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Palestinian olive trees sold to rich Israelis

Daily Telegraph
By Alan Philps in Jerusalem
28 November 2002

Israel's Defence Ministry is investigating reports that Palestinian olive trees uprooted to make way for a security fence are being sold illegally to rich Israelis and town councils, sometimes for thousands of pounds each.

The illegal trade in olive trees has flourished as Israeli contractors, supported by armed guards, clear Palestinian agricultural land where an 80-mile electronic fence is being built to seal off the West Bank.

Thousands of olive trees have been dug up to make way for the 150-ft wide barrier and security zone. Its route usually passes inside Palestinian territory, not along the old pre-1967 border, and thousands of Palestinian farmers say their livelihood is being taken away.

Sale of the olive trees emerged after the owner of a contracting company offered two reporters from a popular Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, 100 large olive trees for £150 each.

The reporters found one enormous tree, said to be 600 years old, on sale at an Israeli plant nursery for £3,500. They said the trade was conducted with the complicity of an official in the civil administration, the Israeli military government in the occupied territories.

Olive trees are extremely hardy, can live for hundreds of years and will often stand transplanting. Gnarled old specimens which are claimed, with some exaggeration, to have been alive at the time of Jesus are much sought after for gardens of the rich or city parks.

The Defence Ministry, which is in charge of the security fence, said it had launched an investigation. "The ministry pays contractors for uprooting and replanting and, in their contract, there is no clause that allows for trade in the trees. If there is such a trade, it is a criminal activity," it said.

Some contracts require the olive trees to be relocated to areas suggested by their owners outside the Israeli-declared security zone. But Yael Stein, researcher for B'tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, said: "We have never seen any relocation. The contractors cannot just sell the trees. That is theft."

While the trees may be ornaments to Israelis, olives are the lifeblood of Palestinian agriculture, almost the only crop which grows on the stony hillsides of the West Bank without irrigation. Most Palestinians are unemployed after two years of violence and their staple diet is bread and olive oil.

About 11,000 Palestinian farmers will lose all or some of their land holdings to the fence. Sharif Omar, from the village of Jayous, near the Israeli town of Kochav Yair, said: "I have lost almost everything. I have lost 2,700 fruit and olive trees. And 44 of 50 acres I own have been confiscated for the fence."

His village lost seven wells, 15,000 olive trees and 50,000 citrus and other fruit trees. "This area is the agricultural store for the West Bank. They are destroying us," he said.

Israel is offering compensation for confiscated agricultural land but Palestinians are unlikely to apply, as they still hope to get their land back.

The Palestinian Agriculture Ministry says 200,000 olive trees have been destroyed by Israeli soldiers and settlers in the past two years to provide security for settlers.

The £90 million fence will prevent suicide bombers infiltrating into Israel. But some Israeli border communities say depriving Palestinians of their livelihood will make for worse, not better, neighbours.