Settlers Accuse Palestinians of Vandalizing Jewish Farms

West Bank settlers say there has been a recent spate of Palestinian vandalism on property belonging to Jewish farmers, and an Haaretz investigation has found evidence of arson, sabotage of equipment and destruction of crops.

The farmers claim that the police are not designating their complaints as high priority, because they do not fall under the rubric of "hostile terrorist activity."

Settlers put the damage from vandalism in the tens of millions of shekels for which they are not compensated, because state authorities recognize only damage sustained in "a hostile act against Israel."

The police maintain that it treats equally Palestinians and Israelis who damage agricultural produce.

A new report by a settler civil rights group cites several examples of damage to Jewish farmers' property. Under the heading, "Who will protect my olive tree?" the report describes the torching of 900 dunams of grazing ground, a stable, and 30 pomegranate trees belonging to Yehuda Cohen of Bat Ayin. Shamai Pozak at Ofra had young saplings chopped down, tons of grapevines destroyed before the harvest, and irrigation pipes torched. Moshe Kedem of Pnei Kedem had 500 olive tree saplings uprooted.

At Sde Calev, in the Hebron Hills region, arson consumed more than 100 cherry trees, and assorted buildings and storage sheds were set on fire. Just recently, another 400 grapevines were uprooted.

Shlomi Cohen's vineyard in the Dolev region was uprooted four times, which finally prompted the Shin Bet security service to investigate. Suspects were subsequently arrested, but the Shin Bet does not ordinarily get involved in these cases.

Israeli police hardly ever enters Arab villages in the West Bank, and as with cases of agricultural theft within Israel, the moment the stolen property makes it into the nearby Arab village, its owners usually have no chance of getting it back.

When farmers occasionally have conducted their own investigations and located their property in the surrounding villages, the police refrained from entering the villages.

An exception was the case of Yehuda Cohen, who persuaded the police to intervene by threatening to go into the town of Dahariya himself to retrieve his stolen horses.

Settlers complain that irrigation systems are prime targets for repeated vandalism by Arab shepherds, who slice the pipes to water their flocks, and by Palestinian farmers or others who tap into these systems for free water.

The new report lists a series of cases in which "Israeli and international leftist groups were clearly involved in incidents of rioting that damaged agricultural plots of Jews in Judea and Samaria."

This claim proved correct in at least two of the cases Haaretz checked. For example, in the course of a protest march by leftists, anarchists and Arabs on August 22, dozens broke into Shlomi Cohen's vineyard at Neria and uprooted some 5,000 vine saplings.

On October 17, a left-wing activist was caught along with Arabs from the West Bank in the act of setting several fires around the illegal outpost Havat Gilad.

There are indications of leftists' involvement in several other cases, and police sources confirm the matter, but no suspects have been arrested.

A majority of police files opened following complaints by Jewish farmers are closed on the ground of "perpetrator unknown," and most of the handful of cases that result in arrests are usually closed for lack of evidence. Sometimes cases are closed for "lack of public interest."

According to the report, investigations in these cases sometimes take an unexpected turn, when Arabs under interrogation for committing terrorist attacks reveal they were also involved in sabotaging Jewish farmers' property.

The report claims that nothing is being done to deter "potential Arab offenders," and that police officers respond slowly to complaints of vandalism. Furthermore, police do not devote intelligence resources to dealing with this issue, nor generally "makes use of the Shin Bet's intelligence operation."

Said a police spokesman said in response: "The actions the police take against Palestinian and Israeli law offenders who damage the property or produce of farmers on either side makes no distinction between the sides."

He said that every complaint is dealt with, including by intelligence means if necessary.