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The other war in Palestine: The West Bank’s fight against impunity

The death of a farmer at the hands of an Israeli settler is a sign of the growing violence taking place in the shadow of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas

Mohamed, 14, waves a Palestinian flag on Saturday during the burial in As-Sawiya of his father, Bilal Saleh, who was murdered by a Jewish settler while collecting olives.
Mohamed, 14, waves a Palestinian flag on Saturday during the burial in As-Sawiya of his father, Bilal Saleh, who was murdered by a Jewish settler while collecting olives.ALAA BADARNEH (EFE)

The body of Bilal Saleh, 40, was left lying in the middle of the olive grove on Saturday morning, with a gunshot wound to the chest. The only thing available to remove the body, which was across a field and down a mountain, was a wooden stepladder — the kind used to reach high-up olives. That’s what was shown by a video recorded by one of those present. Shortly before, four armed Jewish settlers had walked down the mountain from a neighboring settlement while being watched by Israeli soldiers, according to several testimonies who spoke after the funeral in the town of As-Sawiya, in the occupied West Bank. Among the incredulous witnesses who witnessed the settlers murder Bilal Saleh were his sons Mohamed, 14, and Musa, 8, as well as other relatives and locals. In the town, located south of Nablus, as condolences are given, there is an overwhelming feeling of impotence. Impunity, residents say, reigns in the West Bank amid the shadow of the war between Hamas and Israel.

“What happened today reflects well the increasing violence since last October 7,” says Mohamed Salem, 48, an official in the Palestinian National Authority’s Ministry of Education, who was Bilal Saleh’s cousin. He is referring to the day of the Hamas attack on Israeli territory, which resulted in more than 1,400 deaths, according to the country’s authorities. Since then, there have been more than a hundred deaths in the West Bank at the hands of settlers or Israeli troops. Not since the Second Intifada (2000-2005) have there been so many deadly clashes. But this number pales in comparison to the more than 7,700 Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli bombings in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry of the enclave, which is ruled by Hamas.

Protests in support of the victims in Gaza have swept the streets of West Bank cities such as Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron and Jenin. The latest demonstrations occurred after the Israeli army entered Gaza on Friday evening. “We are more afraid,” adds Mohamed Salem. “No one is condemning what is happening, not even the Arab countries. We are alone,” he laments. He says that Palestinians are being a targeted by a campaign of harassment that treats “all Palestinians as Hamas.” More than 1,500 people have been detained in the West Bank since October 7.

The olive harvest, which Palestinian families celebrate as a festival in communion with the land, ended in tragedy in the town of As-Sawiya. Jewish settlers protected by the Israeli army — who roam freely trying to impose their law on the Arab inhabitants — pulled the trigger of an M-16 rifle twice, according to people consulted after Saleh’s burial. The murder was also confirmed by Israeli military sources to the newspaper Haaretz. “These incidents affect Israel’s legitimacy on a strategic level and cause serious damage,” the source said, highlighting that only Palestinians have died in the growing clashes with settlers.

Hani Saleh, 21, recounts what happened: “First [the settlers] stood on a hill about 300 meters away. Then the army arrived, but the soldiers didn’t do anything. After a while, four settlers came down towards the valley where we were. We then began to gather things, but Bilal didn’t have time. One of them got ready, raised the gun and fired twice.” One bullet hit Bilah Saleh in the chest, another in the side, says Hani Saleh pointing to his ribs. Those present could do nothing to save Bilah Saleh, who owned a handful of olive trees and also worked at a supermarket.

Mohamed (14), left, and Musa (8), sons of Bilal Saleh (40), who was shot dead Saturday morning by a Jewish settler.
Mohamed (14), left, and Musa (8), sons of Bilal Saleh (40), who was shot dead Saturday morning by a Jewish settler.

Several children are listening to Hani Saleh’s story in a multipurpose room full of plastic chairs in the center of As-Sawiya, which is home to between 3,000 and 4,000 people. It’s a room that’s used for weddings and for funerals. That’s where Bilah Saleh’s gathered to farewell the family man on Saturday. His son, Mohamed, a small 14-year-old boy with a Palestinian flag tied around his neck, barely speaks. He only comments that he was perched on one of the trees when the settler tried to take his father’s cellphone. He believes they were trying to prevent Bilal Saleh from sounding the alarm about the arrival of armed settlers. Then, one shot from about four meters away, say witnesses. Hani Saleh says the Israeli military told them to “go home” and showed no interest in the murder. There was no ambulance, so they had to use the stairs to remove Bilah Saleh’s body.

The Israeli NGO BTselem, which monitors the rights of the Palestinian population, has reported that olive groves are being increasingly attacked by Israeli settlers. It said that a mission of observers was even forced to flee after being shot at from fields in the south of Hebron (West Bank). The NGO has also released videos in which settlers appear armed and in army uniforms. Following a settler attack on an olive grove last week, Palestinians in the West Bank city of Deir Istiya found leaflets under their car windshields threatening that they would be forcibly removed if they didn’t flee to Jordan, reported Haaretz.

It is not easy to drive to Sawiya to obtain details of the farmer’s death. The roads are systematically blocked by mountains of dirt. This blockade — imposed by Israeli officers — aggravates the problem of the occupation. Two Israeli Defense Force (IDF) vehicles try to prevent the reporter from reaching the town where Bilal Saleh lived. It can only be accessed via an unmarked dirt track which, of course, does not appear on map applications.

Access to natural resources such as land, crops and water are a perennial part of the conflict in the West Bank. Seizing territory from the Palestinians to expand Israeli settlements, its road network and its security belt has become the order of the day, says Mohamed Salem. The settlers’ attacks also aim to uproot olive trees, a traditional crop that does not need excessive care and that the Palestinian population can cultivate under Israeli authorities’ strict travel restrictions. “Last year, the settlers from the Eli settlement broke the pipes that supply us with water,” says Mohamed Salem.

Bilal Saleh, in a photo provided by his family, two days before his murder
Bilal Saleh, in a photo provided by his family, two days before his murder

In As-Sawiya, from the courtyard of Ali Sayed, 59, it’s possible to make out the Israeli occupiers of the Eli settlement on the hill opposite. The blue and white flag Israeli flies, the guard booths, the cranes and new buildings can be seen. “Just yesterday, in this olive grove down here, they fired the farmers with shots in the air,” says Ali Sayed. “They feel that they have the right to shoot us,” adds the Ministry of Education official. “Our main problem is the settlers. The second problem is the army.”

It was shortly after 5 a.m. on Saturday when Abed Rahim, 55, joined his nephew Bilal Saleh at the mosque for the first prayer of the day, known as Salat al-fajr. “Bilal was thankful that the harvest was ending… and now look where he is,” he says, as he enters the mosque for afternoon prayer.

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