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Far from Gaza, the war between Israel and Hamas upends lives

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There are times on this job when you set out to do a story. And you think you know where it's going, and the day ends up spinning in unexpected directions. This is the story of one such day in the Israeli-occupied West Bank - the other Palestinian territory. We came here yesterday to see a small town called Deir Istiya, and to meet a 54-year-old man named Ayoub Abuhejleh in his family home, where he made us Arabic coffee.

AYOUB ABUHEJLEH: OK, this is a little bit...

KELLY: Over the coffee, he explains a problem he's having.

ABUHEJLEH: I planted around 370 olive trees, grapes, figs.

KELLY: Three hundred seventy olive trees - they are groaning with olives ready to pick. This is harvest season. But he hasn't been able to - not one.

ABUHEJLEH: We faced little bit of problems before in the harvest season, but in this season it's terrible.

KELLY: He says Israeli soldiers and settlers have blocked him from his land since the war started. That was back on October 7, when Hamas insurgents attacked Israel, killing more than 1,400 people. While the world has focused on Israel's response in Gaza, violence here in the West Bank is also spiking. Attacks on Palestinians by the Israeli military and settlers are up. The International Crisis Group estimates more than 130 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank since the war began. Israel's military says they are conducting raids on militants. Ayoub says, when he tries to get to his olive trees, the war is the reason Israeli soldiers give for stopping him.

ABUHEJLEH: They say it's forbidden. You are to stay here because we are in a war, so we are coming to protect you. So I say to him, you are not coming to protect me. You are coming to protect the settlers because you are coming from a settlement.

KELLY: On October 13, Ayoub says that settlers rolled in with diggers, tore up the dirt road to his fields - that they severed the irrigation pipes he'd installed. He has not set foot on his land since.

ABUHEJLEH: I am raising these olive trees like my children. So it's not the issue of income. It's our land, you know? The connection of the trees, the soil, the stones - this is the important.

KELLY: The olive harvest does represent a key supplement for many family incomes. But Ayoub's point is, for many families, the land has been passed down for generations. Ayoub 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. She is Israeli and with a group called Rabbis for Human Rights, who are here at Ayoub's house with us. They work with Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest, trying to help farmers access their land safely. She told me this while we were waiting by the car.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE RUNNING)

DANA SHARON: There is no other place to be as far as I'm concerned. 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.

KELLY: On this day, Ayoub offers to show us his land - not to walk on it - just glimpse it from a neighboring hill. He does this trip often, says it won't be a problem - that if we are stopped, we'll just be asked to leave.

SHARON: He wants to show us...

KELLY: We follow Ayoub in his car down a steep dirt road. Only a few minutes' drive from his house in town...

SHARON: This is the road that they...

KELLY: ...We stop.

ABUHEJLEH: Yeah. This is the road.

KELLY: He shows us where the road has been torn up.

ABUHEJLEH: So they damaged there, as you see. Three times they damaged the road.

KELLY: Our team pulls on our flak jackets, "press" written in big letters across the front. And then we hear a buzzing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE BUZZING)

KELLY: A drone has appeared to hover above us. Someone knows we're here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON GRAVEL)

KELLY: We start walking over the remnants of the destroyed road, and then...

Here we go.

ABUHEJLEH: I don't know - maybe settlers, maybe soldiers. I don't know.

KELLY: Soldiers appear - quite a few of them.

One, two, three...

ABUHEJLEH: Yeah. There is.

KELLY: ...Four that I can see.

Some come over the hill on foot. Others drive up in an SUV.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

KELLY: Some have their faces covered with balaclavas. All of them - about a dozen by the end - have guns.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON GRAVEL)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Shalom.

KELLY: Hi. Shalom.

SHARON: Shalom.

KELLY: Media. Press.

ABUHEJLEH: They're not...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: They are not happy with us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. So get out of here. Take your legs and go all the way back...

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: (Yelling in Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: (Yelling in Hebrew).

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: In Hebrew, they yell that we need to leave - that we have crossed a barrier. For the record, there is no barrier, no signage. They tell us, this is a time of war.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: (Yelling in Hebrew).

ABUHEJLEH: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: And then they separate Ayoub from our group, tell us they need to question him. We say we don't want to leave without him.

