The violence in Gaza appears to have spread to the West Bank
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The U.S. government hopes to make sure the war in Gaza does not spread. But violence has already spread to the West Bank, a Palestinian territory under Israeli occupation. Israeli troops are conducting raids there. At the same time, Palestinians say they are under attack by Israeli settlers. Steve Inskeep looked into one of those cases, and he's with me now. Hey, Steve.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
FADEL: So what's the story?
INSKEEP: Well, it begins, Leila, with the land, as so many stories do in the Middle East. If you look at a map of Israel, you'll see this area that's marked off separately, shaped kind of like a kidney. That's the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and where Israelis have built settlements alongside Palestinian villages. This is home to millions of Palestinians. The U.S. and United Nations say these settlements violate international law. And when we traveled to the valley where a Palestinian man was killed, we saw an illustration of the problem. Two Palestinian men showed me how two villages overlook the same valley full of olive trees.
I want to be sure I understand the geography. Up here on this ridgeline, I see a row of houses. Is that As-Sawiya, the Palestinian village?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) It is As-Sawiya.
INSKEEP: And then over on this side, this is the settlement on this hillside?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Through interpreter) The settlement here is built on As-Sawiya land.
INSKEEP: His family says Bilal Saleh was killed while harvesting some of their own olive trees in the valley between the villages. We should note this is one of many violent incidents since October 7, but is unusual in that Israeli authorities made an arrest. They detained an off-duty soldier for the crime. So after looking at the scene, we drove up into the Palestinian village to meet the man's family. They welcomed us onto their concrete porch in the shade.
Is this where we should sit? OK.
Bilal Saleh's wife greeted us along with their four small children.
How old are you, sweetie?
IKHLAS SALEH: (Through interpreter) She's 8 years old.
INSKEEP: Oh, I have an 8-year-old daughter, too.
I SALEH: (Non-English language spoken).
INSKEEP: Now, Leila, Bilal's brother-in-law knew some English, so he talked and told the story as the widow and children sat listening. Hazem Saleh is the brother-in-law, and he said the olive harvest around there is an annual ritual.
HAZEM SALEH: It's not only resource for money. It is like a traditional - or we said, like, a festival.
INSKEEP: Which he's been doing since he was 5.
H SALEH: We take food. We take kids. We take, I mean, all the things to be able to finish the job in a fun way and in a proper way.
INSKEEP: Now, the residents knew that it would be tense to harvest the olives this year because they were moving toward the Israeli settlement in a time of war, but they went ahead. They went down into the trees. They were on wooden ladders picking olives when Israeli settlers approached. The Palestinian version of this story is that they decided to retreat, and then Bilal Saleh realized he had left behind his cell phone, and his family last saw him going through the trees to get it.
H SALEH: At that time, we heard two bullet or three bullet.
INSKEEP: Two or three gunshots.
H SALEH: I'm - what I heard, two.
INSKEEP: You heard two?
H SALEH: Yes.
INSKEEP: His neighbors found him bleeding on the ground with wounds to the arm and the chest. And they carried him away using a ladder as a stretcher, and he died in the presence of his wife and children. His wife, Ikhlas, spoke through our interpreter.
What do you remember thinking when you understood that he was dead?
I SALEH: (Through interpreter) I felt sad, very sad. And suddenly - we say in Arabic this saying - (non-English language spoken), my back was broken.
INSKEEP: If you need a moment, please take it. I've heard that a man was arrested for the crime. Is that what you've been told?
I SALEH: (Through interpreter) I heard, but 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.
INSKEEP: Why do you think that?
I SALEH: (Through interpreter) The law that they have for themselves is stronger than our existence.
INSKEEP: Now, there is a Palestinian Authority that conducts some law enforcement on the West Bank, but in many cases, Israeli military law applies. And in this case, it was the Israel Defense Forces who took the suspect into custody. And then a few days after we met her, the widow's forecast was borne out because the IDF released the man.
FADEL: Right, which is what she predicted. So why would authorities do that?
INSKEEP: Well, the IDF didn't comment on why they let the man go or whether this case is truly over. We did reach his defense lawyer, who declined an interview but alleged that Bilal Saleh had some connection to Hamas. And he shared with us video of Saleh's funeral, where some people were waving green Hamas flags, although it wasn't clear to us how Saleh posed a threat in that olive field at the time.
FADEL: Now, you mentioned that this is one of many killings in the West Bank. What are the broader implications here?
INSKEEP: U.S. authorities are concerned by the sheer number of incidents in the West Bank. They've gone up a lot since October 7. The other day, a State Department spokesman said extremist attacks on Palestinians were unacceptable. But we should note that Israel has disregarded U.S. concerns about the settlements for a long time. I've reported from those settlements in the past. Settlers there fundamentally see the land as theirs. Their government refers to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, ancient biblical names that suggest their claim to the land, even though international law says something else. And it's through the lens of that claim to the land that the Israeli settlers seem to see all incidents, including one like this.
FADEL: Steve, thanks for this reporting.
INSKEEP: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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