In West Bank, even trees fall victim Settlers vent anger on olives

November 17, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

KAFR LAQIF, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- When people are dying, who can mourn a tree?

With Palestinians killing Israelis and Israelis killing Palestinians at such determined pace, the 32 olive trees of Salah Awad Nasr don't count for much.

Except to him: "Each tree is like a son to me. I have grown them up like I have grown my children."

Mostly unnoted in the long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the toll of olive trees. When Jewish settlers came to cut down Mr. Nasr's 32 trees in an act of vengeance this month, it was an act practiced many times before.

According to a Palestinian group that keeps track of such things, 106,600 trees have been cut, bulldozed or uprooted, mostly by Jewish settlers, since the start of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, six years ago.

Even since the Sept. 13 peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, angry settlers have destroyed 750 trees, according to the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

Such raids sometimes are part of land grabs for Jewish settlements. More often, they are strokes of retribution, directed blindly against Arabs. The settlers who took their saws to Mr. Nasr's trees were demonstrating against the killing of a settler 20 miles away.

This vigilante technique is peculiarly Middle Eastern, intended as much for its symbolism as its economic harm. Olive trees are living proof of the Palestinians' long connection to their land. The trees may be hundreds, even thousands, of years old, owned by one family for generations.

When settlers destroy them, they assault that historic connection. The act is as if to destroy their enemy's roots to the land.

"The olive tree means a lot to us. It's sacred. For that, they cut the trees. They psychologically damage us every time they do it," said Mr. Nasr. "They know that, and they cut the trees in spite."

The rocky hills around Nablus -- where the square concrete houses of Mr. Nasr's village lie tucked behind a knoll -- are scored with the lines of olive trees.

To look at these lines etched into the hills is to look at the work of generations: the flinty rocks wrested from the ground by ancestors long dead, built into stepped terraces that will be groomed by heirs yet unborn.

Freshly built terrace walls abut ancient ones. Here are remnants of old field houses, shelter during the harvest before cars made possible a quick commute to the fields. There are "new trees," perhaps a decade old, still too young to put out fruit.

And here are the patriarchs of the orchards, the "Roman trees." The thick girth of these gnarled veterans shows they are ancient witnesses to imperial legions, and all that has passed their way since.

The trees are entwined in Mediterranean culture. The olive branch was a gift to the Greek god Jupiter, and the sign of hope to Noah when a dove brought it back to his ark. The Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and Islam's Koran are thick with mentions of the tree.

For Palestinians, olives are central to their tradition and their food. Their literature is full of stories based on the olive. Harvest is the time to settle accounts, restock kitchen shelves, pay off debts, and-- if the olives were juicy enough to fatten a dowry -- marry off the eldest daughter.

"The tree always gives us something back," said Mr. Nasr, whose orchard's own history is uncharacteristically lost in the shuffle of ancestors. "It gives us oil. It gives us food. It gives us wood for our fire.

pTC "Our life depends on the olive trees -- and sheep. Especially in this land," he said, with a nod to the hard hillsides. "Here, we can grow nothing else. It's good only for olives and sheep."

Some of Mr. Nasr's 13 children have taken over the work of his trees, though he laments that three sons have opted for jobs in Israel.

His family has done well by their work. Tending nearly 800 trees, of which two-thirds belong to a brother and sister in Jordan, he has been able to build a new home in a family compound.

Each harvest -- which comes only every two years to give the tree a rest -- is a family affair. Youngsters scramble up the branches to shake green olives down to blankets spread on the ground.

Kafr Laqif is too small to have its own press, so the fruit is taken to a nearby village to be squeezed. A burlap bag filled with 110 pounds of olives will produce the oil to fill a 35-pound tin, which sells for about 50 Jordanian dinars ($80), still the currency used in rural areas.

Four times, Mr. Nasr has lost part of his olive trees to the Jewish settlements that have grown up to flank Kafr Laqif.

At the beginning of the Palestinian intifada six years ago, settlers ripped down 30 trees, he said. Four years ago, they destroyed 60 trees. Two years ago, they put a road between the two settlements, bulldozing straight through his field and taking another 60 trees.

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