olives - AP - October 9 2010
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad picks olives in the West Bank village of Iraq Burin. Photo by AP
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Settlers ripped off branches and cut the roots of Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank village of Burin, residents said Saturday, as the yearly harvest of the important crop begins.

The attack came at the beginning of the 45-day Palestinian olive harvest. It's traditionally a time of heightened violence, as a minority of extremist settlers attempt to provoke Palestinians.

Some two dozen men from a nearby Jewish settlement damaged the trees in Burin after they tried to attack Palestinians bulldozing an access road to their fields, said Bilal Eid, who witnessed the incident.

"The settlers began cutting the trees, trying to kill the roots. They are trying to scare us," Eid said. The damage could kill the trees, which were meant to be harvested this week, he said.

A military spokeswoman said Israeli forces ordered the settlers to leave.

Spokespeople for Jewish settlers did not respond to telephone calls, most likely because it would violate Sabbath rules of work.

The olives are a staple of Palestinian cooking, used for food and oil. Palestinians are sensitive about any damage done to their trees, which can live for hundreds of years. The olive tree is also viewed as a symbol of the Palestinians determination to remain in their homeland.

Collectively, Palestinians own about 15 million olive trees, according to Salah al-Baba of the Palestinian Agricultural Ministry.

Underscoring the trees importance, the prime ministers of the rival Palestinian governments both turned up Saturday to be photographed picking the fruit.

Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, donned a baseball cap as he plucked green olives. His rival, Salam Fayyad, wrapped a traditional peasant's scarf around his head and climbed a ladder to pick olives in the West Bank village of Iraq Burin - about three kilometers from the similar-sounding Burin village.