Israelis destroying a symbol of peace and life

by Cesar Chelala

During the last few years, Palestinian olive trees — a universal symbol of life and peace — have been systematically destroyed by Israeli settlers. “It has reached a crescendo. What might look like ad hoc violence is actually a tool the settlers are using to push back Palestinian farmers from their own land,” stated a spokeswoman for Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization monitoring incidents in the West Bank.

The tree and its oil have a special significance throughout the Middle East. It is an essential aspect of Palestinian culture, heritage and identity, and has been mentioned in the Bible, the Quran and the Torah. Many families depend on the olive trees for their livelihood.

Olive oil is a key product of the Palestinian economy and olive production is the main product in terms of total agricultural production, making up 25 percent of the total agricultural production in the West Bank. Palestinians plant around 10,000 new olive trees in the West Bank every year. Most of the new plants are from the oil-producing variety.

For the last 40 years, over a million olive trees and hundreds of thousands of fruit trees have been destroyed in Palestinian lands. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been accused of uprooting olive trees to facilitate the building of settlements, expand roads and build infrastructure. The uprooting of centuries-old olive trees has caused tremendous losses to farmers and their families. At the same time, restrictions to harvesting have come through curfews, security closures and attacks by settlers.

The uprooting of olive trees by the IDF and by settlers are done to protect the settlers, since they are supposedly used to protect gunmen or stone throwers. “The tree removals are for the safety of settlers . . . No one should tell me that an olive tree is more important than a human life,” declared an IDF army commander.

As a result of the attacks on farmers by the IDF and by settlers, the farmers “can’t get to their lands and work them. The settlers chase the farmers, shoot in the air, threaten their lives, confiscate their ID cards and damage the crops,” declared B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization.

Yesh Din has declared that not even one of 69 complaints filed during the past four years for damage to Palestinians trees in the West Bank has led to an indictment. The toll includes thousands of trees from several areas — from Susya in the southern Hebron Hills to Salem in northern Samaria.

Rabbis for Human Rights has declared that, in recent weeks, the olives from about 600 trees near the settlement of Havat Gilad were stolen before their Palestinian owners could harvest them.

Writing on this issue, Muslim American Atyaf Alwazir stated that the uprooting of trees from Palestinian lands violates the Paris Protocols, The Hague and Geneva Conventions and the Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights.

According to Sonja Karkar, founder of Women for Palestine in Melbourne, Australia, uprooting olive trees is contrary to the Halakha (the collective body of Jewish religious law) principle whose origin is found in the Torah, “Even if you are at war with a city . . . you must not destroy its trees.”

What do settlers actually want? To destroy Palestinians’ livelihood with impunity? To create a barren land, unfit for trees and people? Perhaps they should be reminded of the A.E. Housman verses: Give me a land of boughs in leaf,/ A land of trees that stand/ Where trees are fallen there is grief/ I love no leafless land.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., Ph.D., writes on human rights and foreign policy issues.