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 had inherited from his father in the village of al-Sawiya, 18km (11 miles) south of Nablus.
As is 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 earth,” says his uncle Yasir Shaheen. “His whole life he struggled, ever since he was orphaned at an early 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 didn’t stop them,” he says.
Translation: His name is Bilal. His face is familiar to many passers-by in downtown Ramallah, where he used to sell sage, thyme, thyme, figs, and prickly pears. He is 40 years old and is from the village of al-Sawiya, 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 choked off daily life. The villagers own 12,000 dunums (1,200 hectares or 2,965 acres) of land, but they are only able to build or work on 600 dunums. The rest is controlled by Israel.
“Everything needs to be reviewed by the Israeli occupation and get its approval, from picking olives in our lands to construction and other matters of life,” Nihad Arar, the village council head, explains.
The settlers in the illegal settlements attack and harass the villagers “throughout the year”, he says. “[They] cut down our trees, burn our farms, steal our olives, and are known to assault Palestinians inside their homes and on their own property.”
Everyone’s favourite herb seller
Bilal was a familiar face in downtown Ramallah, where he went every day after collecting herbs and wild plants from the hills near his village.
He had dropped out of high school and became a tiler, like his brother, until he started venturing to the hills to collect wild herbs to sell.
He would sell sage, sumac, and thyme as well as figs and prickly pears when they were in season. And, of course, he would harvest olives when they were in season.
Hazem Shaheen, Bilal’s brother-in-law, says settlers from Rahalim had attacked the family before while they were harvesting olives.
“They would steal our ladders and our olives, all with the protection of the Israeli army that just stands watching,” he says.
“They encourage the settlers to attack us. We can barely work on our land and have to go in secrecy. Every year they attack us.”
The Israeli army did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by time of publication.
Some Israeli news reports on Monday said Bilal’s attacker was an off-duty soldier and the Israeli military police had brought him in.
On Saturday morning, Hazem says, he spotted four settlers wearing religious clothing who walked up to where Bilal was picking olives with his family.
Yasir says he “told Bilal and his family to get away and come closer to us so that we could be together”.
“The settlers started approaching us, screaming and cursing, and from a distance of 100 metres, one of them fired a single bullet,” he says.
The bullet struck Bilal in the chest. He fell to the ground from the ladder he was on.
Hazem explains how they “left behind everything and carried him on the ladder and ran through the trees to the main street”.
“We placed him in a private car and took him to Salfit Hospital, 15km (9 miles) away,” Yasir says. But sadly, Bilal was pronounced dead on arrival.
Hazem says Bilal’s wife and children, the youngest of whom is nine, “are horrified and have not stopped crying”.
His wife, Ikhlas, 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 them to shoot him like that.”