Tent of Nations seeks to spread nonviolence in midst of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Daher Nassar points out the orchard destroyed by Israeli military bulldozers May 19. (Photos by Melanie Lidman)
Daher Nassar points out the orchard destroyed by Israeli military bulldozers May 19. (Photos by Melanie Lidman)

by Melanie Lidman

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"When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you?" (Deuteronomy 20:19)

Daher Nassar looks out across the rocky hilltops surrounding his family farm outside of Bethlehem. On the clearest days, you can see all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, and even parts of Gaza to the southwest.

Over the summer, the Nassar family watched Hamas shoot rockets toward Israel, and Israel answer with airstrikes, helpless to do anything but observe the death and destruction from 40 miles away. They heard the frequent booms from intercepted or exploding rockets, and even sirens when Hamas' long-range missiles attempted to target the Jerusalem region. During the Gaza war this summer, more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed. In Israel, 64 soldiers and five civilians were killed, according to the U.N. office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

This farm was an island of hope during the latest dark chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The land of Nassar's farm looks just the way you image a biblical landscape: rolling hills under a quiet blue sky, subdued earthy hues of  white stones, red soil and green trees. As the fighting raged in Gaza, Daher's family was involved in a smaller battle: desperately trying to pick up the pieces from Israeli military bulldozers that destroyed an entire orchard in May.

"The Bible says even in war, you're not supposed to cut down trees," said Daher, the harsh Middle Eastern sun beating down at midday as he pointed out the pile of dirt and stones at the bottom of the valley that used to be apricot trees and grape vines. "I mean, are trees a danger? No, they just give fruit."

On May 19, at approximately 4 a.m., bulldozers arrived and destroyed the entire orchard. By the time Daher started working in the fields at 8 a.m. and realized what had happened, the trees were gone.

The destruction of the trees was another chapter in the heartbreaking and complex conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, the human price paid for a deeply contested land. The Civil Administration, a branch of the military that deals with bureaucratic issues in the Palestinian territories, claims the land belongs to the state and the Nassar family illegally planted trees there to try to expand their property. The Nassar family contests that the property has always belonged to their family, and the military illegally destroyed it without giving them ample time to appeal through the court system.

The Nassars, a Palestinian Lutheran Christian family, have created an environmental peace center on their farm called Tent of Nations, which now draws support from Christian communities and volunteers around the world. This tree destruction wasn't just another footnote in a gut-wrenching conflict. When these trees fell, they made ripples around the world.

Refusal to hate

Daher is the oldest of nine siblings. His grandfather came from Bethlehem in 1916 and purchased the land to begin a farm for his family. Every time the land's authorities changed, the Nassar family went to re-register their property. It was purchased under the Ottomans, then registered with the British during the 1918-48 British Mandate in Palestine. After the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the area was under Jordanian control, so the Nassars have papers from the Jordanians. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel annexed the West Bank and the land became part of Israel.

Starting in the 1970s, idealistic Jewish settlers began building towns on the hilltops of the West Bank, trying to create a Jewish presence in the traditionally Arab area. Slowly, all the hilltops around the Nassar family farm sprouted organized rows of white homes with red roofs -- the Jewish settlements of Neve Daniel, Beitar Illit, Alon Shvut and Elazar.

As the political situation nosedived with the First Intifada in the 1980s, frictions increased between Jewish and Arab neighbors, with both sides accusing the other of vandalism and violence. The Nassar family was not immune, suffering attacks on their water tanks, olive trees, and other property.

In 2002, fanatic settlers destroyed 250 olive trees, recounted Daoud Nassar, the fourth-oldest in the family. When faced with such violence, Daoud explained, you could respond in three ways. You can react violently, an eye for an eye, creating a never-ending cycle of violence. You can resign, sit down and cry, and run the risk of wallowing in your victimhood forever. Or you can run away.

"For us, there's a fourth thing, that we refuse to be victims," he said.

"We refuse to hate. No one can force us to hate. It's easy to say; difficult to live, of course. For us, it is very difficult not to hate the situation like this. But for us we are trying to distinguish between hating the other, and not accepting their actions," he said.

