A Palestinian Farmer Finds Dead Lambs in His Well. He Knows Who's to Blame

The carcasses of some 10 sheep and lambs were dumped into Ibrahim Salah’s well. The poisoning of its water is only one instance of what the people of his village endure at the hands of settlers from nearby Havat Gilad

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Salah at his well, this week. “Why am I submitting a complaint?” he asks rhetorically. “So they won’t come back again. At least I tried. What else can I do?”
Salah at his well, this week. “Why am I submitting a complaint?” he asks rhetorically. “So they won’t come back again. At least I tried. What else can I do?”Credit: Alex Levac

The carcass of the large sheep lies in the shade of the olive tree, already partially eaten by the animals of the field and the birds of the sky. A swarm of flies buzzes busily in its innards. The sheep was probably pregnant, its belly was swollen; death may well have come while it was giving birth. Floating in the well are the bodies of lambs. Close to 10 dead lambs – possibly stillborn or victims of some sort of epidemic – have already been found, wrapped in tied-up garbage bags. A few pairs of disposable latex gloves are also floating in the water of the well, undoubtedly belonging to those who disposed of the dead animals.

Using a long metal rod, Ibrahim Salah, the farmer who owns the well and the nearby olive grove, is trying to fish the rest of the carcasses out of it. It’s not easy because the putrid bodies – of animals that Salah says did not belong to him or his fellow villagers – are floating well beneath the top of the well.

The body of a lamb falls out of a bag onto the concrete floor next to the well. Its head is black, its bloated body, saturated with water, white. The stench is overpowering, intolerable, repellent, even after Salah has poured gallons of bleach into his 80 cubic-meter well (80,000 liters) to disinfect it. Now he’ll have to bring in a generator and a pump, to extract all the water that has been contaminated by the remnants of the livestock still hidden inside. Then he’ll have to bring a water tank in and rinse the well repeatedly, until it’s cleansed and disinfected and the water is pure again, so he can use it to water his olive grove and for drinking.

Two days after the incident, Salah is still distraught over what he found in the well. It’s not only the smell – the memory of what he saw there is equally unbearable. The well is located at the bottom of a hill on which olive trees grow, which we descended on foot this week across a boulder-strewn trail that’s impassable for a standard car. We had come to view the horrific spectacle.

Salah thought he’d removed all the bodies from the well last Saturday, but on Monday when we arrived he was taken aback to see additional lambs floating in the water. He has no doubt about who did it: the settler with the all-terrain vehicle, whose name he doesn’t know. He’s a resident of Havat Gilad – the wild outpost that lurks behind the summit of the hill above his grove, a few hundred meters away, and the scourge of local Palestinian farmers.

In fact, the policemen and Israel Defense Forces soldiers who arrived on Sunday to look into his complaint were accompanied by the very same settler, on his all-terrain vehicle. Salah has a photograph of him on his phone, surrounded by the soldiers: a big skullcap, tzitzit, a thick beard, half a smile. Salah heard him say to the police officers, “I wanted to throw away the sheep. There was no place to throw them. I saw a well, so I threw them in.” The good-heartedness of a settler from Havat Gilad.

Salah: “There’s 4,000 dunams [1,000 acres] around, so there’s nowhere to throw, only into my well?”

Farata is a small, poor village in the Qalqilyah district. Salah had asked us to wait for him next to the cell-phone antenna, near his home. He was delayed for two hours at the District Coordination Office in Qalqilyah, in connection with the complaint he filed. He’s 66, has seven children and speaks fluent Hebrew after years of doing renovation work in Israel, where two of his sons also work, with official permits. Until three months ago, he himself was doing renovation work at Hadera Paper, but he had decided to devote himself to tending his land.

Salah has three plots of land, with olive groves on all of them. One 18-dunam plot is adjacent to Havat Gilad. Salah is allowed access to it only twice a year, once for plowing and once for harvesting, two or three days each time and only after coordination with the IDF. This year, for example, his request to plow was turned down three times, before being scheduled for the end of the month. It’s his land, while Havat Gilad is still in the process of becoming “regularized,” but he’s the one who’s denied free access to his land.

