More than an olive branch for peace in the Middle East

A national network of American Jews and a group of rabbis in Israel have taken this command from the Torah to heart.

Their "Olive Trees for Peace Campaign" is raising funds to replant trees in Palestinian villages in the West Bank to replace the many thousands that have been uprooted by Israeli soldiers and settlers in recent months.

"Olive trees are a very important symbol ... and a big part of the Palestinian economy," says Rabbi Ari Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR), which hopes to help Palestinian families cope with the loss to their livelihoods.

Israeli security forces say trees need to be destroyed because they can be used as a cover for violence, for stone-throwers or snipers. The policy is said to be a protection against ambushes. Rabbi Ascherman suggests "that's a little simplistic. When you go into the fields far from any road, you also find trees cut down, sometimes by settlers acting as vigilantes." In the Salfit area alone, he says, 3,000 olive trees were destroyed. Palestinians see the policy as a form of collective punishment.

Break the Silence, a US network of Jews who support "a just settlement between Israel and a viable Palestinian state," is joining with RHR to spur a people-to-people effort and to make sure that the voices seeking peace continue to be heard. In a full-page ad to run soon in The New York Times, they invite the US Jewish community and others to take part in the campaign.

"We dare not leave peacemaking solely in the hands of Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon and Chairman [Yasser] Arafat," the ad says. "Both peoples must act at the grass roots." The ad also calls for an end to Israel's settlement policy and for Palestinians to choose nonviolent protest rather than violence.

Break the Silence formed several years ago when a majority of US Jews disagreed with the Netanyahu government over its approach to peace, says Cherie Brown, executive director of the National Coalition-Building Institute in Washington, D.C., and one of the founders. "Now with Sharon, things are very difficult.

"We want to endorse the on-the-ground efforts of Rabbis for Human Rights and also encourage the organizing of US Jews," she adds. "I see more interest here in mobilization efforts than I've seen in a long time."

Funds collected will go to replanting trees and to financial support for Palestinian families whose trees were uprooted or cut down. "A cut-down tree will regenerate," Ascherman says, "but it will take six to 10 years before it or a new tree bears fruit."

Some of the trees were hundreds of years old, and the oil and olives paid for children's schooling and other family essentials.

A third component of their effort is marketing olive oil in Israel for Palestinians who can no longer do so due to road closures.

Despite a tougher climate in Israel because of the violence, Ascherman doesn't expect to run into serious difficulty with his project. "When we started advertising this, I did get a large number of calls asking, 'How can you do this? Aren't those trees dangerous?' " he says.

"But I'm one of a handful of Israelis not in uniform or not settlers that have been in the West Bank in the last half year - Israelis don't know what's happening," he adds. "So when they call, I tell them what I've seen, and I've found it's been effective."

The rabbis have collected $20,000 for the campaign so far, he says, including donations from children through religious school collections (www.rhr.israel.net). Break the Silence coordinators in the US also include The Shalom Center and The Shefa Fund.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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