“We Refuse to be Enemies” – Tranquility Surrounded by Tension

by Bill Goldberg

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Sign at entrance to Tent of Nations

Our cross cultural (study abroad) group had the amazing opportunity to spend eight days picking olives, building stone walls, and helping out with construction and maintenance on Tent of Nations, a Palestinian olive orchard owned by Daoud and Dahir Nassar. It is located in the West Bank, between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in an area now known as Gush Etzion, currently consisting of 22 Israeli settlements (Note: settlements are illegal cities in the eyes of most countries of the world, created by Israel in West Bank lands that were left “undecided until later” by the 1992 Oslo agreement and should be part of the state of Palestine).

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Peaceful olive tree

It was a chance to unplug from lectures and academia and to move from tree to tree, picking olives or clearing brush from under the trees and adding mulch. It was a time to work with our hands and sweat and renew our souls. The days were warm (and sometimes hot) and the nights went from cool to downright cold. Sometimes the showers were cold because the solar hot water heater didn’t work.  Sometimes there was no electricity in the morning because it had been a cloudy day and the backup solar batteries didn’t fully charge. But it was peaceful.  We had a chance to further get to know our students and to process what we had been hearing for the last two months from Israelis, Palestinians, Druze, Bedouins, and other Americans visiting or living in this country.

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Freshly picked olives

There isn’t much else you can do when picking olives other than process your thoughts, talk about life, tell and hear stories of adventures and misadventures, and sing show tunes (Hamilton and GodSpell topped the list).

One of the most beautiful times I had at Tent of Nations was listening to the Muslim Call for Prayer as it traveled across the valley. The Call to Prayer occurs five times per day (5am is not usually my most favorite time to hear it).  Alaa, my friend and one of our guides, told us that because the time of prayer is linked to the earth’s rotation, it starts at different times as the earth rotates and thus it goes on continuously around the world.  On our first night at Tent of Nations, I was by myself at a high point of land. I heard the Call to Prayer in several villages, as if it was a prayer sung in rounds. From right to left, it stopped in one place, then another, and then another and the land got quieter and quieter.  I was actually hearing the Call to Prayer as it traveled around the globe, hearing it end a few seconds apart in each village along the way.  It was magical.

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However, at the same time that we were in this peaceful place of refuge, we were almost constantly aware of the tensions and concerns caused by the five Israeli settlements that directly surround Tent of Nations and continue to expand, not into the empty countryside on the far side of the farm, but towards Tent of Nations. The constant jackhammering, truck noises, and other building noises sometimes made it difficult to unplug from the conflict around us.  It was like being in the eye of a hurricane.


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Dahir Nassar (62) showing us around cave his family lived in when he was a child.

First, some history on Tent of Nations.  This Palestinian olive orchard is about 100 acres in size and contains nearly 2,000 olive trees as well as apple trees and apricot trees and fig trees and grape vines. The owners, the Nassar family, have a title to their land that goes back to 1916, when the Ottoman Empire controlled the area (this is rare). In 1991, the state of Israel tried to remove the Nassar family by declaring the land “state” land, mainly because they wanted the mountaintop for a settlement. The Nassar family sued to keep the property it had owned for 75 years and since then, the case has been in both military court (since Area C in the West Bank is under Israeli military administration) and Israel’s Supreme Court. We have discussed the different “Areas” of the West Bank and their sovereignty or lack thereof in other blogs.  But for a quick understanding, click here.

As you read the next part of the story, many of you will find it difficult to believe. I can already hear some of the comments. “This cannot happen in a country with laws.” “People aren’t that cruel.” “There must be more to the story.” Maybe you will think the Nassar family are bad people and the Israeli government is trying to keep the 100,000 plus settlers (who have guns) safe from the 47- and 62-year-old brothers (who don’t have decent shovels and trowels, much less guns) and their cadre of four to eight international volunteers from the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and the UK.  Yeah . . . really scary bunch. But it’s true. And it’s sad.

As I noted above, Tent of Nations is currently surrounded by five settlements. The road to Tent of Nations that goes by one of the settlements (Neve Daniel) has been blocked by the Israeli military for “security” reasons. This makes it impossible to drive from a main road directly to the entrance of Tent of Nations. The blockade of rubble two to three feet high is a 1/4 to 1/2 mile walk from the entrance of Tent of Nations, making it difficult for some older people and anyone with difficulty walking to visit. There is a Palestinian village between Tent of Nations and the city of Bethlehem, and there is a winding road from Bethlehem through the village that does still allow direct access, but it takes much longer and large buses cannot make it up that road.  Eventually, the wall separating Israel and Palestine is going to cut that village off from Bethlehem, killing the livelihood of people from the village who work in Bethlehem and removing the last passable road into the village and Tent of Nations.

Every few years the Israeli military has come to destroy trees.  The last time they did that was in 2014, when they destroyed over 100 apricot and apple trees two weeks before they were ready to be picked. The Israeli military did not have orders to do this.  The Nassar family sued the Israeli military for the destruction of the trees. Even if they win (doubtful), fruit trees take years to grow.

A word about the court cases.  It is illegal for Palestinians to build houses or barns or sheds or even build onto existing houses without a building permit in Area C of the West Bank.  And the Israeli military administration that controls this part of the West Bank rarely if ever gives building permits to Palestinians. What occurs is the following:

  1. A Palestinian submits a building permit request and is denied by the Israeli military administration that controls Area C in the West Bank.
  2. The Palestinian appeals the denial, repays the permit fees, and is again denied.
  3. The Palestinian builds a structure (house, barn, shed, outhouse, chicken coop, solar array) because when the family grows or you have a new business, you need a new room, solar power, an outhouse, etc.
  4. The military administration issues a demolition order to destroy the new structure.
  5. The Palestinian protests in military court (since they are under Israeli military administration in Area C) to prevent the demolition.
  6. They lose because they built without a permit that they cannot get.
  7. The case eventually goes to the Israeli Supreme Court that should rule in favor of the Palestinians, but instead refers the case back to the military administration because it would be political suicide to rule in favor of the Palestinian or just because the judges don’t like Palestinians.
  8. The military administration asks the Palestinian to resubmit a building permit request and of course, pay all of the permit fees again.
  9. Repeat above, starting with step 5.

This goes on and on, over and over again, until either the Palestinian runs out of money for lawyers and court expenses or misses a filing date for paperwork (land surveys and engineering diagrams for all new structures expire in six months and must be redone every single time there is an appeal).  Tent of Nations has spent almost $200,000 on legal expenses since 1991 thanks to generous international donors.  If you are a farmer or know a farmer, ask them what they could do with $200,000 to improve their farm.

But life goes on.  And olives need to be picked. And fruit trees need to be tended. And that’s why we were there.  We are also there to be a witness.  Until 2001, when the first international volunteer stayed long-term at Tent of Nations, settlers would harass the Nassar family.  They would harass workers picking olives. They would burn trees. They might even shoot their guns in the direction of Tent of Nations. And they would try to move large metal packing crates onto the land so they could then claim they live there, start an outpost to become a settlement, and take the land that way.  The farm is never left unoccupied.  Even in the dead of winter, someone lives there.  Because an unoccupied farm can be confiscated or settlers will again move a packing crate in and start to claim the land as their own.  Settlers have been doing that for a long time all over the West Bank.

It is a stressful and difficult life in a beautiful setting. So the next time you use olive oil, think of Tent of Nations and the hassle they go through on a daily basis for that olive oil you are using.  And if you are in Israel , you should definitely visit and spend the night.

It is a magical place!

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