Israeli settlers have destroyed 500 newly-planted olive trees on Palestinian-owned land north-west of Hebron, according to UK-based charity Embrace the Middle East.
Embrace sponsored 300 of the trees, which were planted by 40 international volunteers as part of a locally-based programme through the Joint Advocacy Initiative, run by two Palestinian Christian organisations, the East Jerusalem YMCA and the YWCA of Palestine.
The Al-Ayayda family, on whose land the trees were planted, have documents proving ownership from the Ottoman, British and Jordanian eras. However, their land is surrounded by the caravans of two Israeli settlements: the 'authorised' settlement of Metzad/Asfar and the 'outpost' of Pnei Kedem which is not officially sanctioned by the Israeli authorities.
Settlers from these areas had already beaten up members of the Al-Ayayda family and have had a reputation for several years for assaulting Palestinian farmers trying to access their land, the charity said.
While the trees were being planted an Israeli Defence Force commander approached Al-Ayayda and warned him not to be surprised if his trees were damaged.
"While an attack like this is not new, it is the first time trees donated by British Christians have been destroyed," said Embrace's chief executive Jeremy Moodey. "Through such vandalism, Palestinians are denied the opportunity to cultivate their own land, which is then confiscated for settlement construction, an act which is illegal under international law. The loss of a year's crop can also signal destitution for many."
He added: "We are grateful to our donors for helping us support the olive-planting initiative and cannot let it stop here. We are working with our partners in the region to plant new trees in March.
"In the meantime we are calling on our supporters to write to their MP to demand that international law is upheld and that Palestinians are allowed to plant trees on their own land without fear of attack by the settlers. Israel as the occupying power has a legal duty to protect such actions, yet instead it stands by as the settlers do what they want."
Destroying olive trees is a favoured tactic of Israeli settlers. Dozens of Palestinian-owned mature olive trees were felled in a suspected settler attack in January, while 36 mature trees were felled or seriously damaged on Friday.
The WAFA news agency reported that settlers attacked Palestinian children playing in snow in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood in central Hebron city, injuring a 10-year-old. Salih Abu Shamsyeh sustained injuries and bruises and was transferred to hospital.