January 28, 2011 by Frank Rogers
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid” (Mt. 5:14)
On a hill between Bethlehem and Hebron, a light shines for all to see. It is not a city; it is a tiny Palestinian compound of several buildings, a fistful of dwellers, and a hundred acres of rocky soil and hand-planted olive trees. Though tiny, it shines brightly. Its motto is painted beside the entrance gates: “We refuse to be enemies.” We listened to its story hidden in a cave as the leader recounted it. Little did we know, the cave itself was a symbol of nonviolent resistance. Though hidden, its beacon of empowered love lit us all with hope.
What a stark contrast from how the day began. We started the day visiting the ruins of King Herod’s fortress. The puppet ruler under first-century Roman occupation built an obscenely luxurious palace on top of a hill complete with lavish hot baths and gigantic underground pools fed by slaves bearing water pots on their shoulders. Afraid of attack, Herod leveled an entire hilltop next to the fortress and used the dirt to surround his palace creating a crater in which his fortress was nestled. He had reason to fear: he taxed the people with gross injustice, he stole their scarce water through miles-long aqueducts, and he confiscated the prime hilltop land of an occupied and powerless people.
For Palestinians in the West bank, little has changed in two thousand years. Though the Oslo agreement of 1992 clearly designates land in the West Bank for Palestinians, and in outright defiance of international law, Israeli settlements have confiscated Palestinian land, surrounded it with barbed wire, fortressed it with security gates, watch towers, and armed soldiers, and inhabited it with settlers willing to live in the middle of a land not rightly their own. One can hardly blame the settlers. The Israeli government offers extraordinary economic incentive with cheap land, subsidized loans, and opportunities for education and employment. The confiscation of Palestinian land is both illegal and unethical. Prime real estate is arbitrarily designated as state land. The Palestinian inhabitants can appeal but must provide deeds of ownership. In a land that has been occupied by Turks, the British, Jordanians, and now the Israelis, few have such records in tact. When Israelis are pressed to produce similar justification to their possession court documents record such replies as the matter is not the business of the Palestinians, the reasons are for matters of security, or quite simply, that the Bible is their deed. Further, the Israeli settlements seize the water supply, tax the Palestinians without representation, and occupy the prime hilltops inhabited by Palestinians for generations. In addition, many Israelis harass the Palestinians in a blatant effort to scare them off the land altogether. In Hebron, we listened to stories of children harassed at checkpoints, arrests made without warrant or cause, and we saw the chain link netting—stretched over the Palestinian neighborhoods adjacent to settlement property—littered with Israeli garbage and soda bottles filled with urine. To be sure, Palestinian frustration has given rise to periodic acts of violence. Nevertheless, the Palestinians are an occupied territory increasingly surrounded by barbed wire walls and Israeli settlements. In essence, they live in an open air prison.
All the more remarkable then, the story of Daoud Nassar, the leader of the Tent of Nations (www.tentofnations.org). Daoud, a Palestinian Christian, owns the hilltop just outside of Bethlehem that is surrounded by four encroaching Israeli settlements. He is one of the few Palestinian landowners who actually has the deed to his property, in fact has a deed registered with every occupying power all the way back to the Ottoman Empire in 1916. Nevertheless, the Israeli government has sought to confiscate his land. After stunning the appellate court by producing an historic succession of deeds, the government has forced him to endure a series of trials rivaling those of Job. Israeli soldiers have destroyed hundreds of trees in his orchards, harassed him, his wife, and his children through humiliating searches at all hours of the night, demanded dozens of petitions, hundreds of signatures, and scores of witnesses willing to testify at ever-rescheduled court hearings. For twelve years, he has patiently endured the judicial process the entire time denied water, electricity, and building permits until the matter is settled. Daoud has been undaunted. He has created a system of cisterns to gather rain water; he has constructed solar panels for electricity straight from the sun; and instead of building on his property for his expanding operation, he has dug caves into the hillside instead.
But most remarkable is his spirit. How do you respond to an occupier who holds all the power? Daoud described his three options; he could fight back violently; he could submit to the injustice and await the seemingly apathetic international community to apply political pressure on the Israelis; or he could follow the lead of thousands of other Palestinians and simply flee the country altogether. Daoud has done neither. Instead, he has channeled his anger and committed himself to nonviolent resistance and a peace that begins at the grassroots. He believes the only hope is resisting demonizing any involved party and creating relationships that break through the stereotypes and hostilities. He insists to his children that the military police are deep down ‘friendly people;’ he invites Israelis, Palestinians, and Internationals to harvest festivals, arts camps, and reconciliation gatherings; and he facilitates peace circles that reach even toward those persons most difficult for him to refuse to consider as his enemy—the inhabitants of the settlements encroaching ever closer like a persistent cancer. At one such peace circle, an Israeli asked if she could bring her friend who lives in the settlement right across the ridge. Daoud agreed. After sharing his story the settler waved her hand to respond. Daoud feared a confrontation. Instead, the settler shared that she had no idea who her neighbor was. The government had told her it was a Palestinian trespasser too lazy and too defiant to leave. Now she knew the truth. He was a man who loved the land, even more than she did. That Rosh Hashanah, the settler traveled the ridge to Daoud’s hilltop. With tears and a symbolic olive tree planting, they welcomed each other into the New Year. Truly, a light of peace is shining just outside of Bethlehem.