JERUSALEM-WESTBANK-GAZA - The land of the Nassar family in the West Bank hums with the sound of nearby crickets and soothing gusts of wind. Walking the dirt road leading to the top of hill, where plastic tents are visible, the richness of the land is almost palpable. Olive, fig, grape, almond, apple, and pine trees rustle and testify to the richness of the land. “When we were young, we used to come every morning and sleep on the land, work on the land, planting trees. My father taught us how to have a good relationship with the land. The land is part of our life, it’s in our blood,” says Tony Nassar, son of Bishara Nassar whose vision created the ‘Tent of Nations’.
We refuse to be enemies. This is the mantra of the “Tent of Nations”, an international project, located in Bethlehem, in the West Bank, aiming to build bridges of reconciliation and peace while promoting tolerance and a culture of mutual understanding- values that also underpin World Vision's relief, development and advocacy work in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Inspired by values passed down from Bishara Nassar, a Palestinian-Christian who dedicated his life to protecting and caring for his family’s land, the Tent of Nations continues to promote these values by bringing together Palestinians from the surrounding area and individuals from around the globe to care for and maintain the land.
Instead of building a wall, we build bridges...
Created in response to the ongoing Israeli military occupation, the Nassar family established the Tent of Nations on the land purchased by Bishara Nassar in 1916. In 1991, the Israeli government declared the land Israeli state property, despite the fact that the family holds the original land papers from the times of the Ottoman, British, Jordanian, and now Israeli rule. Since then, the Nassar family has continued to challenge this decision in the Israeli Supreme Court; a decision that is still pending because the court continues to postpone the case.
“I stood in front of the bulldozer,” says Tony Nassar of an attempt by Israeli settlers from the nearby settlement of Gosh Ezion to confiscate the land. “More than 50 jeeps came with soldiers. The captain of Gosh Ezion came with them. Our lawyer showed them our land papers. They told us to move. We told them this is our land. We won’t leave.” Before they left, Israeli settlers uprooted about 300 trees and destroyed two water tanks on the roof of the Nassar home.
Tony Nassar is one of four brothers and five sisters who decided to take their late father’s vision and strive to make it a reality for the people of the land. A father of four, Tony works as a Christian religion and education teacher at Bethlehem’s Lutheran School, but it is apparent that his true passion is the Tent of Nations’ mission. “Instead of building a wall, we build bridges. This is the main point of the Tent of Nations; the vision of my father, and we are carrying on that vision,” says Tony. “My father was an Evangelist and taught us to live a Christian life and to try to build relationships with others through peace and non-violence,” says Tony of the birth of the Tent of Nations.
With a family of five sons and five daughters, life for the Nassar family has not been easy. Their home and land which has been in their family for almost one hundred years is in jeopardy. “We have been here since 1916- imagine!” exclaims Tony. “My grandfather bought the land in 1916. Israel wants to confiscate the land, because they claim it belongs to the government of Israel. They want to build a settlement on it because it is on top of a large hill where you can see everything around it. When the weather is clear, you can see the Mediterranean sea.”
The Bethlehem Governorate has recently lost large amounts of land due to the Israeli military occupation. According of ARIJ, in 1967, 18.1 km2 (equal to about 4,473 acres) of land was annexed by Israel and included in the boundaries of Jerusalem. In addition, 19 illegal settlements have been constructed, with a total settler population of 77, 376. The Nassar land is surrounded by the illegal Israeli settlements of Neve Daniel, Gush Ezion, and Efrat, which house about 65,000 Israeli settlers.
I liked the idea of the Tent of Nations because there is a hope for peace. A person must keep hoping for peace
Itay Epshtain, Co-Director Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) explains the confiscation of Palestinian lands by the Israeli military. “It is Israel's overt policy to demolish Palestinians homes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to allow for land expropriation and for illegal settlements to encroach on Palestinian land.” Continuing, he says, “The extensive demolition of homes by means of declaring closed military zones, and summary appropriation of land to illegal settlements is part of an ongoing ethnic displacement and de-facto annexation of the West Bank. It further serves to cartel the sustainable development and viability of sovereign Palestinian state”.
