Refugees in Their Own Land

Trade in ancient olive trees is a big business, often across the Green Line. Arab farmers are tempted by the big cash that wealthy Israelis will pay for such a status symbol, and there's little the law can do about it.

Maya Zinshtein
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Maya Zinshtein

Anyone who visits the home of Moshe and Tova Gindi in Savyon will encounter an avenue of ancient olive trees leading up to the family manse. Another four trees, more splendid, more ancient, stand in the center of the yard. These trees did not grow up there. Indeed for decades and even centuries, they sent their roots into soil far from the land of this upscale Tel Aviv suburb. One day they were uprooted, transported to a big nursery, loaded onto a flatbed trailer, and driven to central Israel to decorate the entrance to the home of an upper-crust family.

An investigation by Haaretz has found that the phenomenon of uprooting olive trees and turning them into pet plants for the rich has been going on for several years now without causing much of a ripple, and feeds a market worth tens of millions of shekels.

The Al-Bustan nursery, near Baka Al-Garbiyeh.Credit: Nir Kafri

Trees decades and centuries old are being uprooted, some by thieves, others by their owners, to be sold. Some are transported from the Galilee to select sales points throughout the country; many more are smuggled in from the Palestinian Authority, delivered to nurseries in Israel and from there to private gardens in walled compounds. Olive trees have thus become a status symbol: One can be yours, starting at NIS 30,000, with prices reaching close to NIS 100,000.

The combination of new fads and an ongoing water shortage has sent local landscape architects back to the indigenous habitat. The tropical flora in the gardens of Savyon or Shavei Zion made way for plants and trees that are native to the Land of Israel. Parallel to this, the difficulty of making a living, and the growing demands of construction - and the concomitant rise of prices into the stratosphere - are driving olive-grove owners to break with a longstanding tradition in return for monetary reward, in which a single transaction can frequently yield income equivalent to that of several years' work. In the West Bank, an additional consideration comes into play: The owners of the groves claim that Jewish settlers uproot their trees, which are left behind, and they then try to obtain some sort of compensation, which will be partial at best.

Olive-tree dealers describe a perfectly legal world in which every tree has a documented pedigree and all of the requisite permits. In practice, the trees' migration often involves an illicit aspect. The Forest Law introduced in Mandatory Palestine, which constitutes the legal basis for protecting trees in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, prohibits felling, transporting or transplanting an olive tree unless the requisite permits have been granted. Such permits may be provided, including to private landowners, only by Ministry of Agriculture forestry officials and officials at the Jewish National Fund. The Agriculture Ministry and JNF say there is a big gap between the permits they issue and the number of trees on sale in the market; a number of people involved in this business talk about a 50-percent gap.

When the olive trees' final destination is documented - something that happens quite often - it is often in design articles in glossy magazines, something that tends to blur the murky side of the trees' appropriation by wealthy individuals.

"There are two kinds of people who want to buy ancient olive trees," says Dedi Golan, whose veteran landscape-gardening firm caters to the very rich. "There are the ones who are looking for status symbols, and an ancient olive tree is such a symbol, like a Bulthaup kitchen or a Chagall original. And since everyone knows that an ancient olive tree costs NIS 50,000 at a minimum, if you place several in your yard, that means that you're serious and important. The other type of buyer is the person who loves the olive tree and invests in it the way a real art-lover invests in a work of art - with no regard for the cost. After all, if the tree is 500 years old, then it's priceless."

A. is a landscape designer with clients of both sorts. He accompanied one for almost two weeks until the client found what he wanted. "We went to two or three nurseries each time and I showed him 20 ancient olive trees before he confirmed that a tree I recommended was in fact suitable for him. It was a lengthy process but the sort you enjoy, which ends in seeing a dream come true," A. says.

"Everything is done in an orderly fashion, with permits," he insists. "These are trees that grew for generations upon generations, mainly belonging to Galilee Arabs. In principle, Arabs do not remove trees from the ground, but sometimes they have to enlarge their house, sometimes a road is paved through their land, and then they are forced to uproot the trees and are given permission by the JNF. Trees from the territories? No way. It is forbidden to bring trees from there because the State of Israel does not have permission to uproot there."

