According to data gathered by the UN, thousands of olive trees were uprooted in dozens of Palestinian villages. The residents are certain that settlers are responsible and blame Israeli authorities for not dealing with vandals
Some 5,000 trees throughout dozens of Palestinian villages in the West Bank were vandalized in less than five months, according to data from the United Nations that was gathered through the end of April and by local residents’ reports from last week.
The vandalization includes the felling of mostly olive trees, snapping and uprooting them in areas of the West Bank under full Israeli security control. These acts have occurred repeatedly since the mid-1990s and Palestinian farmers are certain that the vandals are Israeli Jews who live in or visit the nearby settlements and outposts.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) releases every two or three weeks a summary of violent incidents that occurred in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Based on reports from Palestinian sources, since December 20, 2022 through the end of April 2023, OCHA listed 84 incidents in which unknown individuals vandalized over 4,000 trees belonging to Palestinians across the West Bank.
Since the beginning of May, Palestinians reported damage to roughly 250 sapling olive trees in the village of Kufr Ad-Dik in the northern West Bank. They had also reported a vandalization of a grove in the town of Sinjil, north of Ramallah, and in the village of Deir Sharaf west of Nablus, where 155 trees were damaged. Palestinians also reported that some 750 newly-planted trees were uprooted and some stolen in the village of Burqa, also west of Nablus.
Bashar Qaryouti, a member of the Qaryut village council, northeast of Ramallah, told Haaretz that over the last four weeks unknown individuals vandalized and cut down about 200 ancient olive trees (known as “Roman” trees) belonging to village residents. The vandals acted four or five times in broad daylight, and continued even after complaints were filed to Israeli authorities.
The mutilated trees are located in an area known as Al-Batisha, where thousands of olive trees are planted, including many that are over 100 years old. The trees cover the hills in the northwest part of the village, and therefore is concealed from a direct observation from the houses.
Qaryouti says that on the afternoon of April 5 (and the eve of the Passover holiday), one of the village’s farmers heard noise coming from an electric saw and trees being cut down. Residents who rushed to the area found that some 45 trees had just been cut. They immediately informed the Palestinian Authority’s liaison committee, the Israeli District Coordination and Liaison Office and the police, and gave them the precise location. Nonetheless, when Qaryouti and other local residents arrived in the scene in the following days, they found out that more trees had been vandalized and cut down.
During a tour with Haaretz at the site last Thursday, Qaryouti and another local resident, Yasser Mansour, were shocked to discover damaged trees that had been intact just a couple of days earlier. “It’s a massacre, an execution,” Mansour said, describing the acts. About 25 of his 200 trees were vandalized, not including the trees belonging to his brothers.
Qaryouti said that when he went to file a complaint about the first incident at the police station in the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, he was told to come in a different day as no Arabic-speaking investigator was in available.
On April 19, after more vandalized trees were discovered, the police investigator asked Qaryouti to provide proper documentation proving his ownership of the land even though the age of the trees and their location testify to their being under the village families’ ownership for generations.
The spokesperson’s office for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) did not respond to a Haaretz inquiry on the matter.
A police spokesman said in response: “Upon receiving the report, the police opened an investigation in which a range of actions were conducted including investigators physically arriving at the scene to gather evidence. As part of the investigation, and without any connection to its continuation, the complainant was asked to present documents testifying to ownership of the land.”
Qaryut’s residents told Haaretz of an Israeli who lives in an outpost near the Eli settlement, on the hill just above the trees that were vandalized. The residents said they had filed numerous complaints with the police against him in the past. “There are security cameras of the settlement of Eli on the peak. If the police wanted to, they’d find out immediately who damaged the trees,” Qaryouti said.
Since 2012, trees in the Al-Batisha area have been repeatedly subjected to various forms of damage, Qaryouti added. “Almost every year someone cut down a few trees. Sometimes [it happens] before the harvest, sometimes we discover it during the plowing season that a tree was damaged. Once they even set the place on fire. But this year’s different in scope and the season,” he said.
According to Qaryouti, about three years ago, the Israel Defense Forces attempted to limit Palestinian farmers from accessing their lands in the area (as it does in other regions as well), and to require them to access the land only a few days throughout the year, with advance coordination with the IDF and COGAT. Local residents opposed it through their lawyer, Quamar Mishraqi As’ad, and the army gave up on enforcing the requirement.
The UN reports include other violent attacks by Israelis against Palestinians and their property, which in the first four months of 2023 numbered 352 incidents, including 95 cases of bodily harm. As a comparison, in 2022 the UN reported 849 settlers’ attacks, of which 228 included physical harm to people.