TORMOS AYYA, West Bank (Reuters) - A senior U.N. official condemned attacks by Jewish “settler extremists” on Palestinians’ olive trees in the occupied West Bank and called on Israel to “combat violence and terror by Israelis.” Robert Serry, U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, also said he was alarmed that work had started on hundreds of new homes for settlers in the occupied territory since the end of Israel’s settlement freeze last month.
Serry was speaking to journalists on Tuesday while olive-picking with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the village of Tormos Ayya north of Ramallah. He said settlers had destroyed hundreds of trees in the village in recent weeks.
Palestinians began harvesting olives across the West Bank this month.
“I am appalled at acts of destruction of olive trees and farmlands, desecration of mosques and violence against civilians,” Serry said.
“Israel states its condemnation of attacks, which I welcome, but its record in imposing the rule of law on settlers is lamentable,” he said.
“Israel must combat violence and terror by Israelis, as is expected of the Palestinian Authority in the case of violence and terror by Palestinians,” he said.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected Serry’s use of the term “terror” in reference to Israelis and said he should have chosen his words more carefully.
“We understand that he decries acts of violence by certain settlers, but the Israeli government has been the first to condemn them and to instruct law enforcement agencies to crack down on the perpetrators — but when he speaks of terror by Israelis, does he mean Israeli suicide bombers on Palestinian buses?” spokesman Yigal Palmor said.
Palestinian militants launched waves of suicide attacks against Israelis during the Second Intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation earlier this decade.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967. The Palestinians want the territory to become part of a Palestinian state, together with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Today, close to 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the lands where Palestinians want to found their state next to Israel.
The Palestinians have said they will not resume peace negotiations, which began at the start of September with U.S. backing, until Israel agrees to halt building on the occupied territory.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has resisted pressure from the United States and the European Union to extend a freeze he had imposed on new home building in settlements in the West Bank. His government is dominated by parties which support the settlers, including his own Likud.
Serry said new building was illegal under international law “and will only serve to undermine our efforts for a negotiated solution.”
The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has recorded almost one incident a day and in some cases more against Palestinians and their olive trees since the start of the harvest, spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli said. The Israeli army had provided better access to groves near settlements, she added.
“But this is their obligation ... the Israeli authorities have failed miserably in enforcing law on settlers attacking Palestinians and their property,” she said.
Additional reporting by Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Writing and additional reporting by Tom Perry, editing by Tim Pearce