"So we started a new way of action, which is to create a positive, nonviolent way of resistance under the title 'We refuse to be enemies,' " Daoud told a group of U.S. Christian pilgrims from the Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy who visited the Nassar family farm in June.

"Our way of action is that we cannot overcome evil with more evil, we cannot overcome hatred with more hatred," Daoud said. "This is our nonviolent, Christian way of resistance. It's not a passive way; it's an active way. We created this culture called the Tent of Nations, and it's a family. ... We are trying to channel this negative energy in a constructive way."

The family couldn't get permits for running water, so they built 15 cisterns, enough to hold 200,000 gallons of water during a good rainy season, which is sufficient for a year. They also couldn't get permits for electricity, so volunteers helped them install solar panels.

The Tent of Nations hosts regular international volunteers to help them run a summer camp for 50-80 Christian and Muslim Palestinian children. They teach music, theater, art and environmental awareness, trying to bring traumatized children optimism and encouragement. This year, they worried that the political situation would leave parents too scared to send their children to camp. "We thought about canceling, but we thought if we cancel it, we'll be more frustrated with the situation, we'll be just sitting and waiting, and this is not good," Daoud said. The camp went forward with 20 children.

They also have other projects: Daoud's wife, Jihan, a computer teacher, directs a women's support group that brings computer literacy and English classes to 15 women in the nearby Arab village of Nihilin. They host peace groups, such as the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue organization Encounter, trying to help Israelis understand their political reality from a human perspective. And they share their story of active, peaceful resistance, dozens of times each month, with Christian visitors from around the world.

"Sometimes people visiting the Holy Land run from dead stone to dead stone," Daoud told the group from Cincinnati. "But the tomb is dead. It is empty. We are glad you're here to see the living stones."

Daoud addressed the group in a brightly painted cave, cool and pleasant despite the scorching temperatures outside. They couldn't get building permits to build above ground, Daoud explained, so the family started building below ground.

"Groups are coming to the holy and historical sites and forget that people live here," he said. "Christian, Muslim and Jewish -- when you meet faces, you build up a connection with the land because of the people and not because of a dead story."

Who owns the land?

The legal issues surrounding land ownership in Israel and Palestine are never simple, but in the area around the Tent of Nations, ownership is an impossible patchwork of 100-year-old claims issued from four authorities: Israeli, Jordanian, British and Ottoman.

After decades of negotiations, the Palestinian territory known as the West Bank, a kidney-bean shaped area in the middle of Israel, is currently divided into three categories.

  • Cities like Ramallah are considered "Area A" and are totally under Palestinian control from the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas.
  • Small Palestinian villages located in areas of strategic importance for Israel are considered "Area B," which means the Palestinian Authority deals with civil matters and the Israeli military is responsible for security matters.
  • Major Jewish settlements in the West Bank are considered "Area C," under Israeli civilian and military control.

The Tent of Nations, surrounded by Jewish settlements known as the "Gush Etzion Bloc," is considered Area C. This means that any requests for building permits must be approved by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the branch of the military that deals with civil issues among the Palestinian residents.

Maj. Guy Inbar, spokesman for Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, said emphatically that the Nassar family owns neither the area where the orchard was located nor parts of the area where they host the summer camp and other activities.

At the end of March, the Nassar family found a paper file on a rock in their field informing them that the orchard was on state land and was slated to be removed.

"They don't deliver it by hand. Here, we are trying always to look for papers," Daoud said. "They put it in a file; they put it on the ground or on a rock and another stone on it. So people are lucky to find those papers, actually, because sometimes the wind blows them away."

Daoud said their lawyer immediately appealed the decision, claiming the orchard was private land belonging to the Nassar family. The appeal was filed on May 12, and it was stamped.

Inbar explained that the lawyer's claim may have been stamped that it was received, but it was not stamped that it was accepted. He said that the Nassars' lawyer filed the appeal incorrectly and did not pay the required fees, rendering it void. The Nassars said they did not know there were any issues with the filing until they woke up and the trees were gone.

