We were interviewing a Palestinian farmer. Then the drone and soldiers appeared
WEST BANK – There are days when you head out to report a story, and you think you know where it's going. And then it spins in an entirely different direction.
This is the story of one such day last Tuesday in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – the other Palestinian territory.
It's morning as our NPR team is traveling from Tel Aviv to the West Bank to see a small town called Deir Istiya, and to meet a 54-year-old farmer named Ayoub Abuhejleh. When we arrive at his home, he invites us inside and makes us Arabic coffee.
Like many Palestinians in the West Bank, he tells us he hasn't been able to access his land and harvest his olives.
"I planted around 370 olive trees [and] grapes, figs, almonds," he tells us.
It's harvest season, and while his plants are groaning with fruit, he says he hasn't been able to harvest a single olive. "We faced a little bit of problems before in the harvest season, but in this season it's terrible," he says.
He explains that soldiers with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and West Bank settlers have blocked him from his land since the war started on Oct. 7, when Hamas fighters attacked Israel.
While the world has focused on Israel's response in Gaza, violence in the West Bank is also spiking. Attacks on Palestinians by the Israeli military and settlers are up, according to the UNOCHA, which estimates more than 170 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,600 injured in the West Bank since the war began.
The IDF says it is conducting raids on militants. Abuhejleh says that when he tries to get to his olive trees, the war is the reason Israeli soldiers point to for stopping him. He is convinced they are using the war as an excuse to seize Palestinian land.
Abuhejleh planted his trees in 2011, and this was the first year he was going to be able to harvest them. When he went to check on his trees Oct. 13, he found the dirt road he normally takes to his fields undrivable. He tells us that settlers rolled in with diggers, tore up the dirt road to his fields and severed the water lines he'd installed – an accusation that NPR was unable to confirm. He has not set foot on his land since.
"I am raising these olive trees like my children. So it's not the issue of income," he says, explaining that he has another full-time job with a non-government organization. "It's our land, you know? The connection of the trees, the soil, the stones – this is the important [thing]."
The olive harvest does represent a key supplement for family incomes in the West Bank. According to Abuhejleh, many families pass down their land for generations. He hopes his children will farm his land one day. This is how it works around here, says Dana Sharon, a rabbi from a kibbutz in central Israel.
Rabbi Dana is Israeli and with a group called Rabbis for Human Rights. She and her colleague Dani Brodsky, the director of the organization's Occupied Palestinian Territory department, have joined us on our trip to Abuhejleh's home. Rabbis for Human Rights works with Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest to try to help farmers access their land safely.
"There is no other place to be as far as I'm concerned," Sharon says. "The way things here are managed or mismanaged is beyond awful. I just want to make a very clear statement – not on my behalf, definitely not on behalf of my religion."
Abuhejleh offers to show us his land – not walk on it, but just glimpse it from a nearby hill. He says he does this often to check if his plants have been damaged.
We follow Abuhejleh in his car down a steep and winding dirt road. When we get to the valley, we stop and park. Abuhejleh points to tumbled rocks and a gaping hole in the road.
"So they damaged there, as you see," he says. "Three times they damaged the road." The irrigation line that he mentioned is visibly cut in two.
Our team pulls on helmets and flak jackets marked "PRESS" in big white letters before we begin to walk with Abuhejleh to the spot that he says looks onto his fields. We hear a buzzing sound, and when we look up, we spot a drone hovering about 60 feet above us. A camera flashes green and red – it's clear someone's watching. We're just not sure if it's Israeli military personnel or settlers.
As we walk another 100 or so yards, people in uniform emerge from behind a rocky hillside. More arrive in an SUV.
We stop and announce ourselves: "Media. Press." They're clearly unhappy with us. Some have their faces covered with balaclavas. Soon about a dozen people in uniform are gathering around us – all of them carrying large assault-style guns.
"OK. So get out of here. Take your legs and go all the way back," one soldier says in Hebrew, pointing to the direction from which we came. They tell us we've crossed a barrier, but we point out there is no rope, no signs, nothing to indicate that. They insist the area is restricted, and it's a time of war.
Our local producer Sawsan Khalife, along with Rabbi Dana and Brodsky try to talk to them in Hebrew. Crosstalk evolves into yelling. Abuhejleh is separated from the group, about 20 feet away, accompanied by multiple soldiers. They tell us they need to question him, and it will only take a few minutes.
We say we don't want to leave without him. "Can one of our Israeli friends stay here?" we ask. The soldiers refuse, and a gun is raised. It points straight at us – and we begin to back away. "Move on," we're told.
Soldiers walk Abuhejleh out of sight around a hill, and as we make our way back to where the road was dug up, Rabbi Dana tells us she's worried.
"We've never seen anything like this before," she says. "This is not according to any protocol that we're familiar with or are experienced with."
Brodsky begins making calls – lawyers, the IDF, the local police – anyone who might be able to figure out Abuhejleh's status. We call our contact with the IDF, who says they will check on the situation.
We don't want to leave Abuhejleh, and so the waiting begins. What was promised as a few minutes becomes 30 minutes. Then 45. Then 90. What appears to be the same drone comes back, flying lower, with its camera pointed at us.
Eventually, our IDF contact calls back. He assures us that Abuhejleh is safe, and he strongly advises us to leave the area "for our safety." So, reluctantly, we do.
From there, we head to Feras Diab's office, the mayor of Deir Istiya. We had called him from the hillside, to see if he could help. He tells us he is also a farmer like Abuhejleh, with 160 olive trees. He says he has run into the same issues trying to harvest.
Big portraits of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the current Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, hang on his wall at town hall. We ask the mayor why scenes like the one we just witnessed are unfolding in fields all around his town, and why he thinks Israeli soldiers are doing this.
"This is an old thing that we are seeing in a new way," he says in Arabic. "Their goal, their aim, is the land. And they're using the war in order to seize the land."
From the mayor's office, we return to Abuhejleh's house to speak to his family. It's tense. Everyone is worried. Then, more than five hours after Ayoud was detained, a cell phone rings – he has been released.
Abuhejleh's sister bursts into tears of relief. She tells us in Arabic: "You Americans. Look at what's happening to us Arabs here, to our people, to our land."
Abuhejleh's son drives to pick him up, and we wait with his extended family – children, grandchildren, sisters. And then, a celebratory horn honking is heard over the hill, coming towards his house.
Abuhejleh gets out of the car, smiling, and he's rushed by his entire family – his young grandchildren run to him. He hugs and kisses them. Some are crying.
We sit down with Abuhejleh to make sure he's OK and to ask what happened after he was separated from us. He tells us that after he was led away, blindfolded and handcuffed, he was driven to a military office in a nearby settlement where he was mocked and questioned for hours.
"They say it's our land. It's not your land. So you must forget it," he says. Later, when we would ask the IDF why he had been detained, they would provide no comment.
Now that he's home, he assures us he's unharmed. And as we're about to leave, we ask if he plans to go back to see his land, even after today's incident.
"I will go back. Don't worry," he says. "They will arrest, and I will return back – until I will fix my land. It's our land."
Local producer Sawsan Khalife contributed to this report. contributed to this story
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