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"These trees have seen history pass by the joys, the sorrows and in a single moment they were cut down. It is a crime against nature," Uri Ehrlich, the Galilee District director at the Israel Nature and National Parks Authority, says of the 24 big oaks cut down in the heart of the Mount Meron reserve early last week.

Beit Jann council head Yusef Qablan was also inconsolable. "When I saw the felled trees, I began to cry," he said. "I consider this an act of violence, like assaulting old people, vandalism."

The oaks were decades old, some more than a century. Qablan recounted how the villagers used to gather in their shade for holidays. Nearby, they built a monument to Salah Tapash, an army medic from Beit Jann who was killed in South Lebanon in 1992.

The police have no suspects yet in the case. However, this comes in the wake of tension between the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and some area residents who have been damaging the nature reserve. Some people view the oaks' felling as an explicit provocation and defiance of park rangers.

Qablan says this is a direct insult to Beit Jann: "Whoever was behind this has vengeful intentions and a desire to sully the atmosphere. This wasn't done on private land, but rather in a place that symbolizes Beit Jann. Our image has been badly hurt, precisely at a time when we are getting on the tourism map. It's a heavy blow."

He added that the village had recently succeeded in improving relations with the INPA, which had granted many villagers permits to thin trees.

Dozens of dunams of trees in the Mt. Meron reserve have been chopped down in recent years, mostly intended for heating in place of expensive fuels, the INPA reports. The current tension stems from the complex relationship between the parks authority and Druze residents. After the reserve was set up 40 years ago, the villages Beit Jann and Hurfeish found themselves surrounded by a nature reserve, which they felt limited the villages' development. Some of the private agricultural lands remained within the reserve.

The struggle between residents and the INPA entered the public's awareness in 1987 and again in 1997, when the landowners wanted to build roads connecting Beit Jann and Hurfeish, which would have had to stretch through the reserve.

The tension has continued, and there have been several serious incidents in recent months. On Yom Kippur, tree-fellers savagely attacked a park ranger who caught them. Three inspectors who arrived at the scene also were attacked. In other incidents, hunters have attacked the rangers who caught them.

According to Ehrlich, "the encounters have become violent, to the point of endangering the lives of rangers. There are also telephoned threats. The police is investigating these incidents."

Ehrlich declined to blame a specific group, but most incidents have involved Beit Jann residents.

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