In the Christmas story of the Bible, shepherds living in the hills of the Holy Land receive word of Christ’s birth from the angels. They travel to see the baby and then go out to share the good news.
Early in the morning of May 19, 2014, in the hills outside Bethlehem, a shepherd was responsible for delivering different, more terrible news. It was 2 a.m. when the Nassar family received a phone call telling them Israeli soldiers were in a valley on their farm cutting down apple, almond and fig trees. The family raced down and watched as 1,500 trees in their orchards, nearly ready to be harvested, were bulldozed.
MCC photo/Meghan Mast
The Nassar family are Palestinians who have lived on this hilltop farm for more than 100 years. Amal Nassar remembers growing up on the farm, living in caves instead of houses to preserve the natural environment and nurture their relationship with the land. “I grew up in a family who were all farmers and a family who loved the land,” she says. “My father was always talking to us about how important the land is for us, it’s like a mother.”
It was her father who also helped instill a strong Christian faith in Amal and her eight siblings, a faith that guides their response to the destruction of the land they hold so dear. Her response to the bulldozed trees: “I say as Christians we believe we don’t want to pay evil with evil, but evil with good.”
Faith is part of what keeps the family on the land despite the many challenges they’ve faced. Faith is why they invite international volunteers and visitors to experience life on their farm. And faith is what leads the family to keep their constant refrain of “We refuse to be enemies.”
Life in Area C
The Nassars’ farm is in the West Bank, in what’s known as Area C. The West Bank came under Israeli military occupation after the 1967 Six Day War. The division of land under the Oslo II peace accord between Palestinians and Israelis, made in 1995, was intended to give Palestinians in the West Bank some powers and responsibilities in parts of the West Bank until future negotiations for greater autonomy.
Oslo II divided the West Bank into three different categories: Area A is completely under control of the Palestinian authority and makes up 18 per cent; Area B, making up 22 per cent, is controlled by Palestinian civil authorities as well as the Israeli military; and Area C, the remaining 60 per cent, is under complete Israeli control. This division was intended to be temporary until an agreement was reached on issues like settlements, water, refugees, Jerusalem and the final borders of a Palestinian state. Those negotiations have failed and the arrangement continues today.
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
Living as a Palestinian in Area C comes with special challenges. In order to build any structures on their land Palestinians need an Israeli permit, which is nearly impossible to obtain. Between 2010 and 2014 only 1.5 per cent of Palestinian permits were approved. The Nassar family cannot get running water so they’ve built cisterns to collect rainfall. But because they don’t have permits, they’ve received orders of demolition for the cisterns.
Living in Area C also means the Nassars are surrounded by a cluster of five Israeli settlements, known as Gush Etzion. Settlements are illegal colonies established by Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Only Jewish Israelis can live in them. (Learn more about settlements.) For decades, the Nassar family cultivated the farm in peace, looking between the hills to watch sunsets over the Mediterranean. But then in the 1980s, settlements started to go up around them.
In 1991, the Israeli government declared their farm to be state land, and there were plans to expand Gush Etzion onto the Nassars’ property. The family hired a lawyer and took the case to court. It’s still unresolved. When the 1,500 trees were flattened in 2014, it was because the government says they were planted on state land.
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
A similar thing happened back in 2002 when people from the settlements wanted to build a road through the Nassar farm. The family stood in front of bulldozers for two weeks to stop construction. They called the Israeli police, who said the settlers needed to go to court and make a land claim. But before leaving, the settlers uprooted 250 olive trees and blocked the road to the farm with rubble that remains to this day.
As a Christian and a farmer, Amal has a hard time understanding the destruction of their orchards. “This is against all religion. Where it’s written in Deuteronomy Chapter 20 verse 19, wherever you go and occupy a country, never ever cut their trees, especially the fruitful ones,” she says.
Then, too, their faith led them not to violence but to rebuild on their land, repaying evil with good. In the eyes of a farming family, what could do more good than planting orchards?
Adding to the urge to re-plant was a law that says when land isn’t used for three consecutive years it automatically becomes Israeli state land. And so the family knew it was urgent to put the land back into use.
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
A meeting place
Amal’s grandfather bought the farm in 1916, at the time when Palestine was under control of the Ottoman Empire. In 1924, after the area was under British control, he registered the property and received deeds specifying their ownership and the borders of the land.
Amal’s father, Bishara ("Gospel") Nassar, always dreamed of the family farm being a meeting place between people of different cultures and religions. A place where building relationships could be a first step to peace. Though he died in 1976, the family made that dream a reality, opening the “Tent of Nations” centre in 2000. They host international volunteers who help with farming, run summer camps for children in nearby communities and share their experience with groups who come for tours.
At the entrance is a rock with a passage from Psalm 133 painted on it:
How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! ….
For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
The passage is intentionally written in Hebrew so it can be understood by Israeli neighbours as well as the soldiers who come to their land with demolition orders, bulldozers and guns.“In spite of all these difficulties, the violent action we receive and physical attacks and the pressure we receive from the other side, from the Israelis; still we say we have to follow the footsteps of Christ. We have to love our enemy. We refuse to be enemies, says Amal.”
That last phrase, “we refuse to be enemies,” is painted on another rock at the entrance to the Nassar farm. It encompasses their personal response to the conflict and their dreams for the Tent of Nations: helping people live together. “We have a role to do on this piece of land,” Amal says. “To give education about accepting and about dealing with each other as a human beings. We are to accept each other, respect each other’s background, culture and religion.” They believe building relationships and understanding is the first step towards peace in the land.
A call to Christians
In the absence of peace, many Christians in Palestine have moved abroad, searching for a more secure future. That has never been an option for Amal. “This is my home, our roots are in this land,” she says. “We go forward and continue to work here until the end. We believe always that injustice will never stay forever…. We are praying and waiting for the Son of Justice to rise up.”
MCC photo/Emily Loewen
Though their Christian faith inspires their work, and though they live in the birthplace of Christianity, they don’t always feel connected to their Christian community around the world. Amal says international Christians are ignoring challenges her family faces daily. “Sometimes we feel that we are alone,” she says. “Christians, they have a responsibility towards their brothers and sisters in Christ, to stop the injustice.” In her opinion, you can’t call yourself a Christian if you’re not willing to put your faith into action and try to create justice.
To continue on that path, Amal says her family depends on three things: faith, hope and love. And with her name, Amal, meaning hope, her own life is a reminder of that.
“My father called me Amal on purpose to keep hope alive because he always says, since he was a young boy, always there’s conflict here in Palestine -Israel and always he believed that, never give up hope, to keep hope alive.”
Amal's story is part of an MCC campaign called A Cry for Home. Learn more about the campaign and see how you can get involved.