09/16/2010 04:02

Omer’s mayor Pini Badash claims culprits are local Beduin who claim the land for themselves; damage estimated at NIS 500,000.

When JNF-KKL foresters arrived at the woods outside Omer on Wednesday morning, they were in for a nasty surprise. As they prepared to water the saplings, they discovered that thousands of trees had been cut at the trunk and left to die.

Omer Mayor Pini Badash, who was called to the scene, filed a complaint with the police.

State demolishes Beduin village for fourth time
“Trees are the Perfect Long-term Investment”

“I’d hate to be the ones who did this when I get my hands on them,” Badash told The Jerusalem Post in a phone interview. “For those who don’t realize it, there is a war going on in the desert.”

Though the police has yet to identify suspects, in Badash’s mind there is no question that the culprits belong to a Beduin tribe that lives in the area and who oppose the planting of forests because they claim ownership of the land where the saplings were.

Two weeks ago, the Jewish National Funds’s office building in Tel Aviv was plastered with posters depicting the ongoing house demolitions in the Beduin village of Al-Arakib. Activists said they put up the posters to “protest the JNF’s complicity in the crime of pushing the Arab and Beduin residents of the Negev from their lands.”

JNF foresters have suffered from attacks by Beduin in the past. Last year, 20 people were arrested after a demonstration by Beduin activists over the same issue turned violent and a worker was injured.

“Over the last few years the JNF has planted more than 4,000 dunam (990 acres) of new trees in the area. We refuse to give them up. For every tree that is cut down, we will plant 10 more. We will protect the forests from any further harm. We will put in surveillance equipment. We will put sentinels in the forest. This is an existential war and we refuse to surrender!” Badash said.

“I call on the national government to intervene, to send forces and return the element of deterrence. I also call on the judges to stop being wimps and place stringent sanctions on people found guilty of such actions.”

According to Dani Gigi, JNF’s regional director for the Negev and the Arava, the damage done to the forest was severe by any measure.

“We have experienced similar attacks in the past, but never in such a magnitude. In this case the damage was huge. It takes five-10 years for a tree to reach the height these ones were at. Here in the desert getting the trees to grow in the first place is a tough job, and it pains us to see them die,” Gigi said.

The number of trees damaged indicated that the culprits were at the job for several nights, Gigi said. “You can’t cut that many trees in one night, they must have been at it with chainsaws for three or four days,” he said.

When asked why nobody heard them if they were using chainsaws, Gigi said that the saplings were far from any residential neighborhoods and that it was impossible to hear in the large expanses of the forest.

Gigi estimated that the financial damage caused by the vandals was roughly NIS 500,000, but that that didn’t include the environmental cost.

“Putting up a security system in the forest is unrealistic. Fortification is not the answer. The solution has to come from education and law enforcement. It is important to note that the battle here is not with the JNF. We are just here as contractors fulfilling the government’s policies,” Gigi said.

The police’s Negev District spokesman, Tamir Avtabi, said officers were on the scene within minutes and had begun an investigation. “Our forces are in the field taking action, but so far we can not identify any suspects,” he said.

The trees that were cut belong to the Mesquite, Acacia, and Eucalyptus varieties. All the trees were cut through at the base of the trunk, apparently so no one could see that they had been damaged. The cuts killed the trees but it took them several days to dry up sufficiently to be noticed from a distance.