Everyone Knows Settlers Cut Down Palestinian Olive Trees. But Israel Doesn't Care

Israelis coming from a nearby northern West Bank outpost damage trees, steal olives and throw stones, yet the Palestinian villagers say involving the police is a waste of time

Olive trees uprooted in the village of Mreir, October 14, 2018.
Abdullah Na'asan

The October 4 video looks like the scene of an olive harvest. After all, it's that season. Two young people, at least one of whom is a minor, are holding a large tarp. The smaller of the two of them is holding a stick and hitting a tree, but rather than knocking off the olives, the blows break the tree's branches.

The olive trees in the West Bank Palestinian village of Burin in the northern West Bank do not belong to these young men, and no one gave them permission to harvest olives in this grove west of the Hawara checkpoint. They are unmistakably Jewish. Their white skullcaps, sidecurls and tzitzit ritual fringes make that clear.

>> Read more: Masked Israeli settlers filmed destroying Palestinian olive trees ■ More than 2,000 trees in West Bank Palestinian villages destroyed in two months

A Burin resident who will be identified only as N. was asked to film what was happening. He managed to get to the scene around 20 minutes later. He called the police, and by the time they arrived, 15 to 20 minutes later, he had managed to film the young men hitting three trees.

When the intruders saw a police vehicle, they fled. Three sacks of olives would later be found by police in one of two abandoned houses in the grove, one of which belongs to the owner of the grove. The second house belongs to a family from Nablus whom Jews evicted, tossing out all their furniture and belongings, at the beginning of the second intifada, around two decades ago, N. said. That family has never returned to live there.

Destruction of olive trees in October 2018

The two homes and the hundreds of dunams of privately owned land around them are considered a dangerous area that Palestinians need to coordinate with the Israeli army to enter. Permission is only granted two or three times a year. Why is it dangerous? Because the area also has a spring that had been used to irrigate Burin’s groves for years. Israelis have turned it into a religious ritual bath and leisure spot.

It is a also near the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha and the unauthorized outpost of Givat Ronen. To avoid “friction,” the Israeli authorities bar the Palestinian owners of the land from access to it.

The policemen eventually found the young men with the ritual fringes under a large tree. N. saw them being taken away in the police car. When the owner of the olive grove arrived, he discovered that other trees had been hit in the same way, apparently two or three days earlier, and that a considerable portion of the olives were no longer there.

The spokesman's office for the West Bank district of the Israel Police issued the following statement on the case: “Due to the decisive action of the Israel Police, three juvenile suspects were arrested for suspected agricultural theft and racially motivated offenses. The investigation is still underway, and when it’s concluded, the case will be transferred for review and a decision by the State Prosecutor’s Office.”

N. was asked to come to the police station at the West Bank settlement of Ariel to provide an account of the incident. “Not inside it, but outside the eastern gate of the settlement,” he said, adding that the policeman used the exterior of his cruiser as a desk in writing out N.'s account. N. does not remember the number of times he has reported to the police about similar incidents in his village. But the villagers' complaints have never resulted in criminal charges or convictions that might deter others.

An olive tree uprooted in the village of Mreir, October 14, 2018.
Abdullah Na'asan

According to United Nations figures and information supplied by N., the recent olive theft was one of 48 acts of violence and vandalism by Israeli civilians in Burin alone in the past three years. There were six attacks in 2016; 18 in 2017; and 24 so far this year. The nature of the incidents has varied: raids by civilians accompanied by soldiers who have provided them cover; stone throwing at people, including shepherds and houses; the torching of fields and orchards; the theft of olives; trees that have been chopped down or damaged; and attacks on farmers at work.

On Saturday, October 20, Palestinian farmers were permitted access to their land near the settlement of Yitzhar for the sole purpose of harvesting olives, and only with prior coordination with the army. One farmer’s grove is in the wadi, N. said. When he came to harvest his olives, there was a military jeep there. As the soldiers in the jeep looked on, 12 Israelis descended from one of Yizhar's mushrooming outposts, and threw stones at him, he said. But someone called the Border Police and when they arrived, the intruders scattered. As a result of the incident, the farmer was given special permission to work on his plot on another day — last Tuesday.

A week earlier, on October 13, N. was present for an olive harvest on land belonging to villagers from Burin and Hawara, south of Givat Ronen. It was the same story: Israelis descended from the outpost to throw stones, and the olive pickers fled. Then one of the Israelis approached the tarps on which the olives had been gathered, tossed the olives into the brush and took the tarps. “And everything was caught on video,” N. said.

Since 2016, individual Israelis have staged raids at the nearby village of Urif 16 times and 35 times at Hawara. According to United Nations figures, of the 99 attacks documented in these three neighboring villages, 13 involved arson. At least 1,700 trees and large amounts of crops have been vandalized in the three villages over the course of the last three years.

Madama, Asira al-Qibliya and Einabus are also on the list of villages that have been hit within the same territory of 25-square kilometer (16-mile). This is just a small portion — half a percent — of the West Bank, and it is the subject of a recent report issued by the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, which focuses on that violent epicenter. The report is entitled “Yizhar — A Case Study: Settler violence as a vehicle for taking over Palestinian land with state and military backing.”