At Al Bustan, the nursery owned by Philippe Nicolas near Baka al-Gharbiyeh, they know A. He passed by there on his quest, strolled up and down the long avenues of ancient olive trees, and also purchased a few.

"We have 21 dunams [1 dunam = 1/4 acre] of olive and other trees and another 100 dunams in Afula," says one nursery worker. "There are 100-year-old trees and even 1,000-year-old trees. Of the especially ancient kind we have two left, after one was sold. The first one cost NIS 75,000, the second one goes for NIS 60,000."

When asked who the clientele for these trees is, the employee has a ready answer: "There are a lot of crazy people in this country. In Caesarea, in Savyon," he replies. But when asked what the source of the trees is - who the seller is - his initial response is silence, and a small smile.

"Do you see these? I got them yesterday. We brought them at 11 P.M., with a 50-ton crane and 20 workmen. This is a 2,500-year-old tree. It's not from here, it's from abroad. From Palestine. It's all from the territories," he explains. "I go to the owner of a grove in the territories, pick out trees and say: 'I'll pay you for a tree like this, say, $10,000,' and then he goes into shock. If he keeps the tree, the olives won't bring in that kind of money even over 10 years. For them this is serious money.

"If the potential seller agrees - and not everyone agrees; there are some who won't hear of it - I arrange for a person who goes in and buys. And then he goes through the checkpoints with a permit. We get clearance from [the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and register the tree and receive a license. Just like an Arabian horse gets a permit that it's a thoroughbred Arabian, it's the same for the tree."

The Civil Administration, which is the only body authorized to permit olive trees to be brought into Israel, has a different version. Samir Mouadi, the Agriculture Ministry's officer at Civil Administration headquarters, maintains that no permits whatsoever were granted last year for the transfer of olive trees from the West Bank. Administration officials add that they are not aware of any trees being smuggled into Israel - an intriguing claim considering that the phenomenon has been going on for years and that one of its aspects received considerable publicity in the past: In January 2003 the daily Yedioth Ahronoth ran an extensive article on a massive uprooting of olive trees in the territories, in particular along the route of the separation barrier being built at the time. According to that article, construction of the barrier necessitated the uprooting of thousands of trees, some of which were never returned to their owners as required but were allegedly sold by several of the contractors working on the barrier - with the Civil Administration's knowledge.

Mohamed Muqbel, of the West Bank village of Qaryut, for example, keeps safe in a bag the Jordanian land registry certificate of ownership for the property his father bought even before he was born. The map demarcates his grove of olive trees more than a century old, which Israel allows him to visit only twice a year. Along with the registry document, the bag contains a pile of complaints that Muqbel filed over the past 10 years with the Israel Police and the Binyamin District Coordination Liaison Office in response to settlers attacking, trespassing on private property and uprooting trees.

"I am 70 years old and I don't have the strength any longer to deal with this," he sighs, and then discusses a neighbor who has an almost identical story to his own.

Many of the trees on the market are sold with their owner's consent, sometimes prompted by moderate commercial pressure. South of Baka al-Gharbiyeh, for example, within Israel proper but adjacent to the separation barrier, the Al Bustan nursery has seen some serious competition crop up. These nurseries - which number in the dozens and have become a mecca for private buyers, gardeners and owners of nurseries in Israel - also offer row upon row of splendid trees.

"We worked on him, a real job, until we managed to get it out of him," one nursery owner said of a tree's owner. "He didn't want to sell, but the tree wasn't producing olives, so we persuaded him to begin planting new olive trees in its place. In the end we tossed a package of money on the table, until he was persuaded. But I myself would never sell a tree like that in my life. No way. "

One of the places such nurseries are flourishing is the village of Hableh in the Qalqilyah region. The fence route cut right through the village, leaving residents east of the barrier and their lands to the west, within Israel.

The solution the Defense Ministry offered the villagers was to open so-called "fabric of life" gates, which are intended to enable landowners to pass through the barrier in order to continue working their land or operate other enterprises there. The nurseries established there in recent years constitute the primary form of business. The trees reach them, that is, enter Israeli territory, through those same "fabric of life gates," passing through checkpoints, and continuing from there to their new homes in Israel.

