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An ancient oak tree in Taibeh, struck by lightning two weeks ago, has been declared Israel's largest oak.

Walid Sadek, a former Meretz Knesset member and deputy minister of agriculture, says that the tree has been part of his family's life for generations, adding that he started crying when he first saw the tree had been damaged by lightning.

"It was a stormy night, and in the morning, they called me to look at the tree. I walked the length of a guava orchard and, when I got to the end, I looked forward. I froze on the spot and started crying. I saw that the tree was burned." Jewish National Fund officials yesterday promised to restore the tree. Amikam Riklin, director director of the JNF Inspection Unit, said that originally he did not believe reports that the largest oak in Israel was located in the Taibeh area, because most of Israel's oaks are now found in the North.

In recent years, Riklin, Suheil Zidan, and ecologist and botanist Yoram Goldring have been mapping Israel's giant trees for the JNF; documented giant trees are treated to professional care to ensure that they will exist for many years to come.

Until the discovery of the tree in Taibeh, in the Sadek family's fields, an oak with a trunk circumference of 530 centimeters, located in the Aloni Forest between Kiryat Tivon and Kibbutz Alonim, was believed to be the largest in Israel. But since Sadek showed that the circumference of the Taibeh oak is 690 centimeters, Riklin has returned to look at the tree every day, noting that "we have not uncovered all of the giant trees. I believe that there are still a number of impressive trees that are hidden."

Zidan believes that the oak is a remnant of the Ottoman era, when oaks were common in the Sharon Region. Many legends have been attached to the tree, according to Sadek.

"There is a firm belief that an angel guards and avenges any damage done to the tree. In 1941, my father was drilling next to a well and he cut a few of the tree's branches. The well pump's motor broke down time and again, until a sheikh passed through here and told him to leave the tree alone. My father slaughtered a few sheep under the tree and everything was fine."

According to local legend, the oak is 1,400 years old, but Zidan says "it is hard to determine its age, because the interior is completely eaten away."

He reassures those concerned that the tree is about to collapse. Despite its appearance, according to Zidan, the tree is strong and stable thanks to the root system which supports it, and a tree surgeon is slated to arrive to outline a treatment plan.

Meanwhile, Sadek and his guests from the JNF gather acorns which have fallen on the ground to send to the JNF Seed Center, where they will be transferred to a nursery in order to - if they sprout - become the offspring of the enormous oak.

"Someone planted this oak so that we would enjoy it," Sadek says. "We will plant trees for coming generations to enjoy."