Israeli chainsaw massacre

Palestinian farmers seek protection against settlers

The Globe and Mail, 12 November 2003

Einabus, West Bank – Men with chainsaws turned Fawzi Hussein’s olive into a wasteland overnight – 255 trees cut down at the trunks, fruit-laden branches 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 is 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 on an 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 vigilantes.

It also heightens fears that this kind of extremism – albeit of a tiny minority among the 220,000 Jews in the West Bank – is a harbinger of the resistance 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 are mostly 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.”

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.”

The attackers fled when police showed up.

Mr. Ben-Amo said several settlers were questioned but none was arrested. Mr. Ascherman said he offered to identify the attackers in a lineup but police never got back to him.

Police say they are trying hard, but lack the staff to protect all farmers at all times. Military officials say that farmers are offered escorts on request but that few Palestinians respond. After 36 years of occupation, many Palestinians distrust the Israeli authorities.

The military itself has uprooted tens of thousands of trees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the past three years, usually in areas from which attacks on Israelis were launched.

West Bank farmers say they mainly fear settlers.

Mr. Hussein, 55, a father of 14, said he rarely went to his grove until the harvest began last month. “I can’t come up here, because I am afraid for my life,” he said.

Yehoshua Mor-Josef, a spokesman for the Settlers’ Council, said extremists are blackening his entire community “with this horrible thing of cutting down olive trees.”

Zvi Berenstock, the secretary of Yitzhar, said he did not know if members of his community were involved, but he said settlers have to defend their communities, and he contended that Palestinians disguised as farmers attacked Jews from olive groves.

An Israeli military official, insisting on anonymity, said he knew of three incidents in 18 months in which Palestinian extremists have cover in olive groves, but none in which they posed as farmers.

Questioned in Parliament, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz promised a thorough investigation, saying the army is doing its utmost to protect Palestinian farmers.

Critics, however, say nothing has changed since 1994 when an official inquiry into the Hebron mosque massacre – a settler attack that killed 29 Palestinians – found that the security forces are lax about enforcing the law against