July 29, 2009
2 Days in Bethlehem
Daoud Nassar is talking to a large group of Jews gathered on his 100-acre farm in the West Bank, which lies southwest of his native Bethlehem. Nassar explains that his property has no running water, no electricity, and he’s forbidden from building on it. An Arab-Christian Palestinian educated in Austria and Germany, Nassar lives on land purchased by his great-grandfather in 1916, which has remained in the family throughout Ottoman rule, the British Mandate and Jordanian control. In 1991, Israel declared his farm property of the state and pulled the plug on its utilities. Twice, neighboring Israeli settlers damaged his property, uprooting trees and puncturing a water tank. For the past 12 years, Nassar has been embroiled in an expensive legal battle trying to win back ownership — or, at least, a building permit. So far, he has only succeeded in accruing more than $140,000 in legal fees, an amount barely offset by growing almonds, olives and grapes.
“The land doesn’t belong to anybody. We all belong to the land,” Nassar tells the 40-member group. Still, he believes in his right to pursue legal ownership, though he admits he has considered alternatives: giving up, emigrating or responding with violence. Instead, Nassar has chosen to circumvent the system. He relies on a solar-powered generator and rainwater. He calls his land “The Tent of Nations” and uses it to teach peace.
Nevertheless, he says, Israeli authorities still threaten to demolish tents he uses to host visitors, and they continue to build the separation wall that will eventually cut him off from the nearest Palestinian town. “This place will be an island,” he says. “Maybe an island for peace,” he adds hopefully.
Nassar says he doesn’t want Israeli citizenship; he is Palestinian, which he views as a distinct ethnic nation. “I don’t accept to be disconnected from my own people, my own history,” he says. “I’m proud and happy to be a Palestinian.”
I met Nassar as part of an Encounter trip, a two-day program that allows Diaspora Jewish leaders to dialogue with Palestinians. Our group, including every denomination and political leaning, visited the area around Bethlehem and heard from Palestinian peace activists, political leaders and civilians. Most we met were Christians, though a handful were Muslim. Because travel to Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank is forbidden to Israelis, we were asked to conceal signs of Jewishness, and Hebrew was spoken only in private. At night, Palestinian families hosted us in their homes.
Leila Sansour, in her 30s, comes from a prominent Palestinian family and was educated abroad. She laid out the geopolitics from atop a rocky hill in Beit Jala, adjacent to Bethlehem. “Those are the Jewish settlements,” she said, pointing out Har Homa and Har Gilo, which stand out like islands in the bleak West Bank landscape. She described the settlements as choking Bethlehem, explaining they often require demolition of Palestinian homes and surrender of territory. Sansour founded Open Bethlehem, an organization that seeks to reclaim the city from the Israeli settlements that surround it.
Israel’s security wall runs through the territory, dividing the West Bank from the rest of Israel. To the naked eye, it also separates the green and flourishing from the dusty and desolate. Instead of a straight line between contiguous territories, the wall snakes around Israeli settlements, crowding Palestinian land and impeding mobility. Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks are everywhere; Palestinians cannot visit Jerusalem without a permit, which is difficult to obtain. Many families are cut off from relatives and denied access to their holy sites. Even travel within Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank is subject to Israeli oversight. One afternoon, as we played a game with our Palestinian hosts, I learned that many young Palestinians have never seen the Mediterranean Sea.
“We live in a prison,” says Marina Saeh, an Arabic teacher in Beit Sahour who shares a three-bedroom apartment with her daughter, where they spend most of their time. We arrive late at night, but Saeh invites her neighbors to join us for a cup of tea. We sit in the living room, a portrait of the Virgin Mary hanging above us. Saeh’s neighbors, a bank teller and a university administrator, appear exhausted and depressed. He has been caring for his elderly mother, who is dying of cancer in a Jerusalem hospital. He spent weeks obtaining a permit to visit her and has to renew it every five days. It takes between two and four hours to get through the checkpoint, and his wife isn’t allowed to visit at all.
The next day, Saeh prepares us breakfast with fried eggs and pita, olives she cures herself, cheese and fruit jams. She talks of her three sons in the United States, each with advanced degrees in medicine and engineering. She rarely sees them, but depends on them to help pay her $300 rent. Family photos cover almost every wall of her home, and she shows us a portrait of her late husband. When he died, her eldest son traveled to bury his father, but was stopped at the Jordan airport (Palestinians without Israeli citizenship cannot travel through Ben-Gurion Airport). Citing passport complications, Israeli authorities would not let him into the country. “I called everyone, all the way to the Ministry of Tourism, begging. He was so close, but they refused to stamp his passport.”
Saeh’s greatest worry is for her daughter, Grace, 30, unemployed despite a degree in hospitality management. Grace dreams of getting married, but there are barely any social options in town — no clubs or cafes where singles can gather — so she spends most of her time on Facebook. “There is no future here; all the jobs are in Israel,” Saeh tells me. She hopes Grace will be accepted to an American university and can leave the West Bank permanently.
Around midday, the group walks the perimeter of the separation wall that cuts through Bethlehem. Known in Israel as a security fence, here it is a 25-foot-high wall of thick slabs of concrete topped with barbed wire and lined with trenches on both sides. It is ominous and threatening. Since it has gone up, suicide bombings have fallen sharply in Israel, but to the civilians stuck on the other side, it feels like a cage.
Two Palestinian teenage boys approach me at the base of one of the wall’s giant surveillance towers selling postcards. In broken English, we eke out a conversation about Hollywood movies (which they see) and Diesel jeans (which they’re wearing), but beyond that I realize they have no access to the things I’m asking about. “What do you wish for?” I ask Amar. “Nothing,” he replies.
“But wouldn’t you like to see change?” I persist.
No, he says. “I don’t want anything to change.”
Alex Khatab, an advisory counsel to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), who is half Palestinian, half English, presents us with maps showing a shrinking Palestinian land mass and a growing population. He cites facts and statistics about Palestinian land demolition, Israeli control of water, the devastating effects “occupation” has had on Palestinian industry and how many civilians have been killed by Israeli soldiers.
“In this environment of desperation and despair, security is never going to happen,” Khatab says. He offers the PLO’s conditions for a Palestinian state: East Jerusalem as the capital, return to 1967 borders, control of access points and airspace, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees — though he adds that his vision of Palestinian statehood includes cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis.
“I want to challenge the idea that Palestinians don’t support a Jewish state and want to reclaim the land for their own — and that the occupation is the result of ongoing Palestinian violence,” he says. “Palestinians hate the occupation; they don’t hate Israel; they don’t hate Jews. We recognize Israel and respect its sovereignty, and we want to be a state living side by side.”
Leaving Bethlehem is not as easy as entering. We were warned we would be stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, just as Palestinians are.
When we entered the checkpoint, however, it wasn’t crowded. I barely flashed my passport before an Israeli soldier smiled and let me pass. After two days of hearing how hard this process is for others, I felt some misgivings, but as I walked through, I also felt gratitude to the soldier who stood guard. Because every day she has to confront the harsh realities of living in the land, while I was only passing through.