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The death of a Palestinian olive farmer emphasizes conflict over land

The family of Bilal Muhammed Saleh outside their home in  As-Sawiya, occupied West Bank on Oct. 31, 2023.
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
The family of Bilal Muhammed Saleh outside their home in As-Sawiya, occupied West Bank on Oct. 31, 2023.

The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 killed some 1,400 people, according to Israeli authorities. Palestinian authorities maintain that the Israeli response has killed more than 10,000.

So it's reasonable to ask why the death of a single olive farmer has captured such attention. Numerous news outlets, including NPR, covered the killing of Bilal Saleh outside his village last month. Human rights groups and think tanks have highlighted the case.

The episode represents a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though that conflict reflects many divides — over identity, security, faith, nationalism, and history, to name a few — it's commonly expressed as a struggle over land.

Bilal's daughter shows a photo of him on a phone.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Bilal's daughter shows a photo of him on a phone.

Saleh lived with his family on the West Bank, a region occupied by Israel since a 1967 war. It's home to millions of Palestinians, and has been projected as territory for a future Palestinian state. But Israeli settlers have claimed large parts of it for decades, building fenced or walled communities that are connected to Israel proper by their own limited-access highways. The U.S. and United Nations have branded the settlements illegal. Israelis refer to the region as Judea and Samaria, biblical names that represent their claim to it.

Saleh's home was in As-Sawiya, a village on a ridgeline overlooking a valley filled with olive trees. An Israeli settlement called Rehelim stood on the opposite side of the valley, encroaching on what As-Sawiya residents regard as their land.

Saleh took part when he, his family and many of his neighbors descended into the valley for the annual olive harvest.

Saleh's brother-in-law, Hazem Saleh, described the harvest as more than agriculture. It was like a "festival." Whole families bring ladders to the fields. "We take food. We take kids," he told Morning Edition.

Residents of the village knew they were also taking a risk when they harvested on October 28. They had strained relations with Rehelim across the way, and knew a war was underway. But they went ahead.

Samy Freitah, was part of a group harvesting olives outside the village near Nablus when they were attacked by settlers.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
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Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Samy Freitah, was part of a group harvesting olives outside the village near Nablus when they were attacked by settlers.
Residents are fearful, leaving trees unharvested, focusing on trees they feel leave them safer close to village of As-Sawiya, occupied West Bank on Oct. 31, 2023.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Residents are fearful, leaving trees unharvested, focusing on trees they feel leave them safer close to village of As-Sawiya, occupied West Bank on Oct. 31, 2023.

They were on wooden ladders picking olives when Israeli settlers approached. The Palestinians say they decided to retreat, and then Bilal Saleh realized he had left behind his cell phone. His family last saw him going through the trees to get it.

He was out of sight in the trees when his wife heard him shout, and at least two gunshots sounded. His friends and relatives later found him with wounds to the chest and arm. Lacking first aid supplies, they used a ladder as an improvised stretcher to carry him uphill to the nearest road. He died in the presence of his wife and children.

His wife, Ikhlas, used an Arabic saying to explain her thoughts when she realized he was dead: "My back was broken."

Ikhlas Muhammed Saleh, Bilal's wife, outside their home in the village of As-Sawiya, occupied West Bank.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Ikhlas Muhammed Saleh, Bilal's wife, outside their home in the village of As-Sawiya, occupied West Bank.
Bilal's mother-in-law and kids outside their home on Oct.31, 2023.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Bilal's mother-in-law and kids outside their home on Oct.31, 2023.

When we spoke with her on Oct. 31, a man was in custody for the crime. The Israel Defense Forces arrested an off-duty soldier. Israeli military law is supreme in the occupied territories. The arrest made the case different from other violent incidents on the West Bank, but Ikhlas was unimpressed.

"I don't believe that he's going to be charged or he will be punished. He will be there for a few days. Then he will be released," Ikhlas said. "The law that they have for themselves is stronger than our existence."

Days later, her prediction came true. The soldier's lawyer said he was free.

The IDF did not answer a request for comment on the status of the case. The suspect's lawyer accused Saleh of supporting Hamas, but Saleh's family denies any connection to the group.

Isareli army places "earthbound" at main entrance to village, forcing residents to walk to main road or find dirt paths on Oct. 31, 2023 in the village of As-Sawiya, occupied West Bank.
/ Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
/
Tanya Habjouqa / NOOR for NPR
Isareli army places "earthbound" at main entrance to village, forcing residents to walk to main road or find dirt paths on Oct. 31, 2023 in the village of As-Sawiya, occupied West Bank.

Palestinian authorities say that since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, 176 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank. Most were killed by Israeli forces in what Israel characterized as counter-terrorism operations. Some were killed by settlers.

On Oct. 25, President Biden said he was alarmed by extremist settlers attacking Palestinians in the West Bank, equating it to "pouring gasoline on fire." In a joint press conference with the prime minister of Australia, Biden said, "They're attacking Palestinians in places that they're entitled to be, and it has to stop. They have to be held accountable."

The U.S. administration has cautioned Israel against actions that would widen the war, including acts that would inflame the West Bank. But on the question of West Bank settlements, Israeli authorities have often disregarded the advice of their allies.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Ziad Buchh
Ziad Buchh is a producer for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First. In addition to producing and directing the broadcast, he has also contributed to the show's sports, tech and video game coverage. He's produced and reported from all over the country, including a Trump rally, and from the temporary home of Ukrainian refugees.