In the past two years, over 3,000 trees in Palestinian villages have been destroyed or stolen. When volunteers celebrated Tu Bishvat by planting trees in Maghar, near Ramallah, settlers slammed the event.
By Amira Hass

Equipped with an extra pair of glasses, I went to the village of Maghar near Ramallah, on Route 60. In order to make the location clearer to the Israeli reader, I shall mention that it is east of the settlement of Shiloh and its subsidiaries. “Shiloh gave birth to five,” as they say in the village, referring to the unauthorized outposts there whose names are Shvut Rachel, Kida, Adei Ad, Givat Harel and Esh Kodesh.

What has brought me four or five times to Maghar and the neighboring villages (Krayot and Jalud ) since 1998 are the incidents of tree uprooting. One time the Israel Defense Forces uprooted a number of trees, for security reasons of course, and the remainder were uprooted by unidentified parties. Different perpetrators, yet the scene looked the same – large stretches of bare tree trunks, chopped close to their roots. Their nakedness was touching, and the mourning of the villagers, heartrending. Complaints were registered with the police but, to the best of my knowledge, no guilty parties were ever found.

This time around it was a planting event that took me back to Maghar. Shomrei Mishpat – the indefatigable Rabbis for Human Rights – decided to mark the holiday of Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day ) there, alongside the villagers, by planting olive saplings. A fitting and humane response to “a wave of harming and stealing olives such as we have not known since 2005,” as their invitation read.

Between October 2008 and October 2010, 21 acts of direct assault on Palestinian property were documented in the villages in the area; most of them were directed at the olive trees, but almond and fig trees were also harmed. Trees were chopped down, uprooted (and stolen ), poisoned and burned down. More than 3,000 trees (including several hundred saplings ) fell victim to these acts of destruction. In another eight instances, other violent acts were documented – attacking a farmer, setting a field on fire, slashing tractor tires and stealing crops.

Altogether, between June 2008 and December 2010, 182 cases of attacks on Palestinian agricultural property were documented in five focal points in the West Bank, located close to settlements and outposts. The diligent recording is being carried out by various Israeli human rights groups – the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem, Yesh Din and Rabbis for Human Rights – who are known in this effort as the Olive Harvest Coalition. These organizations are responsible for the 2006 decision by the High Court of Justice, according to which the authorities (the IDF and the Civil Administration ) must ensure that Palestinians can work their fields in peace and security.

Since that ruling, the IDF has tried to provide the Palestinian farmers with protection during the olive harvest and sometimes during the plowing season as well, but these are just a few days of the year. The invitation to last Thursday’s event explained that “the tree planting operation is in response to the army’s failure to uphold the High Court of Justice’s ruling 9593/04, which obliges the army to ensure that there is no attack on trees or property belonging to Palestinian citizens. [The army’s explanation] is that it is not able to place a soldier next to every single tree to protect it. We do not expect that the army would arrange guards of this kind, but we do expect that it would raise the level of its forces and put guards in places where it is known that trouble is likely to occur.”

Broken glasses

A website known as Hakol Hayehudi (the Jewish Voice – News for Happy Jews ) informed its readers that “this Thursday, which is when Tu Bishvat falls, [Rabbi Arik] Ascherman and his gang are planning to hold a provocative ‘tree planting’ event on the lands of the settlement of Adei Ad in the Shiloh bloc.”

It also reported that the Binyamin region settlers committee had received a police permit to demonstrate on the 14th day of Shvat (the day before Tu Bishvat ) outside the home of Ascherman, the director of Rabbis for Human Rights. The protest was called because of “the continual harassment by his group, Rabbis for Human Rights, of settlements in Judea and Samaria, especially the outposts and the hilltop [settlements].”

Ascherman, who learned about the demonstration from Internet sites and not from the police, announced that he would invite the protesters to pray with him. The five demonstrators who appeared turned down this offer, he said.

According to the site – “For Happy Jews” – there had been a “minyan” [prayer quorum of 10 men], and they had arrived with an announcement signed by the committee. “The time has come,” it said, “when all those human rights activists who walk around disturbing us with cameras in their hands, should understand that if they are looking for confrontations, they will get them. But not at our homes – rather at theirs.”

(And now is the time for a parenthetical remark about the extra set of glasses. On one occasion, the settlers of Hebron did not like when I asked a policeman why he did not stop Jewish children from throwing stones at the Palestinian homes next to which he was standing. The settlers then attacked me and one of them snatched my glasses. I got them back later – broken ).

A lesson from the kids

Last Thursday, about 80 women and men with skullcaps on their heads and joy in their hearts (as the children’s rhyme in Hebrew goes ) arrived in Maghar from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, awaited by men and children from the village. Speeches were made, furrows were dug and a great many saplings were planted.

The children, who had just had their religion-studies midterm exam, moved around among the guests with curiosity, looking for someone with whom to speak Arabic. They also gave us a lesson about the chopped down trees – explaining that one tree, which looked as if it was seven years old, was actually 40, that its new leaves were five years old and that it would bear fruit in another two years. The mutilated tree next to it, they said, was a lost cause. It too was 40 years old, but it would never bear fruit again.

One villager watching from the side said: This perhaps looks good for media purposes, but we can plant trees alone, we don’t need help. Let the guests go and plant trees on the hilltop opposite, where settlers have erected two hothouses on land that does not belong to them. But another villager did not agree. The most important thing, he said, was the act itself, “so that our children can learn that there are Jews who are not soldiers or settlers.”