This grove was planted by his father in 1952, around the time Salah was born. Almost every year since 2006, he’s discovered that the olives have been stolen even before he arrives to harvest them. Again, he has no doubt about who’s behind that. Last year, 24 of the trees were uprooted with a steam shovel. The settlers also erected a tent and a building on his land; he submitted a complaint, but to no avail.

Salah at his well.. Credit: Alex Levac

Until 2006, he worked the land together with volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights, but since then no one dares approach the area. What will happen if we go there now? “I’ll be killed on the spot, or they call in the army and take me to jail.”

A second plot lies close to the village – 30 dunams of olives belonging to Salah and his sisters, which he can work without the need for “coordination.” The third tract, 50 dunams of olive trees, which he planted with his own hands, is situated about two kilometers from his home. It was the well there that was contaminated.

Two weeks ago, on Friday, shepherds from Havat Gilad approached the village. They pastured their sheep on its land, in fields of wheat and barley that are now sprouting. The villagers tried to drive off the intruders. The settlers filmed the event, during which stones were apparently thrown at them, and sent the images to the police.

The law enforcement authorities went into action immediately. They suspected Salah’s nephew, Baraa Salman, of throwing the stones. On that same day his car, a Peugeot 205, was impounded, and that evening, an IDF force arrested Salman at home. He’s been in detention since them, awaiting trial. So much for a person who tries to defend his property.

When his nephew’s car was impounded, Salah went out to the police and soldiers to try to explain to them that his nephew had not committed any crime. The soldiers, he recalls, ordered him to stand next to a wall for two hours, hands behind his back, and remain silent. “I am older than your father,” he told the soldiers. “Why don’t you take the settlers?” The soldiers ordered him to shut up. Then they took the car and left, before arresting his nephew that night.

Last Friday, Salah went to the nearby plot to spray the trees with insecticide. In the afternoon, after the spraying was completed, he planned to visit the second plot, where the well is located. Shepherds from the neighboring village who saw him warned him to keep away from his grove. “The settler with the all-terrain vehicle is standing next to your well,” they told him. “We didn’t approach, and we don’t know what exactly he’s doing there. But don’t go – he’ll kill you.”

Salah heeded their advice and kept his distance. At the end of the day, he passed by and saw that the well’s iron cover was missing. He went home and told himself that he would install a new cover the next day.

He went to the well on Saturday with his two sons. The water was gushing out and to his astonishment, he saw a large, dead sheep floating in the water, a dead lamb by its side. Appalled, he rushed away; he was unable to breathe, he says. He went back in the afternoon with his sons, poured bleach into the water and called both the District Coordination Office in Nablus and the head of the local village council. He was beside himself. He called the DCO in Qalqilyah, but by then it was Saturday night and there was no answer.

On Sunday, he called the organization Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights. They sent their field research coordinator, Yudit Avidor, with volunteers from the NGO. They arrived later that day, saw him pulling animal corpses from the water, and stayed with him the whole day to help him file his application to the authorities. The police also arrived on the scene. Salah is now he’s waiting to be summoned to lodge an official complaint, as they instructed.

“Why am I submitting a complaint?” he asks rhetorically. “So they won’t come back again. At least I tried. What else can I do? More than that I can’t do. If say hello to a settler, they’ll take me to jail. If he hits me, they won’t do a thing to him.”

In 2006, settlers attacked his son Basel, who is today 40 years old, with an iron pipe. They broke his shoulder and he was taken to Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava. Salah had to pay 50,000 shekels (about $12,500) for Basel’s hospitalization. No one was brought to trial.

“These are sheep that only the settlers have, intended for meat and not for milking,” he explains, dispelling any doubts about the origin of the animals. Some of the lambs were also marked with red blotches on their back, a custom not practiced by the Palestinians.

“I don’t know why he did it,” says Salah, only partly with feigned innocence. “It’s as though they just don’t want the Palestinians to remain on their land.”

There’s a fine view from the porch of Salah’s house. Havat Gilad is hidden behind the hill. We go down to the well, but hurry away, while we’re still able to breathe. The stench is intolerable.