JOHN YDSTIE, host:
In the West Bank, Palestinian farmers and human rights groups are demanding the Israeli police and army do more to protect Palestinian farmland from vandalism by militant Jewish settlers. The Israeli government says more than 2000 Palestinian olive trees have been vandalized, damaged, and in some cases, uprooted this harvest season. Settlers deny they're behind it, saying the damage is self-inflicted by Palestinians who want compensation.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
In the farming village of Solem, just outside Nablus, 37-year-old olive farmer Abu Zaki(ph) points to the hillside, where he says he and his family have grown olives and tended sheep for three generations.
Mr. ABU ZAKI (Palestinian Olive Farmer): (Through translator) Just over there are our trees and the damage to the trees all along the roadway has been extensive.
WESTERVELT: On some trees the major branches have been chopped off. Elsewhere, tree trunks have been ripped apart. Farmers say it'll take six to ten years for the trees to recover. Abu Zaki says when he and his fellow famers try to cross the road into their fields to protect or maintain their trees, or to harvest the olives, they face attacks from rock-throwing settlers and potential arrest by soldiers.
Mr. ZAKI: (Through translator): They say, this is a military road and you are passing illegally to your land.
WESTERVELT: The farmers here say that the militant Israelis behind the vandalism live at Scully (ph) Farms, which was declared an illegal outpost by the Israeli government and is slated to be dismantled.
But Abu Zaki is unconvinced the Israeli government will ever turn tough talk into action.
Mr. ZAKI: (Through translator) The Israeli security should let us go daily to protect our land, or it is up to them to protect it. Right now, the settlers do whatever they want. In these villages, we all make our living from these trees. What will happen when we don't have the olives to live from?
WESTERVELT: Settlers at Scully Farms refused to talk with us, but the settlers right next to the farm did. Founded in the early 1970's, Elon-Moreh sits atop a steep hill, with a dramatic view overlooking Nablus.
Mr. ZEB SAFFER (Founder, Elon-Moreh Settlement): God told Abraham to come here, to this very spot, Elon-Moreh. That God promised to Abraham for the first time, To your children will I give this land.
WESTERVELT: Zeb Saffer(ph), Zeb Saffer, is one of the original founders of Elon-Moreh, he tears up describing what he says is, A community affirming the fulfillment of God's promise to the Jewish people. Saffer calls the alleged tree damage a hoax by Israeli leftists to discredit settlers, or staged vandalism by Palestinians, hoping for propaganda and compensation following a mediocre olive harvest.
Mr. SAFFER: It could be a way of them cutting their own trees, claiming that they were vandalized. And then, they receive money for it, which is more money than they had received for the olives that weren't there. So, I find it a little strange that, of all these so-called thousands of trees that have been so-called vandalized, they haven't been able to find the people doing it.
Rabbi ARIK ASCHERMAN (Director, Rabbis for Human Rights): Those things are just blasphemous, frankly.
WESTERVELT: Rabbi Arik Ascherman is director of Rabbis for Human Rights, which is trying to help Palestinian farmers in the West Bank protect their trees.
Rabbi ASCHERMAN: Well maybe they also burn their own trees and maybe they also planted the Israeli I.D. cards that were found in one place. It's clear to everybody, except for the people who are radical fanatics, that there has been extensive vandalism and destruction of trees.
WESTERVELT: The Israeli government agrees. Acting Prime Minster Ehud Olmert denounced the vandalism as criminal and called for action. Israel's Defense Minister recently formed a high-level team of security and other officials to investigate and if possible, prosecute those responsible for a problem the government says, has mushroomed in the last 22 months.
Israeli Government Spokesman Shlomo Dror says security forces worry that the small groups of Israeli extremists behind the violence won't stop at trees.
Mr. SHLOMO DROR (Spokesman, Israeli Government): This is the kind of people that attack our soldiers as well. And, you start with trees; we know that they also were trying to harm some animals. And then it's, you know they can attack people as well. So that's why we want to stop them.
WESTERVELT: Human rights groups welcome the new tough talk from Israeli officials but they aren't waiting. Rabbis for Human Rights now has a case before the Israeli High Court, demanding that Palestinians be granted year-round access to their farmland, and that security forces do more to protect the farmers from settler violence.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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