- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

EINABUS, West Bank — Men with chain saws turned Fawzi Hussein’s olive grove into a wasteland overnight — 255 trees cut down at the trunks and fruit-laden branches left wilting on a West Bank slope, at the height of the harvest season.

The suspected culprits: militant settlers who have been harassing Palestinian farmers for years, especially in the past three years of fighting. Human rights groups say it’s part of an attempt to drive Palestinians off their land.

The destruction of about 1,000 trees in three villages including Mr. Hussein’s was unusually large-scale. It prompted an outcry in Israel, with settler rabbis calling it a sin and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promising to track down the culprits.

It also heightens fears that this kind of militancy — albeit of a tiny minority among the 220,000 Jews in the West Bank — is a harbinger of the resistance that the Israeli government could face if it tries to uproot settlements in a land-for-peace deal.

There have been hundreds of settler attacks, including rampages through Palestinian villages, since fighting broke out in 2000. A Palestinian human rights group says 25 Palestinians have been killed by settlers in the past three years. Palestinian gunmen, in turn, have targeted settlements, killing dozens of residents.

Palestinian officials and Israeli opposition leaders say Israeli security forces mostly are choosing to ignore attacks by settlers and are doing little to protect Palestinian civilians — one of the duties of an occupying power.

“Settlers succeed in murdering, uprooting trees and attacking Palestinians without the army and the police controlling them,” said legislator Ran Cohen of the dovish Meretz party and a colonel in the Israeli army reserves.

Police say they have established a special unit and filed 85 indictments in 2003. Spokesman Doron Ben-Amo says attacks have dropped from 350 last year to 192 this year, suggesting that “maybe the settlers are beginning to understand that there are laws.”

Meanwhile, a U.N. report said yesterday that Israel’s security barrier eventually will carve off 14 percent of the West Bank, trap 274,000 Palestinians in tiny enclaves and block 400,000 others from their fields, jobs, schools and hospitals, according to a U.N. report released yesterday.

The string of walls, razor wire, ditches and fences has inflamed already-high tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. The United States has criticized the barrier’s planned route deep into the West Bank, saying it could harm efforts to set up a Palestinian state.

Mr. Hussein, the olive farmer, is from the village of Einabus near Nablus. His grove is on a slope near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, whose people are known for their militancy.

On Oct. 27, Mr. Hussein, several Israeli peace campaigners and a journalist were visiting the grove when seven settlers approached wielding clubs.

“They started threatening us and pushing us and throwing rocks,” said Arik Ascherman, leader of the Rabbis for Human Rights. “I was kicked a couple of times and hit by a rock and pushed down a couple of times.”


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