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Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank are clearly being vandalized rather than pruned, two experts said yesterday.

They were responding to the Yesha Council of settlements' contention that Palestinians sometimes label pruned trees as having been vandalized in order to smear the settlers, who are believed responsible for the vandalism.

Professor Shimon Lavee, an expert in olive tree cultivation from the Hebrew University's agriculture department, refuted this claim after examining photographs of trees taken by the B'Tselem organization in Salem, near Nablus, and Tawana, south of Mount Hebron. According to B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli, Lavee said that trees as young as the ones in the photographs would not normally be pruned, and they had therefore evidently been vandalized. He also said that the damaged trees would take eight to 12 years to recover fully and produce as much fruit as they had before.

Yoel Marshak, a veteran member of the kibbutz movement who has been trying to protect Palestinian harvesters from settler attacks, issued the same verdict yesterday after examining 50 trees near Burin that were vandalized earlier this week. Marshak has considerable experience in this matter, having spent six years in charge of his kibbutz's plant nurseries.

Marshak said that he learned of the Burin vandalism during a meeting yesterday morning with Commander Uzi Sumer of the Judea and Samaria District Police. He added that Sumer had told him that the police lack sufficient manpower to prevent such vandalism, and therefore, Marshak should "set up a private security company."

Marshak said that a state commission of inquiry should be appointed to investigate the failure of the police and the Israel Defense Forces to prevent such vandalism.

Based on his inspection of the damaged trees, Marshak offered the following analysis of the vandals: "It's clear that these were people who were rushing so as not to be caught. They had a saw, but they didn't saw completely through the branch; they sawed partway through and then broke it off. They didn't saw the trunk, because it is thick; therefore, they cut off the branches."

Marshak said that he also told this to Sumer when the latter quoted the Yesha Council's suggestion that the trees had merely been pruned.

According to the police, 733 Palestinian olive trees were vandalized in 2005. But according to a partial list of damaged trees throughout the West Bank compiled by B'Tselem, Yesh Din and Rabbis for Human Rights, the real number is much higher. These organizations say that at least 2,750 olive trees were vandalized in various ways last year, including being uprooted and stolen, being torched and being chopped down.

Jonathan Lis adds: Police and army officials yesterday contradicted Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin, who said he had given the names of settlers who vandalized Palestinian trees to the police and the IDF, but that they did nothing. The officials said that on the contrary, their major problem has been the lack of information from the Shin Bet.