The land of milk and honey, and wanton destruction
‘An oasis of calm in the midst of chaos’ is how people often describe the Tent of Nations, a farm owned by the Nassar family in occupied Palestine. It is a unique place – sitting atop a hill to the west of Bethlehem and overlooking the village of Nahalin.
On 20 May – days before the Pope’s prayers at the separation wall and his call for peace – Dauod Nassar wrote this on the farm’s Facebook page:
The valley before...
‘Today at 8.00, Israeli bulldozers came to the fertile valley of the farm where we planted fruit trees 10 years ago, and destroyed the terraces and all our trees there. More than 1,500 apricot, carob and apple trees as well as grape plants were smashed and destroyed.’
The Nassars had recently found a document from the Israeli Civil Administration left on their property which declared that the trees were planted on ‘state land’, constituting trespass, and therefore should be ‘evacuated’.
On 12 May the family, who have owned the land since 1916, filed an appeal with Israel’s Military Court against the order; the trees were planted on private land for which they hold the documents, explains Bshara Nassar. They have been trying to (re)register their land with the Supreme Court since 1991 but the process has been delayed numerous times.
Under Israeli law, it is illegal to demolish structures or evacuate defendants while an appeal is being deliberated. The destruction of the trees a week after the appeal was filed violates these conditions and the Nassars have been advised to pursue compensation. But the damage has been done. The reason behind the tree-clearing is, says Bshara, ‘to facilitate the construction of a road that will connect the [Israeli] settlements.’
This is not the first time that the Nassar family have experienced threatened or real annexation of their land.
In 1991 the Israeli government declared the whole area, including the Tent of Nations, to be Israeli ‘state land’. Employing archaic Ottoman-era laws, the Israeli Civil Administration states that if Palestinians do not plant on their land for three years, they give up their right to it, even if they have been forbidden from accessing it. Using these methods, Palestinian land has been seized to construct the separation wall and build settlements. But the Nassars have cultivated their land for decades, meaning that, under the same Ottoman laws, this should exempt it from being turned over to the state.
Given that it is flouting its own regulations, it is clear how strategic the farm’s location is to the Israeli administration, and how desperately it wants it gone. It is surrounded by four illegal Israeli settlements and they continue to expand at an alarming rate. Were it not for the farm, it is likely that the surrounding Gush Etzion settlement bloc would have grown far larger.
The carrot and the stick
Israeli authorities are able to declare state ownership and annex the Nassars’ land relatively easily because the farm is situated in Area C – land under Israeli civil and military control.
Surveying the damage
Life in Area C means intimidation, harassment and insecurity. The family have remained steadfast in spite of numerous tactics to coerce them into leaving their land. One of these tactics is the Civil Administration’s cowardly bureaucracy whereby official documents are simply left somewhere on the 100-acre farm by Israeli soldiers rather than being handed to a family member. When the documents are then discovered by volunteers or family members days, even weeks, later, they often have little time left to appeal. As well as declaring that the land is state owned, previous documents have stated that the farm’s temporary structures (tents) are illegal.
Intimidation comes directly from the Israeli military – soldiers who, like those on Tuesday 20 May, come to destroy trees regardless of any due process in the courts. It also comes from Israelis from the nearest settlement – Neve Daniel – who have destroyed 800 trees and trespassed in recent years, acting with impunity.
Then there are punitive measures: prohibiting the farm from connecting to the water and electricity grids, and roadblocks that prevent vehicles from accessing the main road. The roadblocks result in an otherwise 10-minute journey into Bethlehem taking half an hour via a ‘humanitarian tunnel’ – the road that the family, along with nearby villagers, are forced to take adjacent to an Israeli-only road.
The Nassars are forbidden to build on their land. Along with most other Palestinians living in Area C, they require permits from the Israeli authorities, which have only been granted in 6 per cent of cases over recent years rarely granted. Instead, the family relies on underground caves and temporary structures to house volunteers and farm equipment.
The final tactic the occupying power has resorted to in the hope of annexing the Tent of Nations is bribery. The family was offered a blank cheque a number of years ago for them to leave. Needless to say, they refused.
A just cause
Happier times - spring 2012
To counter the Israeli administration’s disdain for peace and justice, the Nassar family conduct themselves with humility and compassion through their slogan: ‘We refuse to be enemies.’ And support for the farm is growing daily – this devastating blow has simply inspired the Tent of Nations’ vast network of past and present volunteers, groups and churches over the world to offer up prayers, blog posts, awareness-raising and donations.
The Nassars are not alone in their struggle and resistance. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley, in the South Hebron Hills and Bedouin communities in the Neqab desert in Israel are fighting demolition orders and eviction notices as the Israeli authorities seek to seize yet more land through declarations of state ownership and military firing zones.
'We refuse to be enemies'
The situation requires urgent action from all citizens who believe in human rights and who heed the Palestinians’ call for solidarity. Because by the time it becomes politically acceptable to voice support for Palestine, there may be no fruit trees left.
Ella David is a pseudonym. Ella spent three months in 2011 living and working at the Tent of Nations farm and has returned to Palestine several times since.
All photographs with the exception of the poppies image is from the Tent of Nations' facebook page. The poppies image is by Ella David.