Israeli workers with chain saws cut down a Palestinian farmer’s olive grove Wednesday to make way for a West Bank security barrier, sparking a clash in which at least 15 Palestinian villagers and two Israeli police were wounded.
The wrecking crew later replanted some of the 180 stumps on another plot, but villagers gave the trees little or no chance of survival in the dry season.
Construction of the barrier has sparked almost daily clashes as it cuts through Palestinian farmland and isolates West Bank villages. Israel says the series of fences, trenches and concrete walls are needed to stop Palestinian suicide bombers. The Palestinians denounce the barrier as a land grab.
The project is part of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s unilateral plan of “disengagement” from the Palestinians. In addition to imposing a new boundary in the West Bank, Israel plans to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath said he will go to Washington this month to talk to senior U.S. officials about the Gaza plan.
Palestinians say they welcome any Israeli withdrawal, but fear Israel is giving up Gaza to tighten its hold over much of the West Bank, where the bulk of the 220,000 Israeli settlers live.
Shaath said he would meet Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on April 21, a week after Sharon holds talks with President Bush.
Sharon is seeking U.S. endorsement for his plan. Shaath said U.S. officials assured him they would not make a decision on the Gaza plan before hearing the Palestinian side.
In weekend interviews, Sharon said the Gaza pullout would not take place until next year. He also said a West Bank redeployment would be minimal, an evacuation of only four of about 140 Jewish settlements there.
Palestinians see the planned route of the barrier, which at times cuts deep into the West Bank, as part of Sharon’s plan for retaining much of that territory.
'This is our livelihood'
Early Wednesday in the village of Bidou, northwest of Jerusalem, a wrecking crew with chain saws and five bulldozers started cutting down farmer Mahmoud Saadeh’s olive trees.
“My olives, my olives,” Saadeh, 75, yelled as he threw rocks at workers sawing away at his grove. “I’ve worked on this land for 20 years ... this is our livelihood.”
Saadeh said all of his 180 olive trees were cut down.
The Israelis later replanted about 40 of the stripped trunks in a nearby field, apparently without the knowledge of the landowners.
Bidou village councilman Mohammed Ayash said the trees had no chance of survival, because the winter rains were over.
Palestinian farmers do not generally use artificial irrigation on their fields, as water in the West Bank is scarce and expensive. Ayash said that even if the replanted trees could be watered, it would take 10 years for them to grow to full size.
Staff at the Israeli Defense Ministry, which oversees construction of the barrier, could not be reached for comment Wednesday, the third day of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover.
Defended as a necessity
Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Sharon, said the barrier was an unpleasant necessity, a response to attacks by Palestinian militants from the West Bank.
“It disrupts their (the Palestinians’) daily life, but terror takes away our lives daily,” Gissin told The Associated Press. “Where we have to uproot trees, we pay compensation.”
Throughout the day, villagers pelted the workers and their military escorts with stones. Troops and police fired steel-cored rubber bullets and tear gas in response, wounding at least 15 Palestinians, medics said.
Israeli police said three Palestinians were arrested, and two Israeli border policemen were wounded by stone throwers.
The barrier, which is one-third complete, will run about 400 miles through the West Bank.