Gilad Farms horse shed
Gilad Farms horse shedIsrael news photo: Gilad Farms archives

In a piece written more like an Arab editorial than a hard news item by a professional journalist, the French news agency AFP news agency “reported” Saturday on the Yahoo! News site that a blaze   allegedly “lit by Jewish settlers”  but in fact set by Arabs in a Jewish field that spread out of control- destroyed an olive grove in the “occupied West Bank.”

IDF artillery brigade soldiers at the scene Friday spotted an Arab fleeing a blazing field set afire at nearby Havat Gilad (Gilad Farms) but did not manage to catch him.

The hot winds and high temperatures in the area quickly whipped the flames into a fury that leaped across the fields of clover, reaching to the trees in the Arab-owned olive groves. According to Itai Zar, head of the small community, it also threatened homes, where firefighters fought to contain the raging blaze that consumed tens of thousands of shekels' worth of agricultural products.

However, without quoting any authority other than the Palestinian Authority Arabs who made the accusations, reporter Phillippe Agret wrote “the firebombers swooped down from Havat Gilad, a wildcat Jewish settlement unauthorized even by the Israeli government.”

The Jewish community of Havat Gilad, located between Yitzhar and Kedumim in Samaria, is home to 25 families. It is built on privately owned land by a man named Moshe Zar, who purchased the land from a Palestinian Authority Arab. It is, in fact, a community the U.S. government has pressured the Israeli government to dismantle. But one could hardly refer to the vast majority of its population, mostly women and small children, as “wildcat firebombers.”

Quite the opposite –in September 2009, on the second day of the Rosh Hashanah Jewish New Year holiday, Arab arsonists torched a field on the site, which quickly spread to the small community’s infrastructure. Within minutes, two homes were burned to the ground. The main sewerage line was badly damaged, as was the community’s electrical grid, leaving more than 100 residents without electricity and sewerage systems for days. Damage was estimated at half a million shekels ($1.4 million).

The oft-repeated accusation of Israelis setting fire to Arab olive groves is not new but  is rarely backed up with hard evidence. Each year during the olive harvest, Arabs, protected by IDF soldiers, gather their crops while unprotected Jews, harassed by Arabs, anarchists and foreign activists, attempt to pick their own crops.

But the hysteria of the allegedly bereft Arab farmer, combined with the dramatic visuals, usually plays well in the foreign media, and this day was no exception. A gaggle of foreign photographers accompanied the British Oxfam organization as it made its way through Samaria to the community of Havat Gilad and possibly Elon Moreh. (Israel news photo: Yehuda Simon)


But Agret wrote, “Thick black smoke billows from the olive grove under the gaze of Israeli soldiers as Palestinian farmers use branches to try to beat out the fires lit by Jewish settlers. Encircled by barbed wire, the makeshift dwellings glower down on the surrounding Palestinian olive plantations…”

The fact that the barbed wire is designed to prevent terrorist attacks from local Arabs who have repeatedly attempted to murder their Jewish neighbors escaped the writer.

Likewise, the word “plantation” is a rather grandiose description for a simple grove of olive trees nestled among the rocky hills of this ancient land. (Israel news photo: Yehuda Simon)

Agret parroted the claim of Arab farmer Shaher Tawil: “We were gathering the olives when the settlers arrived. One of them started a fire.” The AFP reporter then told his readers, 'Tawil points to a bearded man wearing a T-shirt and a Jewish kippa or skullcap, now safely behind an Israeli military barrier.”

The image conjured up in the reader’s mind is unmistakable. No judge and jury is needed; Agret has done it all. He continues to relate Tawil's testimony: “’When we saw the flames, we called the fire service but the soldiers wouldn’t let them come any closer to prevent clashes with the settlers,’ the old man says.”

Agret painted a graphic epic for his reader: the poor old Arab man against the backdrop of the brutal Israeli soldiers who won’t let the fire trucks put out the flames that are destroying the olive orchards. But Agret adds a fillip of hope; perhaps the drafted youth among Israel's forced military may someday relent.

“The young Israeli conscripts, visibly embarrassed and restricted by their uniforms in the oppressive midday heat, finally let the fire-truck through after about an hour, by which time the flames have already been well-fanned by the wind. At last the fires are put out, as again the soldiers look on.”

Agret apparently did not question the IDF military command, to find out whether there was an investigation into the incident? Did he call any government authority at all, in fact, asking for a comment? Nor did the journalist ask the Samaria Regional Council for a statement about the blaze, to see if perhaps the leadership condemns such an act, if it proves to be arson by Jews? He also did not report if he questioned the Palestinian Authority security force to see if there was an investigation?

Instead, he proceeded to further indict the Jewish residents of Gilad Farms as thieves. “Tawil says last week settlers from Havat Gilad harvested the fruit of 800 trees belonging to his family. ‘Every year they steal our olives and burn our trees,’ he says,” Agret wrote, without bothering to seek a response from those accused.

Agret added with dripping contempt that the Jews who live in the community are “among the most hardline in the West Bank” and are wont to quote “one of their spiritual and ideological gurus, the late rabbi Mordechai Elyahu.” (sic).

The rabbi to whom Agret referred with such cavalier indifference, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, was one of the Jewish world’s most revered rabbis, a prominent Jewish legal adjudicator and spiritual leader, who recently passed away this past June. He served as the official Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the State of Israel from 1983 to 1993.   

Events ‘Obviously Planned and Orchestrated’
Meanwhile, David Ha’ivri, director of the Shomron (Samaria) Liaison Office, charged the incident was linked to an attack at the Jewish community of Elon Moreh, in which two residents were set upon by a mob of Arabs and foreign anarchist activists, who beat them with rocks and metal bars, and a similar attack in which a field was torched at Havat Gilad.

“Friday’s violent events at Havat Gilad and Elon Moreh were obviously planned and orchestrated by provocateurs posing as givers of humanitarian aid," Ha'ivri said.

“Activists of the British Oxfam organization accompanied by journalists were photographed at the site (Israel news photo: Yehuda Simon) where events led up to the arson of crops belonging to residents of Havat Gilad,” he noted.

“The fires were lit by local Arabs who were spotted by the IDF fleeing the scene of the crime. Residents of the Gilad Farm worked for hours putting out the flames.”

Ha’ivri warned that Oxfam and similar foreign organizations enter the region “not to promote peace, but on the contrary, to use confrontations between local Jews and Arabs who would have gone about their daily lives had it not been for the ‘help’ of the outsiders.”

IDF spokespersons told Israel National News they are “checking into the incident.”