8 January 2018
PALESTINE: Tent of Nations—hope in the hills of Bethlehem
by Lydia Monte
One hundred acres of bountiful vineyards, orchards, and olive groves sprawl over the beautiful rolling hills outside of Bethlehem. The Nassar family have been living and working this land just outside of Bethlehem since 1916, when Daher Nassar bought 100-acres from the Ottomans who were the ruling power at the time. They lived in several of the natural caves in the area and Daher’s grandson Daoud recounted stories of growing up in the traditional Bedouin lifestyle that cherishes the deep connection humanity has with the earth. He said that whenever the younger generation would argue for building modern houses instead of living in the caves his grandfather would simply say, “We live in the earth for we come from the earth.”
All of that changed when Zionist Jews began immigrating to the area after World War II. In 1936, 25,000 of the Nassars’ grape vines were destroyed by the Zionist police in an effort to get the Nassars to flee, like many of the other Palestinian families in the country. In 1991, the 100-acre Nassar farm was declared state land and all ownership rights were stripped away from the family. The family has since been marked as “illegally” living on their own land and they have spent the past twenty-six years in court to prove their ownership, spending over $200,000 in legal charges. Since 1948, five Jewish settlements have been built on the surrounding hills, and the family and farm have been completely cut off from water and electricity, even though they are citizens of Israel and pay both Israeli and Palestinian taxes. The wall separates them from Bethlehem and several roadblocks have been set up around the farm by the military to restrict anyone from coming and going. The Israeli authorities have cut down and uprooted their trees, stationed a military outpost on their property, built a road through their farm allowing the neighboring Jewish settlers to trespass as they please. Israel has placed countless demolition orders on most structures on the property, from the animal pens to the outhouses, and because Israel does not recognize the Nassars’ ownership, they are not allowed to build, renovate, or even move anything on their land. They have applied numerous times for a building permit, but they have been denied every time, and so they have had to be very creative in their survival. They set up the first solar power system in Palestine, they have cisterns to collect rainwater, and instead of building on the ground, they are renovating the caves underground.
Even though they have been forced to become completely self-sustaining they embrace this way of living and only seek to do more. The Nassar family has turned their farm into an educational and environmental farm called Tent of Nations that is open to the community. Since doing so they have truly become a light on a hill and a symbol of hope to the remaining 11,000 Palestinians living in the village below. Daoud has traveled throughout Europe and the U.S. bringing attention to the reality of Palestinian life, and more specifically Palestinian Christian life, under the Israeli occupation and has gained international support in expanding Tent of Nations to be able to do more for the surrounding community. Daoud and his brother Daher have turned their farm into a place to cultivate peace and dialogue about the current situation and have become voices for nonviolent resistance. They are against violence, against resignation, and against leaving, and so they have created a fourth way of reacting to their situation that opposes these natural and common responses. This fourth way depicts their commitment to peace and true justice and is summarized by the following points:
- We refuse to be victims.
- We refuse to hate. No one can force you to hate. We were not created to hate.
- We are acting differently because of our Christian faith.
- We are people who believe in justice.
- We refuse to be enemies. Which is active, not passive.
Despite their grim circumstances Daoud never stops looking to the future. He is now looking into setting up wind turbines in order to collect energy during the winter months when there is less sun. Currently 70-75% of the farm is cultivated and producing and they are hoping to reach 100% in the next few years.
In the meantime Tent of Nations runs a children’s summer camp to teach critical thinking, farming and agriculture, sustainability, and creativity. They also have a women’s empowerment program which aims to invest in and empower the village women in order to meet with their expectations and interests, such as learning English and computer skills in order to help their children and siblings with their school homework. All of the educational classes and activities are planned to help them realize their dreams and power in building a healthy family and society.
Daoud’s closing words to us were, “We must build bridges across countries and cultures. That is the only way to start the process to peace. It must grow up from the ground like an olive tree.” The olive tree is a symbol of peace, endurance, and vision. However, they can take up to twelve years to bear their first fruits, and much longer to mature. They are the epitome of a long-term investment, and they are planted as seeds for future generations. The story of Daoud and his brother Daher Nassar is just one out of hundreds that exemplify the strength, the perseverance, and the hope represented by this magnificent tree.