Settler Protest Stops Felling of Thousands of West Bank Trees

Fear of fires and need of firebreaks prompted authorities to launch culling project, now suspended and under review.

Debris left after trees felled in the Etzion Bloc in the West Bank, August 2016.
Emil Salman

The Civil Administration has recently cut down thousands of mature trees, some of them decades old, in the large forest in the West Bank's Etzion Bloc, near the settlement of Kfar Etzion.

An announcement sent to the inhabitants stated that the felling was being carried out for fear of fires, whether due to arson or other circumstances. But, last week, after complaints from local residents, the Civil Administration suspended the work pending a review of the issue.

To fell a mature tree within Israel proper it is necessary to obtain a permit from a forestry officer on behalf of the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) or from the local authority, as part of a rather complicated bureaucratic procedure.

In this case, the Gush Etzion Regional Council informed residents complaining about the mass of trees being cut down that the matter falls under the authority of the Civil Administration, and is being done with the agreement of the JNF.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, Kfar Etzion people planted hundreds of dunams of forest here,” Yaron Rosental, director of the Kfar Etzion Field School, told Haaretz. “As children, we played here, as teenagers we had parties here. This past month a massive felling effort began, unlike any I have ever seen. This hurts. Those who have grown up in this landscape can’t remain indifferent to the sight of this wild undertaking. We must not let this keep happening.”

The Civil Administration confirmed that thousands of trees in the forest have already been cut down as part of a culling effort, due to the fear of fires.

For its part, the Gush Etzion council informed Haaretz that the thinning-out is being done “in the wake of the many fires here and because of a lack of firebreaks and approach roads.”

According to Rosental, an area of hundreds of dunams (one dunam is equal to 1/4 acre) have already been thinned. “They have cut down thicker trees and the less significant trees have remained standing. From a thick forest with shade only a handful of trees that don’t give shade have remained,” he said.

The Civil Administration has responded that it invests hundreds of thousands of shekels and hundreds of hours of work in planting trees, conservation and nurturing forests in the area.

“In this context every few years a professional process is carried out to thin the trees and prune them, in coordination with the regional council," said the administration. "Similar processes of culling trees are carried out everywhere in the country and in the world. In certain areas, in accordance with local fire-fighting directives, there is a requirement to create treeless gap zones, as part of the lessons learned from the Carmel fire disaster [in 2010, in which 44 people died], in cases where communities are adjacent to forested areas. In light of the complaints [in Etzion], there will be a survey in the area and an examination in order to ensure that the procedure is carried out in accordance with the instructions.”