Israel's three main newspapers, along with the world media, have published steady reports of "Jewish settlers uprooting Palestinian olive trees" accompanied by pictures of the supposedly "uprooted" or "chopped-down" trees – actually very much intact, but with their branches severely pruned back.
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Acting prime minister Ehud Olmert, in one of his first acts as the leader of the Jewish state, condemned the "uprootings," adding, "These terrible acts must be prevented - the perpetrators must be apprehended."
Fellow Kadima Party member, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz joined the fray, estimating in front of the TV cameras that 2,000 trees has been "chopped down" in the past year, saying he had appointed a team to investigate the matter and proposed offering compensation to PA residents claiming their trees were axed.
Amira Hass of Haaretz newspaper wrote: "The police have counted 733 trees that were uprooted in 2005." She doesn't just blame Jewish residents, however, saying the Israeli government itself dug up a huge number of trees for the Partition Wall, which both Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria oppose. "In the village of Qafeen alone, for example, 12,600 olive trees were uprooted for the separation fence," Hass wrote.
The left-wing web site StopTheWall.org web site shows a picture of the way in which the IDF, sanctioned by none other than Defense Minister Mofaz, prepares trees to be transferred elsewhere when they interfere with the path of the Partition Wall. The branches are pruned down to the trunk - even closer than those supposedly the cut by Jewish vandals.
Trees belonging to PA Arabs in Budrus that the IDF itself cut the branches off of before transporting a replanting to build Partition Wall, from the web site of the left-wing StopTheWall.org web site.
The Yesha Council began to publicize the video of Arabs chopping branches off of their own trees after issuing several condemnations of the alleged tree-cuttings over the years. A council spokeswoman said that the members heard testimony from the head of Israel's Olive Tree Growers Association saying that every two years or so olive trees must be heavily pruned, all the way to their trunk, in order to encourage a better olive harvest the following year.
Hass responded to the video in Thursday's Haaretz, saying two experts she showed photographs to concluded the trees were not pruned properly and, therefore, must have been cut by Jews. "Palestinian olive trees in the West Bank are clearly being vandalized rather than pruned," Hass said. She then quotes Yoel Marshak, a left-wing activist from the kibbutz movement: It's clear that these were people who were rushing so as not to be caught," he said. "They had a saw, but they didn't saw completely through the branch; they sawed partway through and then broke it off. They didn't saw the trunk, because it is thick; therefore, they cut off the branches."
The other "expert" quoted by Hass admits that the trees will grow back.
Meanwhile, Israeli politicians have continued to condemn the so-called hilltop youth, blaming them for the pruned trees without any evidence shown publicly, photographic or otherwise.
Shabak (General Security Service) Chief Yuval Diskin was reported to have told the Knesset Defense Committee earlier in the week that, "These actions are very grave, in my opinion. Olive trees are just a symptom, and the problem is that there is no effective law enforcement when it comes to the hilltop youth. They have anti-establishment, anti-government and even anarchic characteristics," he said. According to Israeli media reports of the closed session, he added that the GSS "knows which of the settlers are responsible and handed a list to the police and IDF, who have failed to make any arrests." Soon after, GSS sources denied that Diskin had made such a claim and IDF and police spokespeople denied having received any such list.
On Tuesday, a Jewish Shomron resident was arrested with olive branches in his car. It turned out he was a gardener for a local Jewish community and had pruned their trees and saved the branches for firewood.
Meanwhile, Jewish olive growers in Gush Etzion are baffled by the entire episode. "Anyone who knows anything about olive trees knows that cutting off their branches does not kill them – and certainly the Arabs know this," said Eitan, who has an olive orchard that he planted in the hills south of Jerusalem.
"You don't hear about it on the news, but they know this so well, that they have no problem cutting through the trunks of olive trees we plant, or just tying them to a donkey, actually uprooting the trees, and bringing them elsewhere."