West Bank violence has escalated dramatically, with killings, displacement on the rise since Oct. 7
Farmer's killing one example of the deteriorating conditions.
JERUSALEM -- For the thousands of Palestinian families in the West Bank, the olive harvest holds an almost sacred community significance.
"It's like a festival," Hazim Saleh told ABC News on Nov. 1. "Like we are singing, we are making coffee on the land. … We’ve practiced this for a hundred years before.”
Hazim Saleh’s brother-in-law, Bilal Saleh, 40, was out with his family on Oct.18 and picking olives in the valley below his village of al-Sawiya when he was shot dead by an off-duty Israel Defense Forces soldier, according to Israeli media.
“We were anxious because of the situation, and because there was talk that the [Israeli] settlers were handed firearms so they could kill any Arab in cold blood,” Ikhlas Saleh, Bilal’s wife, told ABC News. “But we were calm, that Saturday was their holiday, and we were going to finish and go home without an incident.”
They were beginning to harvest the second tree of the day when they said a commotion broke out.
“We started on the second tree, and we heard people around us scream that the settlers are descending from the mountain,” she recalled. The family was not sure if the settlers were armed, but they gathered the children to leave. Bilal, her husband, had left his phone in the olive grove, she said. He went back to retrieve his phone, and she heard shots ring out.
At first, she said she thought they were warning shots.
“Then I learned that he was shot in the chest multiple times. They had the premeditation to kill him in cold blood,” she said.
Videos of the shooting and other acts of settler violence and harassment have circulated on Palestinian social media, each instance another document of a deteriorating humanitarian situation. The United Nations has criticized the “near total impunity for settler violence” under Israeli law, and though in this case the suspected shooter was arrested, the charges were dropped after a judge ruled he had acted in self-defense.
A lawyer representing the alleged shooter did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
Since Hamas launched surprise terrorist attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,400 Israelis and taking hundreds more hostage, with the IDF carrying out near nightly raids in Gaza to target Hamas, cases of settler violence in the West Bank have “escalated rapidly,” according to the U.N.
Eight Palestinians have been killed by Israeli settlers, including one child, in the West Bank since Oct. 7, while 147 have been killed by Israeli forces, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Three Israelis have also been killed by Palestinians in the last month in the West Bank, OCHA reported.
Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the issue of settler violence Wednesday, saying that there were “half a million law-abiding residents in Judea and Samaria,” but “there is a tiny handful of people that do not represent this public and that take the law into their own hands.” He condemned their actions, saying they were causing “severe international damage to the state of Israel.” "We cannot tolerate this, we are not ready to accept this, we will act against it in all ways,” he said.
‘The Bible trumps international law’
Financial incentives and the prospect of moving to the Holy Land have contributed to the rise in the number of Israeli settlements, deemed illegal under international law, in the West Bank since the territory was occupied by Israel in 1967. Over 270 settlements, housing 750,000 settlers, have been established in the West Bank over the past 50 years, according to the U.N.
But year after year, settler violence has worsened, with deaths increasing in the six years preceding 2022, according to the U.N.
And when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in November of last year as part of a coalition, he relied on the far-right to form a government. In July, a group of U.N. experts issued a warning that the government’s policies “suggests that a concrete effort may be under way to annex the entire occupied Palestinian territory in violation of international law.”
Officials such as Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power Party and current interior defense minister, were brought into the fold. A settler himself, Ben-Gvir has defended settlers, as both a lawyer and a politician, who have been accused of killing Palestinians. He is known for a long history of expressing extreme anti-Arab sentiment and ultranationalist views.
Ben-Gvir has called for thousands of assault weapons to be distributed to settlers in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, with the subsequent month proving to be the deadliest ever for Palestinians in the West Bank since the U.N. began compiling records in 2005.
It was a religious calling that brought Daniel Winston, an Israeli-American born in Chicago, to the settlement of Bat Ayin in the West Bank.
“This is not just real estate,” Winston told ABC News in a Nov. 2 interview. “This land is an expression of the fact that if you believe that God, who created the whole universe and created this world and that he wrote the Bible, if he says in the Bible, I want the children of Israel to live in the land of Israel. So, for me, that's not only an imperative, it's an invitation. And so I try to live up to that and not just in coming here, but in the way I live here and how I raise my children.”
Winston denied that the settlements were illegal and said there was no difference in terms of sovereignty between his settlement and cities like Tel Aviv. When asked about the internationally recognized definition that settlements such as his were illegal, he said: “The Bible trumps international law.”
At his home in Bat Ayin, Winston, who like many settlers carries a firearm, said there was no such thing as a “Palestinian nation.” When asked about the escalating violence he said, “I don't hate Arabs, I have nothing against the Arabs."
“I have something against the way they're acting. And therefore, I have to do what I have to do. I have to carry a gun. I have to be alert. The soldiers of Israel have to act and respond accordingly.”
‘They have settlements all around’
On the roof of his brother-in-law’s house in Al-Sawirya, Hazim Saleh points across the landscape to where new settlements have popped up.
“Unfortunately, since years, our village are suffering from the settlers and from the settlers’ attack and from the occupation,” he told ABC News. “As you can see, this is our small village and the quiet village, they have a settlement all around.”
The roads into the village were blocked following the Oct. 7 attacks, with dirt mounds preventing the free passage of cars. Hazim Saleh said these types of blockades had made daily life difficult and had popped up all over the West Bank.
Their family is staying put, but other villages have seen whole communities forcibly transferred in recent years, including 111 Palestinian households since Oct. 7, according to OCHA.
“What is the use if I make a family, I build the house,” Hazim Saleh said. “They will come. They will burn it and they will destroy it. This is with everyone in this area. … We are hearing on the TV and on the radio -- they are saying. 'Go to Egypt, go to Jordan.' You are asking me to leave my land.”
Though Ikhlas Saleh must now raise her children without her husband, she fears the family still has more to lose.
“My children saw the conditions in Gaza, and the other day I saw that my little girl had written her name on her leg, and her brother's name on [his leg] and the town they're from,” she said, describing a practice that would help them be identified if they were killed. “They are scared that what's happening to the Gazans will happen to us.”