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The Tent of Nations

A Letter from Douglas Dicks, serving in Israel and Palestine

May 2019

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Dear Family and Friends,

On a hilltop southwest of Bethlehem, one of the last, desperate attempts by a Palestinian Arab Christian family to hold on to their family farm is playing itself out in the West Bank.

The Nassar family of Bethlehem, who are Lutherans, have struggled for years to keep the family farm that they inherited from their grandfather, lovingly referred to as “Daher’s Vineyard.” For 28 years, they have fought a legal battle in the courts of Israel to retain what is rightfully theirs. Today, they call their farm the Tent of Nations*, referring to the countless visitors who have come and stayed on the land, not only to be a presence, but also to help bring in the various harvests throughout the year. Grapes, olives, figs, almonds, wheat and other fruit trees are all cultivated and raised on the working farm. With the help of international volunteers, the work goes on year round.

The land, which consists of 400 dunams (100 acres), was purchased legally back in 1916, and what was unusual at the time was that the grandfather registered the land under the then Turkish or Ottoman authorities. The Nassars re-registered their land in 1924 and 1925 during the British Mandate period, and they possess land registration documents that list the boundaries of the land on which they grew grapes, fruit, and olive trees. They updated their land documents with the Bethlehem Land Registry in 1987 and 2000.

The West Bank of the Jordan River comprises 22% of what is left of historic Palestine. Today, 60% of that remaining 22% is taken, affected by land confiscation, Israeli settlement growth, national parks, green space, and Israeli military compounds. Today, Palestinians living there are still under Israeli Military control, while the Israeli settlements, and for that matter, Israeli settlers, fall under the jurisdiction of Israeli law.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the family started to have problems in terms of legal actions with the Israeli authorities. In that year, portions of the West Bank, including the Nassar family farm, were declared “state land.” Surrounded immediately by three Israeli settlements to the north, east and south — Newe Daniel, Efrat and Elazar — the mountaintop on which the Nassar farm sits is clearly coveted land. It commands an amazing view to the west, and on a clear day, one can even catch a glint of the Mediterranean Sea from the hilltop. Other Israeli settlements also threaten to encroach on the family farm, including Beitar Illit, to the West. Since 1967, when Israelis began settling and building in the West Bank on land that they deem the biblical heartland of the Jewish people — ancient Judea and Samaria — the creation of these “facts on the ground” have changed both the Palestinians’ lives and the Palestinian landscape. Today, connected by a series of modern bypass roads, Israeli settlers no longer feel a sense of isolation, but rather connected to Israel proper, with fast and easy access to cities such as Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere.

The family is not permitted to build any structures ON the land. So instead, they have decided to build under the ground, constructing cisterns for water catchment and containment. This, Daoud says, is a creative way of non-violent resistance to the Israeli Occupation. However, even these structures are considered “illegal,” according to Israeli authorities, and therefore are subject to demolition orders. The latest demolition order even targets a dog house! Every few days, Daoud and his family, or volunteers serving there, must scout out the land, looking for such orders. Often, they are simply left on a rock, in a mylar pocket. They are never presented to the family in person. Once discovered or found, the family has 45 days to launch a legal appeal.

To date, the family has fought a twenty-eight-year-long legal battle in the High Court of Israel, hoping to hold on to their family land. Close to $200,000 in legal fees has been spent. Were it not for the goodwill and help of individuals and organizations, the family would have had great difficulty raising this amount of money.

How, then, does one respond to this unjust situation? Daoud and his family were clear from the start: Violence was not an answer for them. However, that left them with only a few options. To resign and accept the victimhood mentality was also not an option for them. Neither was the idea of running away from what they know is rightfully theirs, though Daoud acknowledges that many Palestinians have taken this option — at least, those who are able to. They’ve simply called it quits and left. But running away is not an option for the Nassar family.

Neither is selling their land to the Israeli settlers, who have offered staggering sums of money to the family in order to acquire the hilltop. How much? “The last offer was a blank check,” says Daoud. “We were contacted by an anonymous person, who told us to write in the amount on a blank check, but we refused.”

Daoud places no blame on particular individuals, whom he says are simply caught up in the system or in government structures. The family sat together and came up with the following four principles regarding their resolve:

1. We refuse to be victims — we must act instead of react.
2. We refuse to hate. Though confronted on a daily basis, we will not hate.
3. We will act differently because of our faith.
4. We are people who believe in justice.

The family decided that they must invest their energies in a positive way. “When you stand up and act, you empower yourself, and you help to empower others,” Daoud says.

With Israeli elections now over, and with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s threats/promises to annex the West Bank and the remaining land that was historic Palestine to Israel, it remains to be seen how this tragedy — which can only be called a drama in the theater of the absurd — will continue to play itself out. One thing is for certain, however. The Nassar family has stated unequivocally that no amount of money will be enough for them to sell. “What we have inherited from our ancestors, we cannot sell,” Daoud says adamantly.

And in this season of Easter, Daoud reminds us: “We live in a different reality. We are people of the resurrection, we are people of hope, we are people of light. We don’t know what tomorrow will look like, but our call will remain to change hearts even in times when we feel that we are still in the dark tomb … Come and see! Then, go and tell.”

Thanks to each and every one of you — churches and individuals alike — for your continued prayers, financial support and emails. Without you, my work and ministry and my presence in this part of the world would not be possible. Each and every one of you is a true blessing!

Christ is Risen!

Doug

If you wish to follow the ongoing story of the Nassar family and the Tent of Nations, please visit the Tent of Nations webpage.


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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