Sowing steadfastness, harvesting hope

Flowering tree stands in front of landscape with Israeli settlement on horizon

Across from the Nassar family’s land is Neve Daniel, one of five Israeli settlement colonies surrounding the farm.

The view from Daher Nassar’s farm southwest of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank is very different from what it was when he was a child.

Pointing to the five Israeli settlements that surround the farm, he asked, “People come from outside and they can build houses and here I’m not allowed to build one house.”

Smiling middle-aged man stands in front of farming equipment

Daher Nassar grew up on the farm purchased by his grandfather. He runs an organic farm on the 100 acres of land called “Daher’s Vineyard.”

Daher’s family has farmed and lived on their 100 acres of land ever since his grandfather purchased it a hundred years ago this month. The Nassars marked the centennial with a week of celebrations.

“When my grandfather bought the land in 1916 he registered it, so we got papers from the Ottomans and we kept re-registering the land with the British, then the Jordanians, and finally the Israelis,” explained Daher’s brother, Daoud.

Daher Nassar stands in front of a memorial to his grandfather Bishara Daher Nassar, who devoted his life to the farm. 

Despite the documentation of ownership, the Nassar family has been fighting a long legal battle to keep hold of their farm, ever since it was classified as “Israeli state land” in 1991.

Meanwhile, the family faces harassment and attacks by settlers, which peaked between 1991 and 2002, Daoud said.

Landscape view with Israeli settlement in background

The Nassar family has endured years of harassment by Israelis living in the surrounding settlements.

“They came to the farm, they cut our trees, they damaged our water tank, they threatened us with guns and they tried three times to build a road on our property,” he explained. “They came with the bulldozers and they started digging a road, but we managed to stop all road construction by going to court.”

Settlers destroyed 250 olive trees on the farm in 2002.

“For Palestinians, an olive tree is like a member of the family; it’s like a holy tree,” Daoud explained. Three weeks later, the Nassar family planted new trees with the support of the UK solidarity group Jews for Justice for Palestine.

“This was a small sign of hope,” Daoud said.

The nearby Palestinian town of Nahalin (left) is overlooked by the Israeli settlement of Betar Illit, the largest of the five settlements surrounding the Nassar family farm with a population of more than 40,000 residents.

In May 2014, two weeks before the apricot harvest, Israeli bulldozers razed 1,500 fruit trees on the farm, claiming they were planted on state land.

“We stood up again,” Daoud said. “We managed to repair the terraces … and last year we managed to plant 4,000 fruit trees.”

Large boulders block dirt road

Roadblocks imposed by Israel since 2003 prevent direct access to the Nassar farm by vehicle. “They always say it’s for security purposes, but this is in order to make life more difficult,” Daoud said.

Another tool in Israel’s arsenal to take Palestinian land and push off its residents is to severely restrict access to resources and prohibit construction.

“We are not allowed to build anything; so far we have 20 demolition orders here, we have 47 ‘stop cultivation’ orders [issued by Israeli authorities]. We are not allowed to have running water or electricity. It means no development. This is an example of what is happening generally in Palestine,” Daoud explained.

A painted rock reads Tent of Nations

The Nassar family aims to bring together people from different backgrounds and cultures to learn, share and build bridges of hope and understanding.  

The family has transformed their farm into what they call the Tent of Nations — a center for peace-building and nonviolent resistance.

“We wanted to open the farm for people to come and see. This is the best way of education. Come, see, go and tell. We are asking people to go and tell not only what they have heard but what they have seen,” Daoud explained.

Man wearing wide-brimmed hat and vest over flannel shirt gestures with his hand

Daoud Nassar gives a tour of the farm.

The family organizes educational activities and projects aimed at bringing people together to feel more connected to the land and the environment, and to promote a greater understanding of the daily struggles endured by Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation.

One of the main projects is a tree-planting campaign. “We invite people to plant trees because when you plant a tree, you believe in the future,” Daoud said.

Boy conducts group of children playing trumpets

Youths have the opportunity to learn how to play musical instruments and conduct a band during the Tent of Nations summer camp.

The family also holds a summer camp for children.

“We invite 50 children from the Bethlehem area and from refugee camps and we do creative workshops with the children, like painting, music, mosaics, theater,” Daoud said. “We want the children to discover their talents because our children are traumatized and living in a difficult political reality.”

Volunteers kneel on terraced ground with Israeli settlement in distance

German volunteers have designed and are building a demonstration garden and playground for children visiting the farm.

The Nassars also arrange harvest camps and have a number of long-term volunteers who help run the farm throughout the year. Their presence also deters attacks by settlers, halting them completely, Daoud said.

Daher sits with his mother Milad at the Nassar family farm.

The family envisions establishing a school on the farm focusing on sustainability, organic farming and recycling. But that dream remains in the distance because it would depend on Israel granting them permits.

“So we walk forward in small steps, Daoud said. “Even if we fall down, we stand up again, continue the journey with faith, love and hope in action.”

Claire Thomas is a freelance photographer from the UK whose work focuses on social, political and humanitarian issues in the Middle East, Europe and Africa. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.