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Letter from Bethlehem

Since the start of the intifada most Palestinians have greeted the various peace efforts with weary scepticism or downright pessimism. However, some refuse to let the vicissitudes of political manoeuvring affect their vision for the future. Daoud Nassar’s story is one of both hope and despair, where injustice meets inspiration.

Daoud lives with his wife and children in Bethlehem, and his family owns a piece of land southwest of the city. One Friday morning, in the summer sun, I stood with Daoud looking out across his fields and beyond, up the hill towards the Neve Daniel settlement.

The land has been at the centre of a struggle with the Israeli military since 1991, when the Israelis declared it ‘state’ land. “If anyone ‘claimed’ to own the land he had to go and present his case to a military court”, Daoud explained. “Some had no papers or documents to prove ownership and so lost their land.” The Nassars, on the other hand, have the deeds from the Ottomans, the British Mandate, the Jordanians and even from the Israelis.

Last year, the Palestinian lawyer representing them received a paper from the court saying that the family could not prove ownership of the land, a decision Daoud suspects was influenced by the events of the intifada. The verdict was made in spite of the court recognizing three borders of the land and accrediting witnesses brought forward to attest they had worked there.

“We appealed to the Supreme Court with a new lawyer, Jonathan Kuttab (since Palestinian lawyers cannot go to the Supreme Court). On 5 February 2003 there was the first postponement, again in April and June, and the most recent hearing on 9 July postponed it again.” There will now be a 60-day period for the military to substantiate its reasons for rejecting the Nassars’ appeal, after which the family will have 30 days to respond.

Looking west into the valley from the Nassars’ land there are superb views of the Palestinian village of Nahalin, and its monstrous neighbour, the Beitar Illit settlement, which took a fifth of the 5,000 new settlers to arrive in the Occupied Territories during the first half of 2003. The family’s more immediate neighbours in Neve Daniel have been there since 1982, and relations have seriously deteriorated in the last few years.

“When the intifada started the settlers wanted to confiscate the land,” Daoud told me, after a hard morning’s work clearing a cave. “Sometimes they came with machine guns. One time I showed a settler my papers showing ownership of the land, and he said that he had papers from God. They tried to open a road through the land, they uprooted our trees, pulled down fences, broke water tanks, but we just kept mending everything. Now we try and keep a permanent presence here.”

But on the very land he is fighting to keep, Daoud also hopes to realize his dream, a place for reconciliation, international exchange and building relationships across the divide. “The vision we have here is for a campsite, called ‘Tent of Nations’, a place to bring different religions, cultures and nationalities together.”

Daoud has already organized two peace camps in Europe, bringing together Israelis, Palestinians and internationals. “During these peace camps, I realized that Israelis and Palestinians didn’t know much about the other side at all. The Palestinians didn’t even realize that Israelis ate falafel, and the Israelis were not aware that Palestinians had access to things like the internet!”

Tent of Nations is also a gesture of defiance to those who would seek to steal the land. “There are a lot of projects in Area A and B but this is not where it is important to do something. If we don’t do something like this in Area C then the land might just be taken one day.” Daoud remains anxious that under cover of an intense period of violence, Israel could come and take the land unimpeded.

South of Bethlehem, the Gush Etzion settlement block eats up Palestinian land. In this claustrophobic and hostile environment, Daoud is preparing for the reconciled relationships on which long-term peace will be built. “I don’t care much for all these political processes. Look at Oslo, how it ended up — with an intifada. Peace is like a tree, you have to water it and tend to it for it to grow.”

Published in Middle East International.

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