“I would not have believed them,” Rupert Neudeck, founder of the NGO Green Helmets, after Israeli government bulldozers leveled large sections of Tent of Nations,an internationally-known and respected peace project located on the 100-acre Nassar family farm near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.
Tent of Nations came under apparently unprovoked attack on May 19. Between 1,500 and 2,000 mature, fruit-bearing apricot and apple trees and grape vines were destroyed along with terraced land, according to numerous reports. The land has been in the Nassar family since 1916 and the current owner, Daoud Nassar, 44, works the only hilltop farm between Bethlehem and Hebron in “Sector C” of the West Bank that is not occupied by Israeli settlers.
Tent of Nations operates by the motto, “We Refuse to Be Enemies,” hosting international visitors and volunteers, offering activities for local youth, and running educational projects for women in a nearby village. The Nassar family has papers showing purchase of the land by Daher Nassar in 1916 and has been working through Israeli military and civil courts for more than 20 years to re-register the land in their name.
In late April, the Israeli Military authorities placed a warning on the land declaring that the trees were planted on “State Land” and should be “evacuated.” Nassar filed an appeal on May 5. The May 19 destruction took place without warning.
“The situation of the Nassar family is but one of countless examples of Palestinians who live under the threat of land confiscation or whose land has already been taken by the Israeli government,”said Friends of Tent of Nations North America (FOTONNA). “B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, reports on the process by which Israel takes control of Palestinian land, explaining, ‘The principal tool used to take control of land is to declare it ‘state land.’... Other methods employed by Israel to take control of land include seizure for military needs, declaration of land as ‘abandoned assets,’ and the expropriation of land for public needs.’”
“No place in the Israeli-occupied zone C in the West Bank was so strongly under German protection as the property of Daoud Nassar,” said Neudeck. “The chancellor's office kept an eye on the property, the German ambassador to Israel and, not least, many parishes in Germany.”
Tent of Nations “is a lighthouse,” Neudeck added. “The people there get an idea that it is so and eagerly come to help.” In recent years the Green Helmets have built a small solar system and helped construct a training center on the farm.
It’s uncertain whether the bulldozers were driven by radical settlers or the Israeli army, but what was cherished in this dry land laboriously for decades, is now destroyed.
“We are fighting for this vineyard since 1991,” Daoud Nassar said during a visit years ago. As the legal dispute over Nassar’s deed to the land has dragged on, Israeli military authorities have taken harsher and harsher measures. In 2012, they tried to ban all work on parts of the farm.
But Daoud Nassar will not vanish. The basic family means a lot to him: “I cannot sell my mother,” he says, adding that he has had “no shortage of offers to buy.”
If the Nassar family goes, the neighboring, predominantly Muslim inhabited village of Nahalin would be completely surrounded by Israeli settlements. Presumably, Israeli government pressure on the village would increase.
Daoud Nassar feels committed to the legacy of his father: the idea of a private, personal peace project. “It should end the old saw ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’” he said. “We want to show Palestinians that there is another way.”
For the project, Daoud ― who was born in Beit Dschala and attended schools in Austria and Germany to study tourism management ― needs strong nerves. When Israeli authorities refused to provide his little house on the hill with water, the family reactivated an old cistern. And when power to the farm was cut off, Green Helmets installed the solar system.
But this is not simply peaceful resistance. Nassar remembers how 1,500 ancient olive trees were similarly destroyed a number of years ago. Even more serious than the physical destruction was the mental pain. Nassar said angry settlers repeatedly shouted at him: “What are you doing here between Jews and Muslims. Both do not like you.”
As Israel claims more and more Palestinian land for themselves and ratchets up the pressure on Arabs, the Christian population in this biblical land is dwindling alarmingly. A study conducted by Palestinian sociologist Bernard Sabella indicates that as many as 62 percent of the Christians in Jerusalem would emigrate to other countries if they could.
Daoud Nassar wants none of all that. He still hopes for a peaceful coexistence and is encouraged partly by Jewish support. After the earlier attack, a European group, Jews for Justice for Palestine, bought seedlings and helped re-plant the Nassar vineyard
In the wake of the most recent destruction, Nassar is confident that friends of the Tent of Nations will once again rally behind his vision for peace.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness has sent out an action alert urging Presbyterians to “write your senators and representative and urge them to ask the State Department to question the Israeli government about the destruction of the Nassar property, to insist that the Israeli military conduct no further destructive action on the property, and to raise with the Israeli government the broader issue of their confiscation of Palestinian land.”