All that remains of the olive grove that fronted the main highway here between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Hebron are gnarled trunks, turned on their sides.
Two weeks ago, the Israeli army bulldozed the trees, claiming they had served as cover for Palestinians sniping at the highway, frequently traversed by Jewish settlers and military vehicles.
In all, some 15,000 trees have been destroyed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the start of the current Palestinian uprising on Sept. 28, says a Palestinian human rights group.
Israeli forces cite security reasons. But Arabs say that olive trees are more than mere hiding places for snipers. Their destruction is an economic and symbolic attack that is profoundly disheartening to Palestinians.
According to Muslim tradition, the olive tree is blessed by God, and for Palestinians it is a symbol of their nation. It is seen as embodying the qualities of rootedness and durability, attributes Palestinians say they believe have preserved them during years of struggle with Israel.
"The Israeli military's strategy is to dig up the trees as a collective punishment," says Uda Walker, at the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment (LAW). "The settlers just do it out of vandalism."
The current uprising, entered its 10th week yesterday, with the total number of fatalities approaching 300, the overwhelming majority of them Palestinian.
And the sense that Israel is taking revenge against Palestinians by targeting trees is widespread in the West Bank.
In some instances, when the army finds out stone throwers come from a given village, soldiers go to the land belonging to that village and destroy trees, Ms. Walker said.
The army denies meting out collective punishment, and says it uproots trees solely to boost safety on the roads. It has no statistics on the number of felled trees.
But the Israeli security establishment is divided over the destruction of trees. Thus far, those who view the trees as the enemy have enjoyed the upper hand. The reason: The war with the Palestinians has increasingly come down to a contest over control of the roads. Israel wears down the Palestinian population by blocking the roads between West Bank cities and severing arteries between the northern and southern parts of the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian fighters, for their part, try to transform the roads used by settlers into death traps with nighttime ambushes.
But Jewish settlers are also getting into the act, felling trees to intimidate Palestinians, farmers say. "I'm not afraid of the army, but of the settlers," says Khalil Abu Ilbaya, who says he found about 30 of his olive trees chopped down when he arrived Sunday at his land near the Neve Daniel settlement, and far from the nearest highway. "These trees were 12 years old, I took care of them for 12 years," he said.
Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, a settler spokesman, says that settlers do not destroy trees. They back the army's uprooting of them, but believe this is no substitute for other measures against the Palestinians. "The army should hit the terrorists while they are in their beds in Gaza and Nablus, not wait for them to be hiding behind olive trees," he said.
In al-Khader, Khader Ibrahim, a resident, interpreted the army's uprooting of trees as "using their power against the population. They do whatever they want, might makes right."
Some Israelis also have qualms. Yoni Figel, an adviser to Israel's Coordinator of Activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, says that uprooting trees is at odds with the Zionist ethos of greening the land of Israel.
"We were educated not to uproot a sapling, and for us as Israelis, this has a bad taste," he said during a debate on the policy on Israel Radio. Moreover, Mr. Figel said, destroying trees merely turns more Palestinians against Israel.
Jamal Yacoub Saleh, deputy mayor of Kifl Hareth in the northern West Bank, said that settlers and soldiers felled about 400 olive trees near the village 10 days ago along the Trans Samaria Highway. "These trees do not throw stones," he said. Trees that were about 100 yards from the road were destroyed, he said. The army confirmed the uprootings and said there had been shooting from among the trees. No settlers were involved in the operation, it said. According to LAW, soldiers have assisted settlers in destroying trees.
Col. Eitan Avraham, the army commander in charge of the Kifl Hareth area, says that owners of groves are to blame when their trees are uprooted. "If the owner of the grove, whom I assume knows the sniper or the petrol bomb thrower, does not take the measures he must take, then his grove will come down - but not in a violent or aggressive way," he said during the Israel Radio debate. The tree removals are for the safety of settlers, he stressed. "No one should tell me that an olive tree is more important than a human life," Colonel Avraham added.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society