SHARON: Is it possible for someone to stay here with him?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So he - they said no one will stay. They're going to be...

KELLY: The soldiers refuse. A gun lifts - points straight at us. So we back off.

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #3: Move on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #3: Move on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #3: Move on.

KELLY: As the soldiers walk Ayoub around the hill and out of our sight, we ask Dana, the rabbi who works regularly with Palestinian farmers here, how unusual is this situation?

SHARON: We've never seen anything like this before. This is not according to any protocol that we're familiar with or are experienced with.

KELLY: She says she is extremely worried.

DANNY: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Her colleague, Danny, gets on the phone, starts making calls in Hebrew and Arabic.

DANNY: OK. (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Calls to the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, to the police, to lawyers. We also get on the phone with a media contact we have in the IDF.

SHARON: Hi.

KELLY: Hi - hold on.

We tell him where we are, what's happening.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So first of all, I will check right now what happened, and I'll see what we can do about it.

KELLY: Then we wait. We don't want to leave Ayoub. The soldiers told us they would only question him for a few minutes, but we can't tell if he's still nearby. The soldiers' vehicle is gone.

So we're now at about 45 minutes since Ayoub has been separated from us - taken. I can't see him, but we can see the soldiers. So we don't think they've left or taken him anywhere. And so we wait.

Around then, the drone comes back. It's hovering lower and lower.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE BUZZING)

KELLY: Finally, more than 90 minutes after Ayoub was taken away, our IDF contact calls. He reports Ayoub is safe, and he strongly advises us to leave the area. So reluctantly, we do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CLIMBING STAIRS)

KELLY: We head to Firas Diab's office. He's the mayor of Deir Istiya. We'd called him to see if he could help.

FIRAS DIAB: Welcome. Sit down. Sit down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Mayor Diab is also an olive farmer on the side - 160 trees.

DIAB: (Through interpreter) And I can't harvest them because they're close to a settlement, too, and I can't even reach them.

KELLY: No harvest at all? You haven't been able to get any olives?

DIAB: (Through interpreter) Until this day, no.

KELLY: 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.

What do you think the goal is here? Why is the military doing this?

DIAB: (Through interpreter) This is an old thing that we see in a new way. Their goal, their aim, is the land. And they're using the war in order to seize the land.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Back at Ayoub's house, the family has gathered. Everyone's worried. Everyone is tense. Then, his sister's phone rings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL RINGTONE PLAYING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Hello? (Non-English language spoken).

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: Ayoub has been released. The sister bursts into tears of relief.

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: She calls me to her.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Yelling in Arabic, crying).

KELLY: "You Americans," she tells me. "Look at what's happening to us Arabs here, to our people, to our land."

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Arabic).

KELLY: Ayoub's son goes to collect him. We all wait outside in plastic chairs. And soon...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

KELLY: ...A car pulls up the hill, honking in celebration. Ayoub gets out - big smile. Everyone rushes to greet him.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Shouting in Arabic).

(SOUNDBITE OF KISSES)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Speaking Arabic).

KELLY: His daughter, his wife, his sons, his young granddaughter.

ABUHEJLEH: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Speaking Arabic).

ABUHEJLEH: (Speaking Arabic).

(LAUGHTER)

ABUHEJLEH: (Speaking Arabic).

(SOUNDBITE OF KISS)

ABUHEJLEH: (Speaking Arabic).

(SOUNDBITE OF KISS)

KELLY: We sit down with Ayoub to make sure he's OK and to hear what happened. He tells us, after he was led away, he was blindfolded, handcuffed. Then they drove him to a military office in a nearby settlement where he was mocked and questioned.

ABUHEJLEH: They says it's our land. It's not your land. So you must forget it.

KELLY: But now he's home.

Are you OK?

ABUHEJLEH: I'm OK, alhamdulillah (ph).

KELLY: As we prepare to leave, I ask Ayoub, will you go back? Will you try to see your land again?

ABUHEJLEH: I will go back. Don't worry. They will arrested, and I will return back, and - until I will fix my land. It's our land.

KELLY: NPR producers Kat Lonsdorf and Erika Ryan and local producer Sawsan Khalife contributed to this story. And our reporting continues through this week. We'll be hearing voices from across Israel and across the region.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "LACRYMAE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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