Yesh Din has documented 275 attacks against these six villages between 2008 and 2018 that were allegedly committed by Israeli citizens. There are other such cases in this area, but these are the ones that Yesh Din documented. In 167 of the documented cases, the Palestinian victims filed complaints with the police. As of May of this year, 152 complaints had been processed. Only five (3 percent) ended in an indictment, while 117 (77 percent) were closed because the perpetrator could not be identified. Another 22 cases (14 percent) were closed due to insufficient evidence.

These statistics and rate of impunity are similar to data on crimes against Palestinians for the West Bank as a whole. In October alone, the Israeli organizations B’Tselem and Yesh Din documented 12 cases of attacks on olive harvesters or damage to trees allegedly committed by Israelis in the central West Bank.

In a response for this article, the Israel Police West Bank district spokesman's office, said it was unaware of the statistics and could not determine their reliability.

The army and police are both aware that the groves that have been hit are prone to such assaults carried out by Israelis, since they have been attacked in the past. Palestinian access to them is usually restricted. Since the beginning of the second intifada, which erupted in 2000, it has generally been limited to two or three times a year. Dozens of trees are usually damaged in each attack, meaning that several people are involved.

When the trees are young, they can be easily uprooted, but more mature trees require an electric saw. This means the attack requires planning, and even if there are two saws, cutting them down takes time and makes a lot of noise. In other words, the assailants likely feel fairly confident that they will not be punished, even if they are caught.

The areas are dotted with army surveillance cameras. At times, the attacks (mainly arson and assaults on harvesters) have been carried out with soldiers present. The material damage is extensive, and the emotional damage cannot be quantified.

Muhammad Awwad of the village of Turmus Ayya is 80 years old. Agriculture is his main source of income, and he is considered one of the major farmers in the area. He told Iyad Haddad, a B’Tselem fieldworker, of his shock when he came to his grove on October 7, in coordination with the army. He discovered that dozens of olive trees had been destroyed, their branches severed from the trees' trunks. “I thought I was imagining,” he said.

The trees were of particularly high quality and were planted 40 years ago. An officer from the Israeli District Coordination and Liaison Administration, along with a policeman and a soldier, arrived, but Awwad told Haddad categorically: “I have no desire wasting my time filing a complaint that isn’t worth it and the results of which are known in advance.”

In fact, in recent years, both B’Tselem and Yesh Din researchers have noted a clear drop in the number of Palestinian victims who bother to complain to the police over such incidents.

For his part, Abu Atta of the village of Awarta did file a complaint in October 2017 about the theft of his olives. The prospect that his complaint would be investigated and turned into an indictment as an example to others was ostensibly high. After all, it was no less than an Israeli officer at the Israeli District Coordination and Liaison Administration who caught the Israeli citizen stealing olives from the Palestinian grove near the entrance to the settlement of Itamar. He had photographed the thief and even took the trouble to seek out the owner of the plot, Abu Atta, and to help him file a complaint.

An investigation closed

A team from Yesh Din and lawyer Michael Sfard sought to monitor the progress of the investigation of the theft of Abu Atta's olives, but they received no information for six months. To their surprise, in August, they were informed that it had been decided to close the case without even questioning the suspect. Sfard wrote to Israeli attorney and officer Gil Deshe at the Samaria district of the Israeli police, to ask why. He also asked that a Yesh Din representative be allowed to photocopy the investigation file.

At the end of September, Deshe, replied that the file was closed due to lack of public interest, which is why he would not allow the file to be copied. Sfard has since filed an appeal over the closure of the case. Only following Haaretz questions 10 days ago, regarding the case, was Sfard informed that the file could in fact be copied.

“This story isn’t any different from hundreds of other cases that were closed without [questioning] suspects, without indictments and without even a real investigation,” Sfard told Haaretz. “What was new this time was that I got an official confirmation from the law enforcement system of what we’ve known for a long time: that harm inflicted on a Palestinian farmer doesn’t interest them." In comments relating to Deshe's official response, Sfard said Deshe had "so internalized the spirit of the times" that he forgot to engage in a "masquerade" and "simply told the truth: the case was closed because there’s no public interest.”

For its part, the spokesman's office for the Israel Police in the West Bank said no request to photocopy the file had been made to the prosecutor's office. “And to the extent that the complainant wishes to do so, he needs to submit an orderly request,” but it did not provide an explanation as to why the case was closed for lack of public interest.

Following Sfard's filing of an appeal, "the prosecution is examining the investigation file and the existing evidence,” the spokesman's office said.

The spokesman's office also said that over the past month, the olive harvest has been taking place in the West Bank, and “security forces are deployed on the ground to prevent friction between the various populations, thereby enabling the Palestinians to harvest the olive trees that they own in their area."

"The Israel Police regard any act of violence or thuggery as serious, and accordingly, whenever a complaint is received by the police, it is thoroughly investigated to arrive at the truth, regardless of the origin or identity of the victim or offender, or the location of the violation. The statistics presented [showing that most of the cases were closed] are not known to the police, and the extent of their reliability is not clear," spokesman's office said.

The statement continued: “What is clear is that in recent years, the police have been working to arrest and prosecute a large number of suspects for causing damage to and stealing Palestinian property. Therefore, despite the relatively low rate of complaints over damage to agricultural property, the police usually act on their own initiative, initiating an investigation and enforcement and prevention operations, together with the Israel army and security forces. The Israel Police will continue to act decisively, openly and covertly, together with the other security forces in the area and at the points of friction to prevent such incidents, enforce the law [and] investigate and prosecute those involved.”