Mazuz Urges Compensation for Arabs Whose Olive Trees Axed

Attorney General slams lack of law enforcement against settlers; more than 2,000 trees recently axed.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz told the cabinet on Sunday that Israel should give monetary compensation to Palestinians whose olive trees have been cut down.

According to Mazuz, 2,400 trees were axed in a recent wave of vandalism in the West Bank, apparently by militant settlers.

"There's a pervasive feeling of lawlessness," Mazuz said, adding, "This phenomenon is part of a wider phenomenon of a lack of law enforcement against Israelis in the territories."

The attorney general said that after the state pays the Palestinians the guilty parties - presumably settlers - will, in turn, need to compensate the state.

"All security and law enforcement officials must devote themselves to a determined struggle against this grave phenomenon, and those responsible must be caught and brought to trial."

The attorney general noted that he had already discussed the matter on numerous occasions with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra, Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and district police commander of the West Bank.

"The excuse that there is a lack of resources is unacceptable," said Mazuz. "This is a matter of priority, it's unacceptable that Israel is unable to allocate resources for this."

Mofaz noted at the meeting that he has ordered the establishment of a special team to investigate the destruction of over 2,000 olive trees belonging to Palestinians in the West Bank.

Mofaz said in the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday that the team will include representatives of the Israel Defense Forces, police and Shin Bet security service, as well as the coordinator of government activities in the territories.

The defense minister also said that, following the findings of an investigation into the matter, he ordered security forces to increase their presence in areas where trees have been destroyed, to carry out a policy of quick and effective arrests and to compensate the Palestinian tree owners. Mofaz did not refer to the identities of those responsible for destroying the trees, but they are widely assumed to be settlers.

A Palestinian family in the southern Hebron Hills said Friday that around 120 olive trees have been cut down.

The olive grove is located across from the West Bank village of Tawaneh, and belongs to a family from the village of Yata. Children from Tawaneh discovered the mutilated trees on Friday morning and informed the landowners, the Amur family.

Police and Civil Administration officials arrived at the scene, as did the security coordinator for settlements in the area. The Amur family was urged to file a complaint with the Kiryat Arba police.

The police questioned the grove owners, and an officer photographed the trees and took a sample of one of the branches that had been cut off. Amur family members were worried that police were planning to look for fingerprints on the branch and that they would be incriminated, but the police officer reassured them by explaining that the branch would be used to help identify the type of saw used to cut down the trees.

The isolated olive grove is on the northern side of Route 317, a road that the Palestinians are in effect barred from using and which links the local settlements of Sussia, Beit Yattir, Maon and Carmel. Maon is located a few hundred meters from the olive grove.

The Judea and Samaria district police said that in 2005 it opened 672 cases of Israeli disturbances targeting Palestinian residents and security officers in the West Bank, including violent offenses, property damage and trespassing.

The human rights group Yesh Din documented 20 instances between March and December 2005 in which Palestinian olive groves and agricultural property were sabotaged, and filed complaints in those cases.

At least 2,200 trees have been damaged. Most had been cut down, but some have been burned, and a few hundred have been stolen from areas where the West Bank separation fence is being built.