Opinion // Stop the Destruction of Palestinian Olive Groves

By | Jul 01, 2015
2015 July-August, Opinion
Palestinian woman hugging tree


by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Trees matter, and Israelis, of all people, should understand why.

On May 19, 2014, Daher Nassar, a Palestinian farmer in the West Bank, awoke to find that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had bulldozed about 1,500 of his trees. “I had figs, apples, apricots, olives, grapevines,” Nassar told Haaretz, speaking about his ruined orchard in the valley below the Palestinian village of Nahalin and the Jewish settlement of Neve Daniel. “Why would they destroy them?…I raised those trees like I raised my own children.”

Palestinian trees have been the casualties of Israeli politics for decades. The Nassar uprooting drew an international outcry, and groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights, T’ruah, B’Tselem, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation track such events. But most American Jews seem unaware that Israeli authorities can summarily deem Palestinian areas to be “state lands,” order them evacuated and mow down their trees if the land appears neglected or its ownership can’t be documented to Israel’s standards. According to news accounts, the IDF in March bulldozed dozens of olive trees in the northern West Bank village of Tayasir, bringing the total number of trees destroyed across the region in one month to nearly 2,000.

Palestinian families who have lived on their land for generations but can’t furnish official ownership papers, or who have exhausted their appeals in the Israeli legal system, are powerless to stop the IDF from systematically destroying their ancient orchards to expand Israeli control over the West Bank (ostensibly for security) or to build settlements, separation walls, settler-only roads and sewage systems. (In the Nassar case, the IDF claimed that an appeal by the family hadn’t been properly filed.)

In addition to government-sanctioned actions, Palestinians for years have lost trees to harassment by militant Jewish settlers. Israeli settlers in recent months uprooted hundreds of olive saplings in the Palestinian town of al-Shuyoukh in the southern West Bank; settlers from the town of Immanuel uprooted 450 saplings in and around Deir Istiya in northern Salfit; and others attacked agricultural lands east of Turmus Ayya and cut down about 5,000 of 8,000 olive tree saplings—reportedly under the protection of the IDF.

This isn’t new. In the fall of 2003, The Guardian reported that armed Jewish settlers from Eli attacked Palestinian orchards in Sawiya, south of Nablus, and destroyed 1,000 olive trees, some dating back to Roman times. Abdula Yusaf, the owner of the trees, said, “The settlers came down the hill with knives and guns. They slashed open our sacks and emptied the olives onto the ground. They put guns against our heads and made us stand there while they did it.”

Yusaf said of the plundering mob, “We used to think they just wanted our olives, but it’s about land… By cutting the trees, they can say the land is neglected.”

In 2005, a special investigative team submitted a map to then-Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz showing locations where settlers had burned, uprooted or cut down hundreds of olive trees, blocked the water supply to Palestinian villages or physically terrorized Palestinian farmers. Israel’s then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz complained repeatedly to the defense minister, the public security minister, Shin Bet, the IDF Chief of Staff, the Central Command and the West Bank District Police. Then-Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised “to stop these hooligans.” But settler thuggery has persisted largely undeterred. According to various sources, about 1.2 million Palestinian trees have been uprooted since 1967, impoverishing families who rely on the olive harvest for their livelihood.

The Torah instructs that even in a time of war, fruit trees must not be destroyed unless the trees are being used as bulwarks to protect a city under siege (Deuteronomy 20:19-20). Rashi, the 11th-century authority, said that since the tree is not an enemy, we have no right to destroy it or make it suffer because of disputes between human beings. The 10th-century sage Abraham Ibn Ezra read the same verse to mean that we must not cut down trees “for man is the tree of the field”—that is, our lives as human beings depend on trees.

By either interpretation, one might expect religious Jews to respect olive trees owned and cultivated by human beings who, though not Jewish, were created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God. Yet religious Jews are the most frequent perpetrators of terror attacks on trees that are used neither as “bulwarks” nor as cover for would-be snipers but as sustenance for Palestinian life and livelihood.

Even beyond their economic importance, the significance of trees to a people’s identity, culture and history should be obvious to every Jew of conscience. Just think of what trees have meant in the growth and development of Israel.

Since 1901, the Jewish National Fund has planted hundreds of millions of trees and American Jews have bought hundreds of millions of tree certificates in the name of bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations and weddings. In lieu of making aliyah, diaspora Jews put down roots in Israel by planting trees. Visiting dignitaries also plant trees. Israeli forests have been named for rich donors, for martyrs of the Holocaust, for Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, for Menachem Begin, for victims of AIDS and 9/11. In short, trees carry meaning. 

