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2 Days in Bethlehem

by Danielle Berrin
Published on July 19, 2009 in The Jewish Journal (LA)

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.

Daoud Nassar, a Palestinian living in the West Bank, talks to a group of Jewish leaders who are visiting his farm as part of the Encounter program.

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.

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