Israeli-Palestinian clashes over olive groves feed distrust
With Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in limbo, a feud is escalating between Jewish settlers and Palestinian villagers over olive trees – and the land in which they're rooted.
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"It's so clear that these kinds of ideologically driven attacks are so damaging, not only because they hurt individual Palestinians' livelihood, but because it is reported widely in the world and the occupied territories,'' says B'tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli. "The ability to promote the political process is hurt – it's causing enormous anger among Palestinians, which breeds violence and dissatisfaction.''Skip to next paragraph
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Outraged Jewish leaders in the West Bank have called the accusations part of a "defamation'' campaign by foreign aid workers, the media and Palestinians.
Settler: The issue is land, not trees
Havat Gilad settlers deny the Palestinian charge that they were behind the arson of theft. Havat Gilad resident Yehuda Shimon said the fire was the work of Palestinians. He said the land where the outpost sits and the adjacent olive groves were bought by Jews nearly 30 years ago.
A lawyer and father of seven, Mr. Shimon said he tried to prove legal title to some of the farming land and obtained a court injunction order against Palestinians. He did not deny accusations that settlers from the outpost harvested the olives, but insisted that no one has proof of ownership of the trees.
The Israeli army, he charged, usually sides with the Palestinians on clashing ownership claims. Opening a Hebrew Bible to a reference to Farata, he said the issue is not about trees, but land.
"If somebody comes to your home and puts a tree in the floor, the tree is yours and the house is yours,'' he says. "That is the point of departure which every Jew needs to be aware of.''
A wave of arson attacks
The olive strife comes amid a string of arson attacks on West Bank mosques and in one instance a school which most Israelis – including many moderate settlers – assume were the work of a settler fringe that has made vigilantism a policy. Rights groups say Israeli law enforcement in the West Bank is lax.
A police spokesman said they have received at least 27 harvest-related complaints and have made 16 arrests. A handful of those arrested have already been indicted.
Though the Israeli government has tried to distance itself from settler vigilantism, Palestinian and United Nations officials say it’s a form of "terrorism" that Jerusalem is ultimately responsible for.
"[Israel] is responsible according to international law to protect the civilians as an occupation force,'' said Prime Minister Salam Fayyad during a recent visit to a West Bank olive grove with UN envoy Robert Serry. "But surely, it has not done so. It is has not held anybody accountable for their terrorist attacks.''
Settlers retort that the charges are baseless because so far, legal authorities haven't made any convictions.
Back in the village of Farata, relatives of Mr. Salah are stripping branches of olives that rain down onto broad sheets of tarp. The family says they stay close to the village outskirts for fear of a clash with settlers, who, despite allegations of vigilantism, they consider to have a symbiotic relationship with the government.
"The government uses the settlers to not make peace and the settlers use the government to stay here,'' says Saleh Salah, a relative of Ibrahim. "Israel wants the whole of Palestine, and it's going step by step.''