Tree dealers complain that the PA has been making life difficult for them lately.

"I'm allowed to bring goods onto my property, but with olives it's harder," complains one nursery owner. "The PA asks that olive trees not be uprooted because from an economic standpoint they are one of the most important resources in the West Bank, and we're just barely keeping the inventory restocked." In the next breath, he offers to sell six ancient olive trees that came into his possession just a month ago.

Trees can also be ordered in advance according to specification. "I don't have such a large tree right now, but within a week I can get you a 500-year-old tree," he adds.

Asked where it will come from, the nursery owner laughs: "It'll come, don't you worry," he says. "It'll come here and you'll pick it up here. I'll call when it arrives."

The Agriculture Ministry has a special unit with increased enforcement powers: permission to conduct investigations, make arrests and carry arms. It has been dubbed "the agriculture police." The flora and fauna supervision unit is supposed to monitor the entry of animal and plant products from the PA to Israel, to prevent smuggling and the introduction of diseases and blights.

According to a ministry employee, this unit has been almost paralyzed for the past two years because of a dispute with another ministry department - the flora protection and inspection services. The latter is supposed to issue permits for destruction of farm produce seized by the flora and fauna supervision unit. In the past two years, the employee claims, protection and inspection has not been forwarding the permits, and in their absence the agents of flora and fauna supervision have stopped seizing produce to prevent its becoming a hazard altogether.

The Border Police and the ombudsman of the Agriculture Ministry investigated a ministry employee, a veteran intelligence coordinator named Asher Yitzhari, who was allegedly involved in tree trafficking, and particularly the trafficking of ancient olive trees. The suspicions concerning Yitzhari had previously been brought to the attention of the ministry's director general, Yossi Shai, and it was he who instructed the ombudsman to investigate. The ombudsman's report contained, among other things, the finding that Yitzhari had two police records when he joined the unit. One of these two cases ended in his conviction and sentencing to six months of community service.

Following the ombudsman's recommendation, the JNF filed a police complaint in 2005, and after the Border Police conducted an undercover investigation, Yitzhari was arrested on suspicion of receiving bribes, breach of faith and trafficking in olive trees worth hundreds of thousands of shekels. Today, after his case was closed for lack of evidence, he remains in the same ministry department.

In the meantime, Yitzhari's case was transferred to the Civil Service Commission to determine whether he should be brought up on disciplinary charges. The commission, in turn, recommended in December 2009 that the Agriculture Ministry hold a hearing and initiate reprimand proceedings - not for receiving bribes, but rather for conflict of interest. It turns out that Yitzhari has a nursery of his own. The former intelligence coordinator only recently submitted a declaration of conflict of interests.

If the Civil Administration hasn't heard anything about tree smuggling, and the flora and fauna supervision unit doesn't have any teeth, then the deterrent power that all the parties involved rely on is the JNF's supervision unit, consisting of fewer than 10 people who are supposed to cover all of Israel and the PA combined.

"We are working to catch every olive tree that was transplanted without authorization and without a license, to put the person responsible for it on criminal trial, and have the tree itself confiscated by the state," says Amikam Riklin, who heads the JNF's supervision unit. "Whoever violates the olive tree violates the landscape of the country, and we cannot let trees be taken without authorization to the home or the neighborhood of whoever it is."

In practice, the law permits inspectors to act only in one case: when they catch offenders in the act of either uprooting or transporting trees. Once the trees have been planted in soil - even the soil of a nursery that nobody would mistake for the site of a 200-year-old olive grove - their hands are tied. So the inspectors wander Israel's roads and try to catch criminals, a not-very-efficient undertaking when you consider the number of inspectors, the number of roads and the number of hours in a day.

The inspectors are convinced that most of the trees in the "vanity market" do come from the West Bank, where there are an estimated 10 million available. But the JNF says that the Galilee is also fertile ground for trafficking in ancient olive trees.

