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Israeli settlers accused of destroying Palestinian olive trees

The alleged destruction of 100 trees strikes at a core symbol of Palestinian identity - and the Palestinian economy

Israeli settlers chopped down more than 100 olive trees near the West Bank city of Nablus on Saturday, according to the Palestinian Authority (PA) which has promised to reimburse farmers for financial damages.

With the Palestinian olive harvest at its peak, the settlers were alleged by Ghassan Daghlas, a PA official who tracks incidents of settler violence, to have destroyed the trees in Qaryut village early Saturday.

The settlers used chainsaws to cut the trees at the base, Daghlas claimed.  He said the farmers were shocked by the sight of the felled trees, which they had been nourishing for years.

An Israeli military spokesman did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment. The Israeli military often prevents some of the worst forms of settler violence against local Palestinians, but such attacks have persisted year after year during the olive harvest.

Local human rights groups allege that more than 800,000 olive trees have been uprooted since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.

“Settlers attack the olive harvest and take the olives from us to say ‘this land belongs to us and not to the Palestinians,’” Jaber Abu Rahmeh, from Bil’in village near Ramallah, told Al Jazeera.

In response to the attacks, the PA will form a committee to compensate farmers and to “help them remain firm on their lands,” Minister of Agriculture Walid Assad told Maan

The ancient olive trees are regarded by Palestinians as a symbol of their connection to the land. Each year during the olive harvesting season, such incidents spike across the West Bank – where more than 515,000 Israelis occupy over 125 settlements, considered illegal under international law.

A recent report by Israeli nongovernmental organization Peace Now said settlement construction on new homes in Israeli settlements in the West Bank spiked by 70 percent in the first half of 2013.

“Settlers attack the olive harvest and take the olives from us to say ‘this land belongs to us and not to the Palestinians,’” Jaber Abu Rahmeh, from Bil’in village near Ramallah, told Al Jazeera. “To deal with Israeli soldiers is better than dealing with settlers – who are more violent and hate the Palestinians.”

At the end of the last olive harvest season in January, the Israeli Defense Force said in a press release that during the 2012 season there was a "52 percent drop in incidents of friction, thanks to thorough preparation and cooperation in the field ahead of time."

"The IDF presence in harvest areas and friction points was impressive and the IDF functioned properly against violence committed by Israeli citizens during friction incidents," it said.

Olives are the area’s most important crop, whose oil is exported around the globe and whose annual harvest is a crucial source of income for about 100,000 farming families. Olive cultivation contributes up to $100 million in income for some of the poorest Palestinian communities, OXFAM said in a report.

During the 2012 harvest, on Oct. 7-10, settlers carried out five separate attacks, Israeli human rights watchdog B’Tselem said in a press release.

In Qaryut, the same village allegedly attacked Saturday, more than 80 trees had been chopped down the previous year. Following the attacks, the landowners told B’Tselem they “prefer to harvest in groups due to concerns about settler violence.”

In the four other attacks last year, according to B'Tselem, masked settlers had set fields on fire, felled trees, stolen olive harvests, and physically assaulted harvesters.

Al Jazeera

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