Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses to shade himself from the early May sun, Daoud Nassar strolls down the dusty path on his family’s 101-year-old hilltop farm. In every direction he looks, he can see the ever-expanding Israeli settlements with their white multistory buildings and neat red-tiled roofs in the distance.
“Once an Israeli couple was hiking around here and found the farm. The first thing the woman said was: ‘We are neighbors.’ And I said ‘Yes, neighbors—but we should be equal,’ ” said Nassar without a trace of rancor.
For 25 years the Nassar family has been embroiled in a legal battle to protect their property from confiscation by the Israeli government. Despite the frustration and constant struggles, they have made their farm—the last Palestinian-controlled hilltop in the area—a symbol of peace simply by farming their land and welcoming guests and volunteers of all nationalities and religions.
They are also the only Christian family that remains in the area. The Nassars are members of Christmas Lutheran in Bethlehem (a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land).
The farm was renamed in 1992 as Tent of Nations to honor the biblical tent where everyone was welcome, traditionally believed to have been set up not far from this area by Abraham. Today it’s an expression of the tenacity, faith, determination and love—for each other, for all the people of this land and for the land itself—with which this Lutheran Palestinian family keeps fighting to preserve their farm while maintaining the Christian principles of tolerance upon which they were raised.
Their father, Bishara, was a leading lay preacher and dreamed of using his land for a peace project, said Nassar. They fulfilled his dream and older brother Daher, 62, holds monthly prayer meetings in their cave chapel.
“We believe in justice and we believe that the sun of justice will rise again giving hope,” Nassar said. “We created the Tent of Nations to invert our frustrations into something constructive. Our motto, ‘We Refuse to Be Enemies,’ is an active way of [practicing] nonviolent resistance. Many people face [the] problem of land confiscation, but our way is trying to find solutions even in a difficult situation.”
“God did not make us to hate each other”
As settlements expand, Daoud and his brother Daher continue to manage the farm their family has no intention of leaving. Their hilltop southwest of Bethlehem is located in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has retained full civil land-related matters and security control.
Forbidden to connect to an electrical grid or build new buildings, the Nassars have turned to innovative solutions. The family put up solar panels to provide electricity, depends largely on rainwater for potable water, uses recycled gray water for irrigation and provides large canvas tents to bunk volunteers.
They can’t build, so they revamp what exists and repurpose the original caves used by his grandparents, said Nassar. Wherever there is a barrier placed, they find a way to surmount it. They look at their difficulties as small challenges, he said.
“Love your neighbor like you love yourself is a big commandment, but how do you go about doing that?” Nassar asked. “Loving myself means I am committed to love the other. God did not make us to hate each other.”
Still, he acknowledged that they deal with daily frustrations.
Despite the 22 outstanding demolition orders for structures on their farm, which they have appealed, they refuse to give up hope. All their requests to build legally have been refused with no explanation. “Even if we are not allowed to build anything here, not even a shed, it is enough to bring people together,” Nassar said.
“We Refuse to Be Enemies”
When their land was first threatened with confiscation in 1991, the Nassars were able to oppose the move in court because their grandfather had registered his property in 1916 with the Ottoman rulers of the time. Many farmers didn’t register their land to avoid paying property taxes. So unlike other Palestinian landowners, the Nassar family has documents that prove the land belongs to them, and to this day they have not lost any of it.
However, their legal expenses, which have been paid in part by individual donors and friends, have reached $200,000. They have been physically attacked by settlers, hundreds of fruit trees have been uprooted and their water tank was destroyed. Once, the Israeli army attempted to pave a road through their property. Each time the Nassar family counteracts with a legal response and takes a constructive action on their farm—like planting more trees or repairing agriculture terraces.
When a Jewish European group helped sponsor the replanting of 250 uprooted trees several years ago, the family saw it as a sign of hope that they weren’t alone in their struggle for justice, Nassar said. “We believe there is another way of nonviolent resistance,” he said.
The three teenage Nassar children study in Bethlehem, where Nassar keeps another house, and come to the farm on weekends and for the summer holiday to help out in their summer camp for children from the surrounding towns and refugee camps. The Nassar matriarch, Meladeh, 80, also lives full-time on the farm she came to as a young bride and where she remained with her seven children after her husband passed away in 1976. Daher and sister, Amal, 55, also help run the farm.
“When people live under a difficult political reality with no hope for the future, their first option is to react with violence. But what can people achieve with violence, except for more violence?” said Nassar. “The second option is to sit down and cry and give up and become the victim, and wait for someone else to come help them. But that is dangerous because with victimhood comes blaming others. And the third is to pick up and leave—but that is also not a solution,” said Nassar.
“Faith is the base that makes them strong”
His conviction, Nassar said, is based on four pillars: the refusal to become victims; the refusal to hate; the belief that their Christian faith, which has been transferred from generation to generation, is the center of their nonviolent resistance; and their belief in justice.
Instead of turning towards anger and hate, it is important to the Nassars as a Christian family to turn their struggle into something positive and to empower themselves—even in a situation like in 2014 when the military uprooted hundreds of their apricot trees two weeks before the harvest, despite a pending legal appeal. They were able to replace many of the trees thanks to international support, including from American Jewish friends who came to help plant trees.
During the first intifada (uprising) when Palestinian universities were closed, Nassar went to study at a Bible college in Austria. Though he hoped to remain longer due to the political situation back home, he returned earlier than anticipated because he couldn’t work to finance further studies. He feels that it may have been God’s plan for him to return when he did in August 1991 because the struggle for the farm began a few months later.
But his time abroad provided him with a new perspective, and soon after returning he met his wife Jihan, who had spent time studying computer science abroad, at church. Now the two are a mutual support system for each other. Jihan also runs a women’s empowerment project in a nearby village.
“He is everything,” said Jihan, when asked to describe Nassar and his work, her voice catching at the back of her throat and tears welling up in her eyes. “He has a good heart and has so much intelligence. He loves everybody and he loves this land. He gets his power from his mother … and the love of the land from his father.”
“The Tent of Nations has changed me. It has taught me to look at what another human being needs.”
Near the building used as a communal kitchen, volunteers have just finished having their lunch, prepared by Jihan. A volunteer from Holland stops to consult with Nassar about logistics for cleaning and sanitary supplies, and another volunteer coordinates with him for a prayer service soon to take place in their cave chapel. Other visitors wait for a moment to sit down with Nassar and learn more about the workings of the farm. Even-tempered, Nassar deals with everybody with equal amounts of patience and efficiency.
Elisabeth van der Waal, another Dutch volunteer who came to help at the farm, said she ultimately discovered a sense of hope there that she needed in her life. “Faith is the base that makes [the Nassars] strong and helps them face everything they have to face here,” she said. “They espouse the deep belief of not being enemies, but to act like a friend, with love. … The Tent of Nations has changed me. It has taught me to look at what another human being needs.”
Today Nassar has a new dream as well. He hopes to create an environmental school on the farm to teach Palestinians about ecology, farming and recycling.
The road to the farm may have been blocked by the Israeli government, he said, but the garbage strewn all around was thrown by Palestinians. People always say they are willing to die for the land, but he would rather they live for the land, Nassar said. He wondered: “What kind of respect is shown for the land if garbage is thrown out like that?”
“My idea is that even it if is difficult, I can make a difference,” he said. “You can make a difference. Act differently, positively. Don’t sit down and cry and be the victim. You can create something positive from the negative. And so we continue with our faith, love and hope in action.”