"Many landowners in the Galilee seek to have agricultural land rezoned for construction," notes the Agriculture Ministry's national forest commissioner, Hagai Snir. "When there are permits for changing the land-use designation, we help them out and provide felling permits. When they don't have these permits, they will probably look for other ways to get rid of the trees."

Says Ido Rasis, the JNF official in charge of enforcing the law in the central region: "We know categorically that there is an enormous gap between the number of felling and transplanting permits that the JNF issues and the number of trees in the possession of tree dealers. But we're only a handful of inspectors dealing with an entire industry. In the past the Israel Police and Border Police would assist me in road seizures. Less so today."

Just this year the JNF began systematically documenting the permits it issues for felling, transport and transplanting of trees. According to its data 18,900 such permits were issued for olive trees - a seemingly astronomical number. But the vast majority of the trees on the list don't match the specs of those that are sought after on the vanity market. Rather, they come from young groves that kibbutzim were forced to clear because of rising water rates.

For now, then, the state is indicting mostly those who had the misfortune of showing up on its radar screen, whether through the efforts of the JNF supervision unit or following complaints by alert citizens. About four months ago this radar missed a series of trucks that traveled across the country carrying stolen olive trees from a military base, and it was only an inquiry by Haaretz that led to their capture (see box ).

The heavyweight traffickers and their envoys are often instructed to pull over to the side of the road for inspection; this too is a practice that sometimes ends in an indictment. For example, one major tree dealer who had been caught is Avi Yehezkel of Moshav Haniel, not far from Netanya. In October 2010 he was convicted in the Netanya Magistrate's Court of transporting olive trees without a license. The sentence noted that "the offenses are serious [and] the accused has a previous conviction that speaks for itself."

Reached for his comment, Yehezkel said: "I was accused of transporting trees without a permit, but that is not true. I had a transplanting permit from the JNF's forest commissioner, but I didn't have a transporting license, because he told me it wasn't necessary."

Another big-time tree trafficker, Aharon Sadeh, was convicted in the Kfar Sava Magistrate's Court after he and another man were caught transporting three ancient olive trees from the village of Hableh without a license in 2005.

"That was a procedural mistake on our part. We even considered appealing," he contends today. "It happened as part of a barter we did with an Arab dealer. Our driver simply made a mistake. All in all it was minor. We received a fine of NIS 2,500 and the trees were confiscated."

Even when an indictment is filed and ends in a conviction, it does not provide an element of deterrence. The few indictments over the past five years show that the punishments that were imposed on most of those convicted were unusually low fines, ranging from NIS 750 through NIS 1,500 and up to NIS 5,000 - extremely modest sums considering that a single tree goes for tens of thousands of shekels on the market. As noted, trees can only be confiscated if they are discovered while in transit . Nevertheless there have been some developments on this front. One of these is new cooperation between the JNF and the Israel Tax Authority's national unit for investigations and field intelligence.

"This industry has a turnover of tens of millions a year and we're seeing an increase over the years," says Yosef Shbiro, deputy director of the central region investigations unit at the Income Tax Authority. "Any self-respecting builder of a villa feels compelled to plant a tree, and because of the rising tide in construction of villas, the olive tree market has also grown."

The tax authorities have a clear idea where the olive trees are coming from. "A substantial share comes from the PA and a smaller share from Israel, because here it's gradually dwindling," Shbiro explains, spelling out what has remained apparently invisible to those in charge of this matter at the Agriculture Ministry and the Civil Administration. "I imagine there are many olive trees that are uprooted without a permit. The authorities issue a few dozen transplanting licenses per year, not more, whereas the market has a turnover in the millions [of shekels]; it has hundreds of ancient olive trees all about and demand outstrips supply. After all, there is a shared economic interest and a meeting of wills, so both sides profit."

According to Shbiro, the olive tree passes through additional stations on its way to the nursery: the uprooter and the middleman. "There is a person who uproots, and there are nursery owners who sell a lot to other nurseries themselves. By the time the tree reaches the final nursery, its price has climbed, with everyone involved making a bundle. The profit sometimes exceeds 100 percent."

