PSC member Madeline Buthod is on an Inter-Faith Peace Builder’s delegation and offers us the following testimony…
Today we went to the Tent of Nations, a hilltop farm just outside of Bethlehem. To get there we all piled in the tour bus and headed down an Israeli highway. I’d like to take a minute to explain that the bus has yellow Israeli license plates so we are allowed on these roads which connect illegal settlements to each other and to Israel. It is illegal for Palestinians to use these roads. Having these plates also allows us to go through check points with ease and without being stopped-a luxury not awarded to Palestinians who must show IDs and have proper permits depending on the checkpoint.
As we drove along we could see a nice looking barrier that bordered one side of the highway. From our view it looked like a sound barrier or regular highway wall. It was not. It was part of the giant annexation wall that separates Palestinians from their families, jobs, schools, communities, friends, farms and having a decent livelihood. However, just driving down the road, you’d never guess what it was if you didn’t already know, making it easy for Israelis to ignore it.
Toward the end of our trip we had to transfer onto a Palestinian road to get to the farm. This road was was very narrow, deteriorating and clearly not maintained well. The road ran parallel to the Israeli highway for a brief stretch and the difference was startling. We came to a stop and were told we would need to walk the rest of the way. The group got off the bus and saw that there were giant boulders blocking the road to the farm. It was an intentional road block. The bus could go no further so we had to climb over the giant rocks and hike the rest of the way.
We were greeted at the gate by a member of the Nassar family. He escorted us on the beautiful property where we could see olives, figs and grapes growing. There were colorful murals and mosaics everywhere. It is on the top of a hill and it was hard to miss that in every direction, and on every neighboring hilltop was an illegal Jewish-only settlement. Nassar’s land is now highly coveted and because it is located in the middle of all of these settlements, there farm has been declared a risk to Israeli security. This means that they are not allowed any building permits. They cannot build shelter for their animals or an irrigation system to water their trees. The cannot not even put so much as a tent up. The family lives in caves that are on the property.
Since 1991 they have been in a legal battle with the State of Israel trying to prove ownership of the land. The family is lucky in that their grandfather in a time where many land sales were finaled with a handshake, obtained a deed when he purchased the farm. However, the Israeli government has required much, much more than the deed to show ownership.
After 10 years of fighting legal battles in court, the family was notified that because their lawyer was Palestinian, he could not represent them in Israeli court. Everything in the case was thrown out and had to begin again once they obtained a Palestinian lawyer with Israeli citizenship.Then the list of needed documents began to grow.
They were required to submit an aerial picture of their land. In order to do this the family needed to hire a helicopter pilot to fly above and get the pictures. This was exceptionally costly. The needed to obtain the Ottoman papers that proved ownership. In order to get these, their lawyer flew to Istanbul and was miraculously able to obtain the required documents. The Israeli government wanted to hear from witnesses who were around when the Nassar family bought the land. The family interviewed and found about 20 elderly farmers who remembered the land purchase. They rented a bus, set out at 5 am, drove for 3 hours around the giant annexation walls and through check points to get to Jerusalem on time for the court date. After waiting many hours, they were told witnesses were not needed.
To date they have complied with all procedures and provided all the needed documentation. Their case is still in the court system 23 years later. Settlers have cut down hundreds of trees and punctured water receptacles, the Israeli government has served them with at least 14 demolition notices, and as recently as May 2014, 1,500 of their fruit trees were bulldozed and buried at the height of harvesting season. The family has been offered a blank check for their land in addition to US visas and/or anything they desire. Yet the keep their land. They refuse to sell and work continuously for peace and justice.
They have been able to hold on to their land in part with the help of the international community. European and American volunteers come every year to volunteer on the farm and their presence is a deterrent to Israeli soldiers and settlers who want to intimidate and harass the family. When there were imminent demolitions approaching, writing campaigns to Israel helped buy more time and delay them.
The part of their story and lives that I found most amazing was that they have an absolute commitment to nonviolent resistance. They refuse to have enemies. They invite Jews, Muslims, Christians, anyone, and even settlers if they agree to remove weapons to their farm to work together in gaining understanding. The murals and mosaics around the land were created by the summer camps they hold regularly for children who need an outlet from the Occupation. The Nassar family motto is, “Never give up hope”. In my opinion, they are the epitome of Sumud, which is Arabic for steadfast perseverance.