Here is where the finger-pointing begins. Daher claims the Civil Administration destroyed 1,500 trees; Inbar says 350. Daher says they didn't count the young saplings. Daher says the family planted some of the fruit trees 12 years ago; Inbar counters with aerial photographs that show an empty field until 2007. Daher insists the land belongs to his family; Inbar answers that a five-year-long court process in the military court decided in 2012 that the Nassar family did not sufficiently prove ownership for the orchard area.

"We sent them a stop work order [on the orchard] in 2009," Inbar told NCR. "There were attempts to appeal, but the Appeals Committee said they have to prove ownership over the land, but of course they couldn't because it was state land. So the Appeals Committee denied their appeal for the orchard because they couldn't prove ownership. They were supposed to remove the trees themselves, but when they didn't we acted to remove them."

There is a demolition order against the 13 tents the Nassar family uses for summer camp. "He's trying to use this issue as a platform to talk about his other issues," Inbar said. "This is an illegal project that's partly on state land and partly on private land. Even if it's his own land, he can't just build whatever he wants. He doesn't have permits. We also put a stop work order and a demolition order. There's an ongoing High Court of Justice case on this. We're not planning to do anything because there's a court process. ... We are in a country that follows the law and we will obey those laws."

Inbar added, "It's sad that he's trying to use the two issues which aren't connected to each other -- planting trees on land that doesn't belong to him and a court process over illegal building -- and he's using those two issues to try to fool the media and other organizations and basically tell them lies."

From the bottom up

"We watch the trees grow up as our own children," Daoud said. "Here, it's a very dry environment, when you plant a tree you have to water it three times a week for the first two summers. All the work is done by hand. And of course to see them destroyed is a sad thing."

But there was a difference between the loss of 300 trees when settlers destroyed them in 2002, and the loss of hundreds of trees in 2014: international support.

"We informed the friends of Tent of Nations all over and many people reacted, also in the U.S.," Daoud said. "They sent letters to the State Department, to congressmen, to senators, and the American Consulate came on an official visit to the farm and we took them to the valley. There was a huge international support."

Daoud said their mission of nonviolence and tolerance has resonated across the world, inspiring allies in many countries. Over the summer, almost 100 international volunteers came to help restore the orchard for planting this winter, some for a day and some for a few weeks.

"Of course our country is full of difficult stories. ... But at the end for us this is a place where we can come, learn, and learn about hope in action," Daoud told NCR. "Use our story as a sign of hope for a better future and also a place where people can come, learn, go back home full of inspiration and motivation. Our way of action is based on faith. This is our faith, this is how we grow up believing."

He added, "Of course, the vision is full of challenges and suffering, but we have to remember the suffering of the cross is not the end of the story. It is the pathway into a new situation. This is how we see it here. We do whatever we can within our capacities in this very difficult situation, and whatever we can achieve we try to invest in the new generation. That's why we always say in small steps we can continue -- together in small steps we will make a difference."

After the heartbreak of summer, the land continues through the cycle of seasons. The almond harvest began in the middle of August, and the grape harvest started the first week in September. "It is tough to live in a difficult situation and say we refuse to be enemies," Daoud said. "But this is our meaning of nonviolent resistance -- you can't just say it, you have to live it."

Slowly, with the help of volunteers, they are beginning to rebuild the terraces in the valley, to loosen the bulldozer-packed dirt so that the roots can gain a foothold. "This is a place of hope," he tells visitors, over and over.

"We believe that peace should grow from the bottom up," Daoud said, his words echoing in the cave. "Peace will never come from a handshake between the Palestinians and the Israelis at the White House. It should grow like an olive tree, from the bottom up. That's why grassroots work is very important."

"This coming winter we want to plant more than 4,000 trees," he told the group of Christian visitors from Ohio. "This is the hope. When you plant a tree, it's about faith, especially an olive tree, because the first fruits come after 10 years. But we believe. We believe this tree is going to bear fruit."

[Melanie Lidman is a freelance journalist in Israel.]

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 12-25, 2014 print issue under the headline: 'We believe this tree will bear fruit'.

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