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Page last updated at 14:29 GMT, Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Middle East conflict played out in the olive groves

Vandalised olive trees
Olives are the main source of income for many Palestinian farmers

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, West Bank

Akram Imran says the Jewish settlers came at night.

"I came to work in the early morning. It was a horrible sight, a massacre of trees," he said. "Some of them are at least 70 years old."

Climbing over a heap of withered branches in his olive grove on a rocky hillside near the village of Burin, the Palestinian farmer said they attacked 81 trees.

In some cases only tree trunks remain, the branches have been hacked off.

Olives are the main source of income for Mr Imran and his family. He says it is hard to grasp the extent of the damage.

Akram Imran and his son
Akram Imran's livelihood depends on his olive grove

"All that I have is the land and the trees," he said. "I don't have any other work - just the trees. It will take five to seven years before they become fruitful again. I just hope the settlers won't come back."

Mr Imran's village is surrounded by Jewish settlements, which are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

He says this is not the first time his olive groves have been vandalised.

He has reported his case to the Israeli police, who, he says, are investigating the matter. His complaint is being handled by the Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din.

'Never been caught'

Since 2005, Yesh Din has monitored 69 cases of damage to Palestinian orchards, involving thousands of trees across the West Bank, but it says none of them have so far resulted in charges against people suspected of involvement.

Ruthie Kedar, one of Yesh Din's founding members, says the Israeli police "investigate, but don't find the culprits".

"They either do it when there is no-one around or they do it at night and they have never been caught red-handed."

Jakob Taljah near the barren strip of land
Jakob Taljah stands by the barren strip of land which used to be his olive grove

In a statement, the police said there have been some indictments. They say they work hard to stop the vandalism and confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.

But that many orchards and olive groves are in isolated areas and they can't "put a guard on every tree".

Complaints, they say, come from both sides.

Jakob Taljah, a Jewish settler, rears chickens and South African sheep on his hilltop farm in the very south of the West Bank.

In the rocky valley below his house, which is a caravan with a rough stone room attached, there is a barren strip of ground.

Mr Taljah says he used to have an olive grove there, but it was "ploughed up by Palestinians".

"Nobody compensated me for the disaster they caused to my field, to my trees," he said. "I went to the police and they didn't do anything."

Mr Taljah accuses the Palestinians of damaging their own trees.

"They want to blame the settlers for cutting the Arab trees, but you can see that the trees aren't cut to ruin them. They prune them and blame the settlers."

The olive harvest, a time of heightened tension between settlers and Palestinians, is now drawing to a close.

Olive trees are a symbol of peace - but in the West Bank they are part of the conflict.



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