Tree Surgeons at Work

Permit me to introduce the reader to a new term, recently spun by the word Laundromat that cleanses Israeli actions in the territories: gidum - a Hebrew word that can mean cutting or amputation.

1. Laundering words

Permit me to introduce the reader to a new term, recently spun by the word Laundromat that cleanses Israeli actions in the territories: gidum - a Hebrew word that can mean cutting or amputation. It is now being used to describe the action perpetrated against the olive trees in the Samarian village of Ein Abus. The gidum caused a commotion last week that hit 5.0 on the (Avi) Dichter scale, and prompted the prime minister to instruct the director of Shin Bet and the Israel Police to investigate what really happened in the affair.

Chief Inspector Doron Ben-Abu, spokesman for the Judea and Samaria police district, made freewheeling use of the novel term in his attempt to explain what happened to the olive grove - owned by Fawzi Hussein - that was the focus of media reports. While during the previous week the Israeli press (including this reporter) described the indecent act committed against the trees as "uprooting," this week agitated news reports were circulated on Web sites identified with the right, which described the action as merely "pruning"; in other words, limited, thoughtful cutting back of the tree for the purposes of botanic health and recovery.

Chief Inspector Ben-Abu found the need to employ the term "gidum" - in other words, something between uprooting and pruning. In pure linguistic terms, "gidum" is a situation from which there is no way back. There is no such thing as a truncated tree trunk that rehabilitates or reconstitutes itself.

But in the alienated Hebrew produced in the lingual laboratories of the Israeli bureaucracy in order to reflect - or, it might be more accurate to say, distort - what is happening in the territories, "gidum" is the term de jour, and is cast in a wondrous light: The olive trees will not require prosthetic devices to function; their branches will grow back, despite the state of amputation to which they have been subjected for the past three weeks.

The quarrel was reduced this week to the trivial question of when this amazing recovery of the trees might take place - in another two or three months, as the right-wingers assert, or in another 7 to 10 years, as the landowner claims. Actually, a more fundamental question is hovering over the affair: Who amputated/uprooted/truncated/ pruned the 250 olive trees in Fawzi Hussein's grove? The reports last week were unambiguous: Residents of the illegal outposts on the hilltops surrounding Yitzhar were the sole suspects.

Circumstantial evidence was introduced to support the claim: Residents of the outposts have for years prevented owners of the olive groves from accessing their plots and picking the fruit. This year, the police and army deployed special forces to provide a buffer between the settlers (and not only in the Yitzhar region) and the Palestinian villagers wishing to harvest their olives. In numerous sites around the West Bank, the intervention of security forces proved effective, and the olives were picked without interference. In Ein Abus, residents of the village were deterred by the threats of the settlers and only dared to go to their grove when girded by the protective belt of Jewish peace activists and journalists. Upon reaching the grove, they discovered that 250 trees had been destroyed - without a single leaf or olive left alive. As they neared the boundaries of the grove, they were driven off by settlers who had come down from the outposts on the hilltops. There were also several physical encounters, in which some of the Jewish escorts were injured.

Like fire in a blighted grove of trees, an altogether different version spread through right-wing circles this week: As far as can be determined, the first salvo was launched by the Arutz 7 Web site, which proclaimed: A sensational turnaround in the tree-uprooting affair in the Yitzhar region; the police now believe that Israeli left-wing activists and the owner of the grove concocted the incident as a provocation intended to besmirch the good name of the Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria; the police had asked Rabbi Arik Ascherman, of the Reform movement's Rabbis for Human Rights and from the Arab (Fawzi Hussein), who lodged a complaint against the Judea and Samaria settlers, to undergo a lie detector test, but they have so far refused the request; the police have received a professional opinion from a Jewish National Fund forestry expert who determined that the trees had not been cut down, but rather pruned by a skillful practitioner; the expert determined that the pruned branches would grow back within two to three months.

