman November 28, 2000 and in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, November 29, 2000. Below is a cut-and-paste version from both versions)
HARES, Israel -- The Palestinian villagers heard the power saws at midnight, racketing up the stony terraces to the hill-perched village of Hares. It is where Joshua, the Hebrew conqueror of Canaan in the Old Testament, is buried.
When Ali Abed Daoud Jaber, 76, awoke the next morning, he found he was ruined. More than 400 olive trees were cut down by the Israeli army along the highway to three Jewish settlements, and at least 110 belonged to him. His entire olive orchard lay felled.
``Where is God? Where is God?'' the old man screamed and gasped, gesturing with his cane as villagers tried to calm him. ``They cut down trees my grandfather tended! Trees hundreds of years old! I depend on my trees completely. I don't have anything else. What will I eat now?''
The twisted trunks of the massacred trees rose as branchless spikes from the loamy brown earth. One, about 8 inches in diameter, revealed more than 70 growth rings when the sawdust was brushed off its surface. Lopped olive branches lay in doomed heaps, their feathery silver- green leaves rustling in the breeze. An olive tree in these parts is like an interest-bearing bank account, yielding as much as 35 pounds of fruit year after year.
One farmer, Abdullah Hamed Suleiman, 62, who lost 71 trees to Israeli chain saws Thursday, said the destroyed trees represented $4,000 a year in income, from olive oil he sells to Jordan.
``For us Palestinians, an olive tree is exactly like a son,'' Nasfat Khufash said. ``It is not a matter of money. You do not sell your son for money.''
``We believe they want to deprive us of our livelihood, drive us off the land and make common laborers of us, so we have to go to the cities and work for Israelis,'' said Nawaf Suf, who led reporters through the ruined olive grove. ``The Israelis know the psychology of the Palestinian people. They know how valuable our olive trees are to us. They want to kill everything inside us.''
The destroyed trees lent an air of Old Testament wrath to the 2-month- old struggle between Israelis and Palestinians. So far, nearly 280 people have died in the clashes, all but 35 of them Palestinians. Now, even olive trees have become targets; 4,495 olive trees had been cut down as of Nov. 9, according to the Palestinian National Authority's Ministry of Environmental Affairs.
Hares is in the West Bank, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel has established more than 150 Jewish settlements in this territory.
The village has been sealed off by the Israeli army, preventing people from taking olives to market or to oil presses outside the village, said Khufash, who belongs to a rural development committee. Losses from destroyed, rotted or unpicked crops in all Palestinian areas amount to $120 million this year, according to the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction.
Jewish settlers driving past the felled trees yelled insults at foreign reporters.
``What are you doing here, you rubbish?'' one shouted.
``Take pictures! Take pictures!'' called another, sarcastically.
Interviewed later, the settlers complained angrily that Hares village children were throwing barrages of stones at their cars as they passed by, using the olive groves for cover. One settler showed reporters a deep dent on his van just above the windshield. Another was so infuriated he came over, cursing, and tried to kick in the car window of the reporters' vehicle, just for talking to the aggrieved Palestinians.
But the villagers were angry, too. They said bitterly that the army's response was out of proportion to the situation and one that punished adults for the actions of children. They took reporters to a site a hundred yards away from the highway, where 20 trees had been cut down, seemingly too far away from the road to serve any security purpose.
When Jaber escorted reporters to his ruined grove, he collapsed in a pile of lopped branches and moaned. At precisely that moment, Yona Shay, a 31-year-old Jewish settler who sells plumbing fixtures for a living, pulled over by the road and began arguing with the angry Palestinians. The odds -- there were eight Palestinians and just one of him -- didn't seem to faze him.
``There are a minimum of 100 stones being thrown every day from beside this highway. By now, 200 cars have been hit with stones,'' Shay said. ``Men, women and children have been injured by these stones. I don't think all the town is doing it. There are good Arabs and bad Arabs.
``I didn't cut down any trees myself, but I would have if I could have,'' Shay declared.
Jaber clambered across the ditch and went chin-to-chin with Shay. ``Do you know God? Do you know God?'' he shouted. ``It is as if you cut my throat!''
``If someone gives you a punch, do you turn the other cheek?'' Shay answered calmly. ``If we get hurt, we have damage, we have to do something back.''
``Do you think this is your land?''
``I think so, yes.''
``You took the land by force in '67! You take our water!''
Shay shrugged and turned away. ``In war, no one wins; both sides lose,'' he said. ``This is not the way. Tables and chairs and talk is the way.''
In the nearby Jewish settlement of Revava, Yitzhak Hillel, a 38-year- old computer repairman, defended the army's destruction of the olive trees.
``We spoke to the army many times about the stone-throwing, and they did nothing,'' he said. ``My feeling is, every time I come back home from work, I feel like a duck in a shooting gallery. What is going on here is like arm-wrestling. The most stubborn side wins.''
Another settler, who identified himself only as Hanan, agreed that the olive-tree massacre was a grave step, but he said it had to be done.
``In the Jewish religion it is forbidden to cut trees for fun. It is a serious matter,'' Hanan said. ``But if the choice is between trees and human life, you must cut trees.''
An hour before sunset, the rock-throwing picked up again, as the Muslim Sabbath came to an end. Two squads of Israeli soldiers took up positions along the highway and began firing sporadically as rocks landed on the road.
Just past the stretch of lopped trees, a large white stone caromed defiantly off the asphalt a few yards in front of the reporters' car.