In the late 1980s, during a wave of arson forest fires attributed to Arab militants, Mordechai Ruah, head of the JNF Forestry Department, said, “When I go into a forest and see a burnt tree, I actually hear it crying… I really feel the pain.”

Today, when ancient Palestinian olive trees are burned by Jewish fanatics or razed by IDF bulldozers, it’s not enough to feel their pain. We should cry out in protest and feel ashamed.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate was published in May.

8 thoughts on “Opinion // Stop the Destruction of Palestinian Olive Groves

  1. Gnarlodious says:

    I lived in a settlement on a hilltop in the 1980s which was surrounded by nothing but barren rocks, while Jews were forced by law to not plant trees there. Since then the Arabs have grabbed the land, planted trees suddenly claiming that land was theirs all along by means of some byzantine laws of inheritance. So you’ll excuse me if I have a hard time believing these Arabs are any more than mere squatters, and the Jews are more than mere fools.

  2. len says:

    Letty-The one who should be ashamed is you ,you are either a fool or a hypocrite maybe both, Firstly -That Ancient Palestinian Olive Tree was originally a Young Olive Tree in the land of Eretz Yisroel planted by Israelis ,we know these groves all over the Land of Israel were planted millennia ago for Israelis to enjoy the fruits of their labor back in the day, thanks to the likes of Hadrian and his buddies he made sure that the original inhabitants would never enjoy the fruits of their labor. Understanding that ,the Palestinian woman who is so obviously playing to the camera to bring you this emotional propaganda picture that you stupidly or disingenuously share with all the world one more time has no more right to that Olive Tree than a Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian or Turk. If you disagree with me on that then why don’t you have her hugging a house somewhere in Zfat, Tiberius, Jaffa, Haifa or anywhere in Israel for that matter.I would imagine that your thinking process should add 1 plus 1 and figure out she has as much right to the house as the Olive Tree.!

    1. A Yid says:

      The picture is a sloppy, photoshop fake. The red color on the dress is also on the tree. The shadow under the arm is in the wrong place, and the leaves on the white part of the cloak are in the wrong place. Pallywood’s production values are slipping!

  3. Neil says:

    An Arab woman clinging to an ancient “Palestinian” olive tree? Wow, sensational.
    Maybe Pogrebin can enlighten us next about Arab Jerusalem (undeserving of even a mention in the Koran), or of all the cities built during the flourishing Palestine civilization.

    Khamene and Goebbels would all be so proud.

  4. bev morse says:

    a) this is old news, and b) i was in israel in the seventies when 1000 nearly 1000 yr-old olive trees were hand dug and moved to a new area – as i recall, only 30 trees didn’t make it. yes, israel honors trees as it does life. and limb. and one wishes those who lived on the land, and from it, would honor the state and its right to exist, as well.
    am israel chai – and all her neighbors. and citizens.

  5. Ilana Sumka says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful, important piece calling attention to one of the biggest shanda’s of the Israeli occupation: the callous destruction of olive trees. I’ve personally witnessed the impact of this destruction, and it’s past time that this behavior end. One thing Jews from around the world can do to heed Ms. Pogrebin’s call for protest is to go to Palestinian farms and replant olive trees to show that Israeli bulldozers don’t represent Jewish values.

    1. len says:

      Ilana -The Palestinian farmers don’t need or want you to help plant their Olive Trees ,they want you to do them a big favor and stop occupying Palestine, go away, and they don’t mean go away to Tel-Aviv, they mean Ilana,go away to New York, or London, Paris, Berlin, Anatevka or wherever the hell else you came from. They are still fuming at the Olive Trees that were torn down by the Jews to build the Jewish State. So stop “Hocking a Chineek” and just “GO AWAY”.THAT WOULD FOR SURE SHOW THE WORLD WHAT JEWISH VALUES ARE ALL ABOUT.

  6. Rachamim Slonim Dwek says:

    Sadly the author not only accepted Anti Israel Propaganda at face value, but used a fake photo to illustrate her Bloodlibel. The photo is not Photoshopped as at least 1 other commenter claims. However, it was a posed photo taken after a pruning. It was debunked 6-years before the author used it. Furthermore, she then has the audacity to preach Torah. The woman would be very well served to learn what Mesirah means and how she, as a blatant Moser, a criminal, should actually study Judaism before she mounts her next soapbox. Shame on this foolish woman. More shame on “Moment” for having handed her a pulpit.

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