The Israeli government will not allow the Nassar family to build homes on this land. So, they have erected tents. There are now three tents that house guests from all over the world. There are also a few small structures built before the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank lands. There is no electricity, and water is gathered from rainfall. During the day, visitors to the Tent of Nations help by working on the land and planting trees. At night, they sit around a bonfire and talk. Tony happily tells us of the last group of visitors; a Jewish group working with a peace organisation.
One 19-year-old, Laura Hunter, an American who is volunteering at the Tent of Nations, says it was their message that really resonates with her. “Their slogan- people building bridges. There is so much about building bridges and talking to people regardless of where they come from. Even on the mural outside their home shows Palestinians and Israelis talking, which is such a message of peace.”
In partnership with churches in the area and around the world, Tony told of how they received emails from people around the world, telling them they were praying for the situation. Beginning from his father’s vision of peace and justice, the Tent of Nations has grown into a beacon of hope for many.
The Christian identity of the Tent of Nations is central to its mission. Tony recalls going as a child to one of the seven caves on their land with his father and their family and praying and singing hymns. Now, a small makeshift chapel on the land is where the Nassar family and visitors to the Tent of Nations gather to worship.
In 1948, there were 145,063 Christians or 7.6% of the entire country’s population of about 1.9 million. According to Sociolgist Dr. Bernard Sabella, some 726, 000 Palestinian refugees, 50-60,000 of which were Palestinian Christians, were forced to leave their homes after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The Israeli military occupation has continued to make life for Palestinian families difficult, resulting in restrictions on their freedom of movement, right to worship, and economic hardships. Fifty-six per cent of Palestinian Christians now live outside of the Holy Land.
We have hope. We hope we can have real peace with justice to give opportunities for the next generations so they can live in freedom, justice, and peace
“We are encouraging young people, especially Christians to stay in the country, stay on their land, and work and have a connection with their land,” explains Tony.
It is apparent that this is a vision shared by the entire Nassar family. Her weathered face somewhat sad, Tony’s mother Miladeh says, “My sons loved the land since they were little boys.” She continued, “I liked the idea of the Tent of Nations because there is a hope for peace. A person must keep hoping for peace.”
Daher Nassar, Tony’s brother and Director of Tent of Nations, used to be a blacksmith, but left to work with his brothers towards their shared vision. “It is important for me to be here, I have to protect the land and look after it. We have no water, no electricity, and no licenses to build. But my children will help and hopefully will keep working and taking care of the land.”
His 20-year-old son, Fadi, shares his father’s dream. “If we knew that the world would end tomorrow, we would go and plant trees,” he says smiling. “Through the Tent of Nations, I learned about freedom for all people. The problem really lies with the regime and not the people. As Palestinians, we have to have hope.”
In the mosaic wall surrounding one of the small building structures on their land, black Arabic writing is painted onto a part of the wall. It is Psalm 133, a song for worship, which reads, “It is truly wonderful when relatives live together in peace. It is as beautiful as olive oil poured on Aaron’s head and running down his beard and the collar of his robe. It is like dew from Mount Hermon falling on Zion’s mountains, where the Lord has promised to bless his people with life forever more.”
Tony and his family are still optimistic. “We have hope. We hope we can have real peace with justice to give opportunities for the next generations so they can live in freedom, justice, and peace.”
In the future, the Nassar family hopes to see green land on which all people can live. “We will announce that this is a land for peace and love, with the rights of humans for all people created in God’s image,” says Tony The dream for his family, he continues, is to “live in peace with all nations, regardless of race, religion, or colour and to love everyone, and through us, they can see God’s love and spread that love to others.”
Read a blog about the Tent of Nations by World Vision US president, Rich Stearns at: http://blog.worldvision.org/stories/we-refuse-to-be-enemies/
To learn more about the Tent of Nations, their work, and how you can help, please visit www.tentofnations.org
1) Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, 2008, www.cbs.gov.il. Last accessed on June 24, 2011.
2) The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), “Land & Settlements,” 2007, page 336. Last accessed on June 24, 2011.
3) “Palestinian Christians Facts, Figures, and Trends 2008,” published by Diyar,http://www.scribd.com/doc/24692089/Palestine-Christians-2008-Facts-Figures. Last accessed on June 24, 2011.
4) The Situation of Palestinian Christians: Some Food for Thought, by Bernard Sabella, 2004, www.al-bushra.org/sabella.htm