2. Depth of the rift

The widespread dissemination of this version, which describes the incident as a provocation of the Palestinians and the left, is astounding. It seemingly reflects the yearning of a huge public (the right in Israel and elsewhere, as evidenced by the torrent of e-mails received in the wake of the Arutz 7 report) to refute the accusation of cutting down trees. It testifies to a tendency to turn every possible stone in an attempt to refute the left's version, in a way that brings to mind the dissemination of the conspiracy theory about Rabin's assassination. It is indicative of the depth of the rift between left and right in Israel and the utter lack of trust between them. It also reflects the ease with which truth becomes a football bandied about by those who wish to spread canards through the media - whether they are groups related to the story itself or the middlemen that publicize it.

Aviad Vissouly was quoted in the original Arutz 7 item as saying, "It is incumbent upon Major General of Central Command Moshe Kaplinsky to issue clear directives with regard to the harvesting of olives on state-owned lands in areas adjacent to Jewish towns in clear writing, which will eliminate the friction, misunderstandings, and vilification of Israel across the globe. For some unknown reason, he refuses to do so, and as a result, Jewish residents, the IDF and the State of Israel are vilified regularly by the press corps."

Vissouly currently chairs the Council for the Land of Israel. In the last election campaign for prime minister, he lodged complaints against Amram Mitzna, alleging corrupt contacts with contractors in Haifa. The police recently ended their investigation, but at the time, the complaint succeeded in damaging Mitzna's image in his run against Ariel Sharon.

Vissouly was active in spreading the corrective version of the events in Ein Abus. On Wednesday, he confirmed to this reporter that he had been interviewed on Arutz 7. With total confidence, he said, "It is obvious that the owner of the trees did this" (that is, he cut down the trees). He exhibited extensive knowledge of the sequence of events in Ein Abus as well as developments in the police investigation. He unfalteringly quoted from the opinion submitted by the Jewish National Fund expert, Ido Rassis, as having determined that the pruning did not cause any genuine harm to the trees, and that the branches would grow back by springtime.

A straightforward journalistic investigation yielded the following findings: Fawzi Hussein agreed to undergo a polygraph examination, which took place on Tuesday; Rabbi Ascherman was not asked by the police to undergo any such test; the spokesman of the Judea and Samaria police district stressed that Fawzi Hussein had submitted the complaint and that he was investigated as a witness and not as a suspect. In the lie detector test, he was found to be speaking the truth. The police have no reason to suspect that it was he who destroyed the olive grove. Jewish National Fund supervisor Ido Rassis, who was summoned by police to render an opinion on the condition of the trees, acted in his capacity as the minister of agriculture's "forest official." He gained the impression that the damage to the trees caused them such harm that in the next few years they will not produce fruit. Based on what he observed, the supervisor submitted a police complaint about the destruction of the trees.

In other words, the version disseminated by the right-wing Web sites was at best a matter of counting one's chickens before they hatch, or at worst, a conscious act of specious manipulation. Not a sensational turnaround in the investigation of the affair and not any sort of evidence of the charge that it was the Palestinian villagers who destroyed the trees. Similarly, the news that Fawzi Hussein had refused to undergo the polygraph test was premature, as was the bold statement that the olive trees will bloom again in two or three months.

All of this was true as of Wednesday afternoon. And then there was a new development: Souhel Zaidan, whom the Jewish National Fund considers its number one expert on olive trees, paid a visit to the denuded grove in order to get an impression of the extent of the damage. His conclusion - the trees will be able to produce fruit no sooner than three years from now. A hand-saw had been used on them, with the intent of removing all the branches and leaves. Zaidan's opinion added a new term to the plethora of descriptions of the act - "intense pruning."

3. Hanging by a thread

This week, those in and around Ariel Sharon's office modified their definition of Yasser Arafat's status: From "irrelevant" - to "relevant in the internal Palestinian realm, but completely nonexistent toward the outside world." This was a quasi-admission of defeat.

The establishment of the Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) government on Wednesday shattered the Israeli dream that something real might change in the position of the Palestinian leadership. The Sharon government is yet again having to deal with Yasser Arafat as the supreme puller of strings on the Palestinian side. Soberly, or perhaps in despair, Jerusalem announced that it would judge the Qureia government by its actions; what that means is that it is conceding its demand that Abu Ala first prove his willingness to get down to the business of disarming the terror organizations or that he merely commit to doing so.

