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The Myth of Persecuted Palestinian Trees By: Steven Plaut
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The mainstream media have long sought to demonize all the Jewish “settlers” in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, painting them as violent destructive bullies. The focus of this campaign in the past few months has been on the supposed conspiracy of West Bank Jewish settlers to chop down trees owned by Palestinians. The world media and Israel’s left-wing media outlets insist that Jews are vindictively cutting down and vandalizing olive and fruit orchards belonging to Palestinian farmers. Literally hundreds, if not thousands, of “news stories” have described “reports,” citing Palestinian Arabs or PLO spokespersons, claiming that Jewish settlers are sabotaging and destroying Arab trees in the West Bank. But are they?

The simple answer is that the accusations appear to be entirely baseless. It would be hard to find another set of such baseless rumors turned into “news.” Not one Israeli single settler has been convicted of damaging Arab trees, and several more plausible explanations for the cutting of the trees exist. Moreover, the “accusers” of Jewish settlers regarding the alleged vandalism themselves have a track record of refusing to speak out against the intentional environmental terrorism of Palestinian and Israeli Arabs, who torch forests in Israel several times each year.


Some of the media “news” stories about supposed settler wanton destruction of Palestinian trees are coming from outright propagandists like “al-Jazeera.” Israeli soldiers and settlers have cut down 18,339 trees, according to the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry's Olive Department. This is the same Palestinian Authority that has never been able to locate the same Hamas terror leaders regularly interviewed by CNN and the BBC. Similar allegations of tree destruction by settlers have been carried by legitimate mainstream media, including Reuters, AP, CNN and others. An Israeli leftist “human rights” group, Yesh Din, has filed “complaints” over 20 instances of Israelis sabotaging Palestinian agriculture between March and December, yet none of these has produced a single conviction of a “settler.”


Leaders of the West Bank settlers have consistently denied that Jews are running about chopping down Palestinian trees. In fact, many settlers are religious, and wanton destruction of trees even of one’s worst enemies is explicitly prohibited in the Torah. One anti-Zionist Tikkunesque “Reform Rabbi,” Arik Ascherman, has led a private crusade against the “settlers” he alleges cut down the trees. But Ascherman is hardly a credible source, having been convicted of interfering with Israeli anti-terror military operations. He is also associated with the “anarchists” who have been vandalizing Israel’s security wall and attacking soldiers. Ascherman was invited to take a lie detector test about Israeli destruction of PA trees but refused .


A small number of Palestinian trees have been cut down by the Israeli army – because they were being used by Palestinian terrorists to snipe at Jewish settlements and outposts. For example, after Palestinians murdered eleven Jews from the settlement of Itamar, some trees along the perimeter were chopped down legally for fear terrorists would exploit them.


Invariably, the “reports” about the supposed vandalism conclude that Jewish settlers are the “obvious suspects.” Yes, the usual suspects, guilty until proven innocent. The “cause” of bashing Jewish settlers for allegedly vandalizing Palestinian trees has been picked up by leftist anti-settler political activists inside Israel, including the far-leftist “Rabbis for Human Rights.”


The anti-Zionist extremist “reporter” Amira Hass from Israel’s daily Haaretz has claimed repeatedly that settlers are behind the vandalized trees. But in June 2001, the Jerusalem District Court ordered Haaretz and Hass to pay 250,000 shekels (about $80,000) for slandering the Jewish community of Hebron, due to similar baseless charges. Judge Rachel Shalev-Gartel concluded in favor of the Hebron residents, ruling that Haas' report – disproved by several televised accounts of the incident – damaged the community's reputation. Leftist “Haaretz“ has run numerous articles about “rumors” that Jewish settlers damaged Palestinian trees, yet no articles reporting that any such settlers have ever been convicted. A radical anti-Zionist Israeli “anarchist” named Ethan Ganor has also been spreading stories of alleged settler ecological damage, a charge immediately picked up and repeated by leftist anti-Semites at the rabidly anti-Semitic Counterpunch website.


While numerous police investigations were launched on the basis of allegations that Jews were vandalizing Palestinian trees illegally, no one has been convicted and most of the cases were dismissed. On the other hand, there have been several reports and accusations that local Jewish leftists have intentionally destroyed trees as part of a campaign to make the “settlers” look responsible. The accusations against the “settlers” have been refuted at length on a new website devoted to fighting the “SDL: Settler Defamation League.”


But there are some more interesting twists to the story. A widely-published AP photo of an Arab woman weeping and embracing an allegedly chopped-down tree (similar photos were taken by Reuters, AFP, and others) shows that the trunk is intact, and that only the top branches are cut off - as if it had been pruned. In fact, the Haifa-based Land of Israel Task Force says that this is exactly what happened. There have been reports of damage to the trees from their tops and not from near their roots, which – according to the secretary of the Moshav Maon nearby – might be designed to allow the owners to collect compensation for “damages” self-inflicted, which do not kill the tree. The police have indeed confirmed that they were cut from above and not at the roots.


“The left-wingers and Arabs pulled the same trick last year,” Task Force head Aviad Visuly said, “and using the same method.” Photos of the trees show that the branches were sawed off in a manner that is beneficial to the trees. “Why would vandals bother sawing off each individual branch? Wouldn't they just cut down the trunk?” One Jew, by the way, was arrested recently for cutting some branches off a tree, but he had the branches in his car and was evidently taking them home to use as firewood.


There is reason for the Arabs to do this: the Israeli government has started paying “compensation” to Palestinians who claim their trees were vandalized. So the destruction of the trees might well be the unintentional result of this “subsidization” of chain-sawing, as Palestinians find a new source of income from the foolish Israeli government: money earned when they cut their own trees and blame it on the Jews.


But the most persuasive reason for the tree cutting is that Palestinian trees are cut for firewood, thanks to high energy costs this winter. In fact, trees throughout northern Israel are also being cut down this winter for fuel. More than 15 acres of pine and oak trees in Galilee have had their trees cut down by chainsaw in recent months. Others were cut down in the predominantly Arab Wadi Ara area and elsewhere. The Israeli media have all but ignored the cutting down of trees in Galilee and northern Israel, yet every tree in the West Bank to be discovered cut is a banner headline and basis for new media slander against all the Jewish “settlers.”

While the imaginary destruction of trees by settlers has by now been “reported” by countless newspapers and websites, very few of these have discussed the implications of the many incidents of environmental terrorisms against Israel by Palestinian and Israeli Arabs. In recent years dozens of Israeli forest fires, some quite large, were set intentionally as acts of arson by Arabs for political reasons. The evidence is overwhelming that these are deliberate acts of political sabotage and quite a few Arab arsonists have been apprehended for them. Israeli police have caught dozens of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs in the act of setting fires, while other Arabs confessed to arson after arrest. Some fires followed specific calls by underground Arab terrorists to torch forests. A leaflet issued by the intifada’s “underground leadership” called for “the destruction and burning of the enemy's properties, industry and agriculture.”

Meanwhile the Israeli Left and its amen chorus in the international media will continue to denounce Jewish “settlers” for imaginary environmental sabotage, while ignoring the long track record of Arab environmental terrorism. These are the same caring leftists and compassionate environmentalists who never denounce Palestinian suicide bombers, yet cry their eyes out over Palestinian trees that have been “vandalized” by Palestinians trimming them for use as fire wood.

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Steven Plaut is a professor at the Graduate School of the Business Administration at the University of Haifa and is a columnist for the Jewish Press. A collection of his commentaries on the current events in Israel can be found on his "blog" at www.stevenplaut.blogspot.com.

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