On a hilltop in the West Bank, just a few miles from Bethlehem and the security wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian Territories, there is a farm that goes by the name ‘Tent of Nations’. The Nassar’s are a Christian family who have owned this land for generations and they are among the few who can prove it, having gone through the trouble of seeking documentation when this part of the world was still governed by the Ottoman Empire.
Despite the evidence, and their permanent residency on the farm, this hilltop was claimed by the Israeli state in 1991, putting the Nassar’s in a legal battle that continues to this day. Even though they are well within what is internationally recognized as the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, Israel has built a network of settlements all around the Nassar family, leaving the Tent of Nations as a small Palestinian island in an area otherwise entirely annexed by Israel.
Court battles that have racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees are just one way the Nassar’s feel the pressure to leave their land. Other means are not so civil. Waking up to find their trees burned or cut down is common, as are obscure confiscation notices posted on the perimeter of the property that, if not found and responded to in a given number of days, give Israel the legal authority to confiscate the land
. When we visited the Tent of Nations, our bus dropped us off at a series of boulders that we had to climb over before walking a few hundred yards down a dirt road to get to the property. The rocks were a gift from the IDF, denying the Nassar’s any access to the main road in another statement that life here is not going to be easy. Whenever they try to build on their property they receive Stop-Work orders, and notices denying them the right to cultivate their farmland are common.
Yet, despite such an intimidation campaign, the words painted on rock at the entrance to the farm are ‘We refuse to be enemies.’ This has become the Nassar family motto, despite the reality that enemies surround them on all sides.
“Resistance is existence… Nonviolence is not a strategy but a way of life”, notes the mouth of Daoud Nassar, our host for the afternoon. Here, one can see this in action. Tent of Nations has no access to running water so they are constantly improving their systems for collecting rain. They have no access to the electrical grid so solar panels dot the property. They have received 13 demolition permits for construction projects without building permits, which are never accepted when applied for, so the Nassar’s have .built into the land, carving small classrooms and dormitories (the farm hosts educational summer camps for children of all faiths) out of the rock, out of sight from Israeli aerial surveillance.
The Nassar’s example of peace in the face of all odds has earned their plight some deserved international attention. When Israeli settlers destroyed 250 of their olive trees, it was an American Jewish organization that came to replant them. Like Elias Chacour, it is a fervent faith that drives the Nassar’s to have such an extremist approach to peace. When IDF soldiers drove through their gate – literally through, knocking the gate to the ground – Daoud met the officer in charge with an offer of tea, as custom dictates. “Blessed are the peacemakers, not the peace talkers”, Daoud teaches us.
The Tent of Nations is one of our final stops of the week and, despite all the ‘holy’ sites visited, this feels like the most hallowed ground, where nonviolence meets oppression nearly every day. It’s fitting therefore that Daher Nassar, Daoud’s older brother, is leading us in a chorus of ‘We Shall Overcome’. A rock star, three pastors, and about a dozen other church leaders singing words we hope will be prophetic for the Nassar family. Our performance is far from award winning but nevertheless, it is a prayer for peace that all would do well to hear.