Palestinians living in villages and hamlets bordering Jewish settlements say the uprooting has increased since Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, quit the ruling Likud and formed his own Kadima party nearly two months ago.
 
According to villagers in Sikka, a small village 20km west of Hebron, the Israeli army on 2 January brought as many as 10 jackhammers and other heavy machinery to their groves on the western side of the separation wall and removed or destroyed over 1000 trees.
 
Ayed Hureibat, a Palestinian owner of some of the uprooted trees, told Aljazeera.net: "They uprooted the huge olive trees with the jackhammers, trimmed the bigger branches with large electric saws and then lifted the trees aboard awaiting trucks apparently in order to replant them elsewhere in Israel.

"It is theft in broad daylight."

Hureibat said soldiers threatened to shoot and kill villagers who sought to protest the Israeli action.
 
"I told one of the soldiers to allow me to speak to the officer in charge of the operation. He told me go speak with Allah."

Disputed land
 
Israeli army spokesman Avichai Adroa'ee admitted that "a number of trees" were uprooted in Sikka but said the acreage "belonged to Israel".
 

"It is theft in broad daylight. I told one of the soldiers to allow me to speak to the officer in charge of the operation. He told me go speak with Allah"

Ayed Hureibat, Palestinian owner of some of the uprooted trees

He told Aljazeera.net that the uprooted trees were transferred to Bait Guvreal, known to Palestinians as Bait Jebril, adding that Palestinian farmers could apply to recover their trees.
 
Majed Hishayesh, a Palestinian farmer, insisted that the area was part of the West Bank.
 
"We planted these trees more than 25 years ago. They could have stopped us then if they had had any evidence corroborating their claims.
 
"Besides, is this the way to settle disputes, to uproot our groves and steal them in broad daylight?" 

On 5 January, Jewish settlers at Tuwwani, south of Hebron, felled 102 olive trees.

Christy Bsichoff, a Christian peace activist, described the scene as a funeral.
 
"As we approached the woman sitting by the 102 olive trees that the settlers cut the night before, I saw the tears rolling down her face as she (the owner) stared ahead. We were coming to pay our respects; it was a funeral, a graveyard where the 30-year-old trees were slaughtered."

Israeli assurances
 
When Israel constructed the separation wall in the northern and central parts of the West Bank in 2004 and 2005, Israeli officials assured Palestinian villagers that the wall was only a security measure and had no political significance.
 
This was Israel's main argument against the verdict by the International Court of Justice in The Hague in June 2004, which ruled that the wall was illegal and constituted a clear violation of international law and the fourth Geneva Convention. 
 
When Palestinians complained to Israeli courts against the construction of the wall on their land, the Israeli army's Civil Administration said it would allow Palestinian villagers to freely access their groves and farms on the western side of the part-wall part-fence barrier.
 
Said Hishayesh, the farmer: "They lied to us, they told us in summer that we would be granted free access to our groves and be able to plough the land and harvest the crops. And look what they are doing now, they are uprooting our trees and taking them to be replanted in Israel."
 
Groves destroyed
 
According to B'tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation, Jewish settlers have destroyed thousands of olive trees belonging to Palestinian villagers in the northern West Bank in the past few months.
 

B'tselem: Jewish settlers have
destroyed thousands of trees

In early January, Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli defence minister, ordered an investigation into the destruction of olive groves in the vicinity of Jewish colonies in the northern West Bank.
 
However, both Palestinians and human rights activists remain sceptical about whether Mofaz and the Israeli justice system are sincere about the probe.

On 10 January, Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's internal Shin Bet security service, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that the army did nothing to prevent the felling of Palestinian olive trees even though the army knew the identity of the perpetrators.
 
"These actions are very grave, in my opinion. Olive trees are just a symptom, and the problem is that there is no effective law enforcement when it comes to these settlers," he was quoted as saying by Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

Land theft
 
According to a report issued by the B'tselem on 28 December, the state allowed Jewish settlers to quietly appropriate a large area of privately-owned Palestinian land located on the "Israeli" side of the barrier.
 
The land reportedly comprised hundreds of dunams of farmland.

One dunam is equal to 1000 square metres.

"These actions are very grave, in my opinion. Olive trees are just a symptom, and the problem is that there is no effective law enforcement when it comes to these settlers"

Yuval Diskin, head of Israel's internal Shin Bet security service

An Israeli army Civil Administration official contacted by Aljazeera.net said "we have not examined this issue yet".

Ha'aretz described the theft of privately-owned Palestinian land as an "organised crime".
 
In an article published on 4 January, Ha'aretz correspondent Akiva Eldar pointed out that the state and its judicial branch were doing next to nothing to stop the illegal seizure of Palestinian land in various parts of the West Bank by settlers and their sympathisers in the government and the army.

Eldar accused the Defence Ministry of refusing to even carry out court orders to demolish illegal structures built by settlers on stolen Palestinian property.

Eldar was unavailable for comment for this article.
 
On 8 January, Menachem Mazuz, the Israeli attorney-general, reportedly ordered a freeze on building on the illegally seized property.

Whether this order will be obeyed, remains to be seen.