Off-duty IDF soldier arrested on suspicion of shooting dead Palestinian olive farmer

IDF military police arrests serviceman, whose lawyers insist was acting in self-defense, shot in the air and to the ground, and didn’t hit anyone

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Bilal Muhammed Saleh, 40, who was killed during an incident outside the village of As-Sawiya in the northern West Bank on October 28, 2023. (X Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Bilal Muhammed Saleh, 40, who was killed during an incident outside the village of As-Sawiya in the northern West Bank on October 28, 2023. (X Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

An off-duty IDF soldier was arrested by military police on Sunday on suspicion of shooting dead a Palestinian man who had reportedly been harvesting olives near the northern West Bank village of As-Sawiya on Saturday, October 28.

According to the IDF, “a confrontation developed on Shabbat between a number of Palestinians and Israeli civilians close to the Rehelim settlement in the Samaria district,” referring to the northern West Bank by its biblical name.

The IDF said that “it is suspected that an IDF soldier on leave used his military weapon and fired it during the incident, causing the death of the Palestinian,” and that the soldier had been arrested on Sunday “for the purposes of the investigation.”

One video taken on Saturday, around the time of the incident, shows four settlers dressed in white and wearing white yarmulkes (kippas) close to an olive grove and with a settlement, apparently Rehelim, distant in the background.

The video shows no Palestinians, or anyone else, in close proximity to the settlers, but one of them nevertheless fires off a shot with his assault rifle.

The video does not show who or what was hit by the gunshot, however, and it is unclear if the video is of the precise moment Saleh was shot, or from a different time during the general incident.

A video appears to show Israeli West Bank settlers in an incident near Nablus in which Palestinians say a settler shot dead a Palestinian olive farmer, October 28, 2023. (video screenshot)

Israeli civilians are not permitted to own assault rifles, and anyone bearing one is either an off-duty soldier or a member of a civilian security squad.

According to the Palestinian state-run Wafa news agency, Saleh was killed while harvesting his olive crops.

Lawyers for the soldier suspected of killing Saleh dispute this account, however, and claim that he was attacked by “a number of Palestinians who threw stones at him and his family while they were hiking in the fields close to the settlement where they live, Rehelim.”

According to Attorney Adi Keidar, who works with the Honenu organization which provides legal aid, commonly to right-wingers suspected of anti-Palestinian activity, the stone-throwing was life-threatening and the off-duty soldier therefore first shot in the air to chase off the stone-throwers, and when that failed, shot at the ground close to their legs, but did not hit anyone.

The settlers then left the area and reported the incident to the authorities, Keidar said, alleging that the suspect had not caused Saleh’s death.

Veteran anti-settlements activist Dror Etkes pointed out that the Palestinian olive grove where Saleh was shot lies some 570 meters (1,870 feet) away from the only settler-owned olive grove in the area, which is located just outside Rehelim itself.

And the Haaretz daily reported that a cousin of Saleh stated that Saleh had been some 600 meters away from the Rehelim settlement together with his wife and two children, and that there had been no confrontation between settlers and Palestinians before he was shot.

In a highly unusual step, the head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan issued a statement on Shabbat itself, insisting that the settlers involved in the incident had been close to their olive grove next to Rehelim and had been “attacked by dozens of Hamasniks under the guise of the olive harvest.”

Head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan issues a statement backing the settlers’ version of events in the killing of Bilal Muhammed Saleh, October 28, 2023. (Courtesy, Samaria Regional Council)

Dagan said he was demanding that “the olive harvest close to [Israeli] settlements” in the West Bank be stopped immediately, claiming this was “being used as a platform for terrorism.”

Etkes, the anti-settlement activist, insisted that the video evidence showed the settlers had not been close to Rehelim during the shooting incident shown in the footage, and had not been in any danger.

Additionally, he alleged that extremist settlers have been exploiting the war in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 massacres in southern Israel to attack and remove Palestinians from their land in the West Bank.

“There has been a series of violent attacks which are escalating every day against Palestinians,” said Etkes.

“The declared goal of these attacks is maximum expulsion of Palestinians from a maximum amount of territory.”

The Yesh Din and Peace Now left-wing organizations, which oppose the settlements and Israeli control of the West Bank, have repeatedly called attention to a large number of violent attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank since October 7, which have led to the killing, seemingly by settlers, of seven Palestinian civilians, as well as numerous instances in which Palestinians have been forced from their homes.

On Sunday, some 30 nonprofits including Yesh Din and B’Tselem issued a statement calling on the international community “to stop the state-backed wave of settler violence which has led, and is leading to, the forcible transfer of Palestinian communities in the West Bank.”

They said that “no fewer than 13 herding communities have been displaced” and that “many more are in danger of being forced to flee,” if action was not taken.

US President Joe Biden and his administration have spoken out on several occasions against the settler violence.

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