Nablus, occupied West Bank – It was Saturday morning and 40-year-old Bilal Mohammad Saleh was harvesting olives on the small plot of land he inherited from his father in the village of al-Sawiyya, 18 km (11 miles) south of Nablus.
As usual during the Palestinian olive season, most of the family was there to help. His wife and four children, as well as his siblings and some other family members, were there when he was shot in the chest by an Israeli settler.
“Bilal was a poor, hardworking man of the land,” says his uncle Yasir Shaheen. “He has struggled his whole life since he was orphaned at a young age.”
He was with Bilal and other relatives on Saturday morning when, he says, the Israeli army told the family they had three minutes to leave their land.
“The soldiers knew the settlers were going to attack us and they didn’t stop them,” he says.
Translation: His name is Bilal. His face is familiar to many passers-by in downtown Ramallah, where he sold salvia, thyme, thyme, figs and prickly pears. He is 40 years old and from the village of al-Sawiyya, south of Nablus. This good and simple man went out this morning to pick olives and a settler killed him with a bullet in the chest.
Al-Sawiya and its 3,500 people are surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements that have stifled daily life. Peasants own 12,000 dunums (1,200 hectares or 2,965 acres) of land, but can only build or work on 600 dunums. The rest are controlled by Israel.
“Everything has to be reviewed by the Israeli occupation and get its approval, from picking olives on our lands to construction and other matters of life,” explains Nihad Arar, head of the village council.
Settlers in illegal settlements attack and harass villagers “all year round”, he says. “[They] they cut down our trees, burn our farms, steal our olives and have been known to attack Palestinians in their homes and on their own property.
Everyone’s favorite herb seller
Bilal was a familiar face in downtown Ramallah, where he walked every day after collecting herbs and wild plants from the hills near his village.
He had dropped out of high school and become a tiler, like his brother, until he started heading into the hills to gather wild herbs to sell.
He sold sage, sumac, and thyme, as well as figs and prickly pears when they were in season. And of course he would harvest the olives when they were in season.
Hazem Sahin, Bilal’s son-in-law, says settlers from Rahalim have attacked the family before while harvesting olives.
“They would steal our stairs and our olives, all with the protection of the Israeli army just standing by and watching,” he says.
“They are encouraging the settlers to attack us. We can hardly work on our land and must go in secret. They attack us every year.”
The Israeli military did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by the time of publication.
Some Israeli news reports on Monday said Bilal’s attacker was an off-duty soldier and Israeli military police had taken him away.
On Saturday morning, Hazam says, he noticed four settlers dressed in religious clothing approaching where Bilal was picking olives with his family.
Yasir says he “told Bilal and his family to go away and come closer to us so we can be together.”
“The settlers started approaching us, shouting and cursing, and from a distance of 100 meters one of them fired a bullet,” he says.
The bullet hit Bilal in the chest. He fell to the ground from the ladder he was on.
Hazum explains how they “dropped everything, carried him up the ladder and ran through the trees to the high street.”
“We put him in a private car and took him to Salfit Hospital, 15 km (9 miles) away,” says Yasir. But unfortunately Bilal was declared dead on arrival.
Hazem says Bilal’s wife and children, the youngest of whom is nine, “are terrified and they don’t stop crying.”
His wife Ihlas is still shocked. “He just wanted to protect me and the kids. We were scared when the settlers got too close to us and he went to confront them. None of us expected him to be shot like this.