Tree dealer Philippe Nicolas was arrested last October on suspicion of concealing income of NIS 2 million from the tax authorities, income earned from, among other things, trafficking in ancient olive trees. In his remand request the police national investigations unit stated that intelligence activity had raised the suspicion that Nicolas was selling the olive trees to clients without reporting his activities in full to the taxman. What the request did not mention is that Nicolas is one of the two traffickers responsible for the trees on the Gindi estate.

"Two of the three biggest tree traffickers have already been punished," says the JNF's Ido Rasis, "but the JNF's problem remains unchanged. We can stop a truck and seize the trees, but nothing more. Once they are at the nurseries, in the ground, we can't do a thing - and all this is in accordance with section 18 of the Forest Law."

The landscape architect Dedi Golan offers scant comfort: "When everyone takes out a loan so that he can put an olive tree in his yard, and there are loads of nouveaux riches living in ostentation, the trend will eventually lose its power," he says. But until that happens - if ever - the olive tree will be without any real protection.

The Civil Administration had this to say in response: "In 2010 no permits were issued to Palestinians to transfer olive trees from Judea and Samaria into Israel. At the gate located in the village of Hableh permission is mainly granted for transferring work tools and goods that serve the landowners, in view of the fact that there are no permanent residents in this part of the village."

Moshe Gindi offered this comment: "I did not buy any tree from the territories. Everything was handled in a professional manner by subcontractors."

Zafrir Rinat contributed reporting to this story.

In mid-December, last year, a truck drove along the coastal road carrying a load of ancient olive trees. The driver had a license from the JNF to transfer trees from the Hahotrim military base in the north to other public destinations, for preservation purposes.

The driver, equipped with instructions from his dispatchers, left the base and headed south. At the end of the journey he unloaded the trees at a private nursery, where they were priced for sale for thousands and tens of thousands of shekels. This truck was only one of many that traversed Israel that month carrying 95 ancient olive trees, protected under the law, that were then smuggled onto the market.

The Defense Ministry had applied to the JNF for a permit to transplant 62 ancient olive trees from an army base in the north. The JNF consented, and Michael Weinberger, the organization's director for the Western Galilee and Carmel region, granted the Israel Defense Forces a license. The terms of the license stated that the trees would be transplanted according to a systematic plan that would specify their destinations: monuments, other IDF bases and sites owned by the JNF itself. To execute the plan, Weinberger enlisted Ofer Cohen, an ex-military man known in JNF circles as a project manager.

Only 62 trees were granted transplant permits, but the number of transport permits grew to 95. Aharon Sadeh's nursery, Hadar Noi, in Moshav Beit Oved near Rishon Lezion, was one of the places the trees wound up. Sadeh claims that he received 25 trees, and that all of them had transport permits citing his nursery as their destination.

Haaretz found that Sadeh actually received 41 olive trees, each of them between 150 and 200 years old, worth an estimated NIS 45,000 each on the market. None of these trees was supposed to reach the Hadar Noi nursery: One of them was meant for the monument on Kibbutz Degania; others were listed on the permit as destined for "Tel Hashomer" - that is, Sheba Medical Center.

According to Sadeh, the trees represent partial repayment of a debt the IDF owes him. "Over three years, I supplied the IDF with 80-90 trees. To Training Camp 1, for example, we sent 40 trees in 2009. That was done through Ofer Cohen, and he told me that he would repay me in time," Sadeh explains, though he did not present any documents to back up his claim.

Another place the IDF olive trees wound up was Geva'ot Olam, the organic farm that the former army lieutenant colonel Avri Ran built in the West Bank, without permits, in the late 1990s. Ran, who became religiously observant and a leader among the so-called hilltop youth, received five trees; Haaretz did not receive a comment from him by press time. The major tree trafficker Avi Yehezkel denies that he received trees from the IDF base. Ofer Cohen declined to comment on the grounds that the matter is under investigation.

The JNF offered the following comment regarding the trucks affair: "The JNF views the matter very gravely and therefore a prompt preliminary inquiry was conducted immediately, and in its wake a complaint was filed with the police. So long as a police investigation is ongoing, the JNF cannot, with the best of intentions, provide further details that might disrupt it. When the investigation is over the JNF will draw and learn the [necessary] lessons." (M. Z.)



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