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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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Encounter is an edu­ca­tional orga­ni­za­tion dedi­cated to strength­ening the capacity of the Jewish people to be construc­tive agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Moti­vated by the relent­less Jew­ish pur­suit of hokhma (wis­dom) and binah (under­stand­ing), Encounter cul­ti­vates informed Jew­ish lead­er­ship on the Israeli-Palestinian con­flict by bring­ing...

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