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The military and police did nothing to prevent the felling of Palestinian olive trees despite having the names of the settlers responsible, the head of the Shin Bet security service claimed Tuesday.

Yuval Diskin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the Shin Bet had handed over the names of members of the "hilltop youth" from the West Bank settlements of Yitzhar and Itamar who were involved in uprooting the olive trees, but the security forces refrained from taking any action.

According to Diskin, the Israel Defense Forces and Israel Police "are turning a blind eye, and doing nothing to deal with this phenomenon."

Security sources denied Diskin's claims, noting that one of the main problems facing the army and police is that the Shin Bet unit dealing with Jewish extremists has not gathered sufficient intelligence information on far-rightists conspiring against Palestinians, and does not brief the army or police.

A Shin Bet source claimed later Tuesday that Diskin had not stated at the Knesset committee meeting that he had relayed names to the army and police.

Diskin said the Shin Bet wanted to place the youths involved under administrative detention, but had been prevented from doing so.

"We [the Shin Bet] failed in handling this matter, but others did not take action against those breaking the law," Diskin said. He did not name those he said had tied the Shin Bet's hands, but committee members later said that Diskin's comments were likely directed at the defense and public security ministries.

Diskin said that the phenomenon of uprooting of olive trees is an annual occurrence which takes place during the olive harvest.

"These actions are very grave, in my opinion. Olive trees are just a symptom, and the problem is that there is no effective law enforcement when it comes to the hilltop youth. They have anti-establishment, anti-government and even anarchic characteristics," he said.

MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) accused the security establishment and Shin Bet of total failure to counter the "tree-uprooting criminals."

He demanded that Diskin ambush those felling the trees, and even shoot at their legs if necessary. These remarks sparked outrage in National Union MKs Aryeh Eldad and Uri Ariel, who accused him of calling for murder.

Police: Settlers allegedly felled 773 olive treesSettlers have allegedly uprooted 773 olive trees belonging to Palestinians in the West Bank, according to Judea and Samaria District Police.

However, the Yesha Council of Settlements said that at least in some of the cases, Arabs and left-wing activists were behind the damage to the trees.

The human rights organizations Yesh Din and B'Tselem have documented 29 so-called "harvest incident" from March 2005 until January 8, 2006, and in 23 of the cases there was direct damage to trees: felling, burning, uprooting or theft of the trees.

Yesh Din and B'Tselem reported that over the past three years some 2,400 olive trees were uprooted in the West Bank, allegedly by settlers living near the damaged orchards.

However, police said that the number of incidents declined this year: there were 17 "harvest incidents" in 2005, compared with 35 incidents the previous year. The significant drop in the number of incidents was in the Samaria area: in 2004 there were 22 incidents and only 10 incidents in 2005.

Police said aware of failure to eradicate phenomenonHampering the police is the almost complete lack of intelligence information and cooperation by grove owners and settlers. In addition, many of the incidents take place in Area B (Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control), where police can only act under the aegis of the army.

The division of authority between the police, the Israel Defense Forces, the Civil Administration and the Shin Bet security service in fighting crime and maintaining security in the territories has also been problematic.

"Without intelligence and cooperation, there is practically no way of knowing ahead of time what place is going to be hit next and who is behind the attacks," police said Monday.

In recent years, police have stationed hundreds of officers to prevent friction between Palestinian harvesters and Israeli settlers. Dozens of ambushes were set up in the past year at settler-harvester flash points to try to catch and deter perpetrators. Police also increased their visibility around the groves, and prepared teams to block outsider access to areas where harvesters had been attacked.

However, the police and the Public Security Ministry are reportedly aware of their failure to eradicate the phenomenon.

Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra called a meeting Sunday of police and Shin Bet personnel to seek ways to solve the problem.

They decided, among other measures, to focus on settlements known to be problematic, and to share more intelligence between the police and the Shin Bet. They also decided to increase police presence by transferring personnel from the immigration police.

Ezra called on the IDF to assist the police in enforcing the law, and also asked the head of the Police Investigations Division to augment Judea and Samaria police intelligence with additional officers.

Israeli women indicted for attacking Palestinian harvestersLast month, four young Israeli women were indicted for attacking Palestinian harvesters in the village of Sinjil, north of Ramallah. According to the indictment, the four, who were with four other young women that the complainant could not identify, "began to shove the farmers, hit them with sticks and threw stones at them."

A soldier on duty protecting the harvesters, tried to intervene, at which point "the accused attacked him and beat him with their fists."

The women are also accused of pulling the headscarves off the women harvesters, punching one in the face, and taking a walking stick away from an elderly harvester and pushing him.

Yesha: Some of the trees felled by PalestiniansThe Yesha Council of settlements reiterated its contention that in at least some of the cases where olive trees have been cut down, the perpetrators are Arabs and left-wing activists. Left-wing organizations were taking advantage of planned pruning of trees to slander the settlers, the Yesha Council also said Monday.

A few days ago, the secretariat of the settlement of Maon in the southern West Bank harshly condemned the cutting down of trees. "As settlers and farmers," the statement said, "our way is not to destroy and uproot but to build and plant."

Yesha Council spokeswoman Emily Amrusi said pictures from the groves clearly showed the trees had been pruned, which farmers told the Yesha Council is done every few years to improve the trees. "These actions are carried out in a relatively dry year," Ambrusi added.

Yesha Council chairman Bentzi Lieberman demanded a few weeks ago that the Israel Defense Forces and the police thoroughly investigate the uprooting of trees in the village of Salem, in order to "identify the real perpetrators." Leiberman said at the time that in the village of Salem and in another incident, "there are certainly many questions at the scene that suggest a suspicion of Palestinian provocation."

Sources in the Yesha Council said Monday that they believed that many Palestinians would damage their own trees, following Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's announcement that Palestinians whose olive trees had been damaged would be compensated.