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Putting The Ax To The Tree-Chopping Canard

The mainstream media have long sought to demonize 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 by West Bank settlers to chop down trees owned by Palestinians. Hundreds of “news stories” have cited “reports” – invariably attributed to spokespersons for Palestinian Arabs or the PLO – 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 a single Israeli settler has been convicted of damaging Arab trees, and several far more plausible explanations for the cutting of the trees have been provided. Moreover, the accusers 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 alleged destruction of Palestinian trees are coming from the usual anti-Israel propagandists. Israeli soldiers and settlers have cut down 18,339 trees, according to the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry’s Olive Department. This is the Palestinian Authority that has never been able to locate the same Hamas terror leaders that CNN and the BBC have no trouble locating and interviewing.

Similar allegations of tree destruction by settlers have been carried by legitimate mainstream media, including Reuters, AP, and CNN. An Israeli leftist “human rights” group, Yesh Din, has documented 20 instances between March and December 2005 in which Palestinian olive groves and agricultural property were sabotaged and has filed “complaints” in those cases. But none of these has produced a single conviction of a settler.

West Bank settler leaders have consistently denied that Jews are running about chopping down Palestinian trees. In fact, many settlers are religious, and wanton destruction of trees – even trees belonging to one’s enemies – is explicitly prohibited in the Torah.

One anti-Zionist Reform rabbi has led a private crusade against settlers for allegedly cutting down trees. But this fellow has also been convicted in an Israeli court of interfering with Israeli anti-terror military operations and is associated with the “anarchists” who have been vandalizing Israel’s security wall and attacking soldiers, so he is hardly a credible source. (When settler leaders denied his charges, he was invited to take a lie detector test. He 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 eleven Jews from the settlement of Itamar were murdered by Palestinians, some trees along the perimeter were chopped down legally for fear of their use by terrorists.

The anti-Zionist Haaretz reporter Amira Hass has claimed 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 Hass’s report damaged the community’s reputation.

While numerous police investigations were launched on the basis of allegations that Jews were vandalizing Palestinian trees, no one has been convicted and most of the cases were dismissed. On the other hand, there have been several reports and accusations that trees have been intentionally destroyed by local Jewish leftists 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 what it calls the “SDL: Settler Defamation League,” by which the site operators mean liberal and leftist groups demonizing settlers.

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 purposely 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 nearby Moshav Maon, might be designed to allow the owners to collect compensation for self-inflicted “damages” that do not actually 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 beneficial to the trees.

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 chainsawing, as Palestinians find a new source of income from the foolish Israeli government: money earned when they cut their own trees and blame it all on the Jews in order to get cash.

The most persuasive explanation for the tree-cutting is a rather mundane one: The trees are simply being cut for firewood, thanks to high energy prices this winter. A reason to suspect that this is what is really going on is that trees throughout northern Israel are also being cut down this winter. Over 15 acres of pine and oak trees in the Galilee have been cut down by chainsaw in recent months. Others were cut down in the predominantly Arab Wadi Ara area and elsewhere. Israelis, mainly Arabs, seem to be cutting the trees to use for heating.

The Israeli media have all but ignored the cutting of trees in the Galilee and northern Israel, yet every cut tree in the West Bank gets a banner headline and forms the basis for a new media slander against Jewish settlers.

While the imaginary destruction of trees by settlers has by now been reported in countless newspapers and all over the Internet, few of the stories have mentioned the many incidents of environmental terrorism against Israel by Palestinian and Israeli Arabs. In recent years dozens of Israeli forest fires, some quite large, were set intentionally 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.

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 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.”

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 liberals and compassionate environmentally-concerned leftists who never quite get around to denouncing Palestinian suicide bombers and other mass murderers of Jews, yet cry their eyes out over “vandalized” Palestinian trees that most likely were cut down by Palestinians themselves for use as firewood.

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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