Without declaring it, Sharon is prepared to accept a cease-fire initiated by Abu Ala in dialogue with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Palestinian prime minister is receiving help in this effort from Egypt, which pressed him to swallow Arafat's refusal to appoint Nasser Yusef to Qureia's cabinet, and is simultaneously pressuring Hamas and Jihad to desist from acts of terror. If quiet indeed reigns, Israel would avoid any militant activity, including targeted assassinations, on Palestinian Authority territory.

The plan is based on a mutual decision to apply the brakes; it lacks any formal agreement between the sides. But according to colleagues around the cabinet table, Sharon seems to be be willing to go ahead with it. He may be hoping for a security hiatus, or perhaps he simply assumes the Palestinians will once again prove that their assurances cannot be trusted.

The striving for an actual settlement is based on the assumption that the Palestinians are also interested in finding a way out of the status quo. Jerusalem (primarily the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) is now drafting a "positive plan of action" that would offer Palestinians avenues for long-term cooperation (expansion of the commercial zone at the Erez roadblock, aid in building hospitals, joint tourism routes in Jerusalem and Bethlehem during Christmas and the New Year holiday, etc.)

The inclination is to put into place a sort of normalization of relations that would be resistant to outbursts of violence. The timetable would be influenced by the date of the planned meeting between Sharon and Abu Ala (apparently in another 10 days or so), which would signal a go-ahead for a series of contacts, at ministerial and professional levels, between the sides (a first conversation has already been held between Dov Weisglass, Sharon's bureau chief, and Hassan Abu Libdeh, Abu Ala's bureau chief). For whatever reason, this pleasant vision presumes that the wheel can be turned back to the period before September 2000 without the Palestinians feeling they have won any substantial achievements through their struggle for liberation from Israeli occupation.

4. Humanitarian considerations

At the end of this week's cabinet meeting, at which it was decided to approve the prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom commented, "In the end, we will withstand the pressure to release Samir Kuntar." To which Ehud Olmert responded: "In the end, that is what is going to happen." Tzachi Hanegbi was alarmed: "If that's the case, the whole basis for my vote is undermined."

The decision-making process on the prisoner swap is indicative of the way the government led by Ariel Sharon is being run. As with the gala decision about the intent to strike at Yasser Arafat, this week's decision reflected an unusual choice made by the prime minister in the framework of and procedure for reaching important decisions. Perhaps the results will also be similar: Arafat is still alive and kicking, and in Sharon's opinion no practical action should be taken to get rid of him; execution of the prisoner swap is still up in the air due to differences of opinion with Hezbollah over Kuntar's fate.

In the debate over Arafat's future, eyebrows were raised over the decision to discuss the issue in such a large-scale forum, and over the very public nature of bringing it up for an official decision by the cabinet. The dickering over the conditions of the Hezbollah deal spun out of control and became the subject of a nationwide debate, and the families with a personal stake in the matter were at its center. The decision, which was primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns - saving Elhanan Tannenbaum - was adopted without any account taken of the anguish caused by the debate to his family, the Ron Arad family or the Avraham, Avitan and Suad families.

Aside from Sharon, none of the ministers would have at his or her own initiative a proposal to carry out the swap. He is the only one who comes across as being so driven to make the prisoner trade. This is the case in the Knesset plenum and in much more limited consultations, consultations in which it was mentioned that in 1999, Sheikh Nasrallah had said that Ron Arad was no longer alive - a statement that Jerusalem regards as one of many items of information whose authenticity cannot be verified.

The ministers determined their positions, in favor or against, against their will, in response to pressure placed on them by Sharon to decide. This gave rise to much heartache and vacillation in the meeting. Sharon's motives were unexpected; at their root was sentimentality: the memories he carries with him from his military past, beginning with the battle of Latrun, and his clinging to the principle that you don't abandon soldiers in enemy territory. When Minister Avraham Poraz asked him if this meant that captives are redeemed at any price, Sharon stuttered: "Not at any price - but ... "

The prime minister beheld the fate of Elhanan Tannenbaum. He barely mentioned the three soldiers - Benny Avraham, Omar Suad, and Adi Avitan - who have already been declared dead. This position pushes him into a corner of sorts: If saving one life is so important, how is it that he is willing to forfeit the deal due to the refusal to include Kuntar's release?