Staying put: the nonviolent resistance of daily life in the West Bank

Nonviolence has many faces in Palestine, but the most fundamental act of nonviolent resistance is probably the simple act of staying put.  I’d like to share with you the stories of three families who resist the military occupation of their land by staying in their own homes and on their own land:  the Anastas family of Bethlehem, the Nassar family of Tent of Nations near Bethlehem, and the family of Hani and Rema Habuhaikal in Hebron.

What each of these families has in common is that Israel and/or its settlers want their land/house.  The Anastas family lives in their family home housing three generations and their businesses on what was once a busy thoroughfare in Bethlehem.  In 2005 Israel built a nine-meter high concrete wall in Bethlehem that surrounded their house on three sides and cut their street off from traffic.  Below is a photo taken in the early days after the wall was erected.

I’ve snapped a photo (below) of the Bethlehem map that shows the incursion that the wall makes into Bethlehem land in their area.  Israel annexed Rachel’s tomb which is on Bethlehem land with plans to build a settlement nearby.  They offered the Anastas family a handsome sum of money to sell their property, but Johnny and Claire believed it was their right to stay in their home.  They believe that staying is the most important way they can struggle for the rights of their fellow Palestinians.  They operate a travel hostel in their home and a Christian gift shop featuring religious olive wood carvings.

Johnny moved his brake shop for cars to another street in Bethlehem so that he could attract more business.  Recently the Israeli military entered his shop, took the machinery he uses for grinding brakes, and shut down the shop with a sign alleging that the owner was making weapons in the shop.  Two weeks later Israeli military officials admitted that they were mistaken.  Johnny asked for his machinery, but was told it was destroyed and he would have to sue for compensation.  The suit may take three years to resolve.  In the meantime, Johnny is deprived of his livelihood.  The action puts pressure on him and his family to vacate the house and leave it to the Israelis.  The Anastas family is determined to stay.

From Bethlehem we made a drive to Tent of Nations, the environmental and educational farm belonging to the Nassar family.  The drive would have been shorter, but the direct road to their farm has been blocked by the Israelis forcing the family and their visitors to take a longer and more difficult route through the narrow streets of the small Palestinian village of Nahalin.  Why would Israelis want to block the road and make life difficult for the family?  Take a look at the map below for clues.

Tent of Nations is at Daher’s Vineyard near the center of the map.  Surrounding Daher’s Vineyard are the Israeli settlements of Bitar Elite, Gush Etzion, Eliaza, Nev Daniel, and Erfatz.  Each settlement sits on a hilltop and smack in the center of the ring is the hilltop where the Nassar’s Tent of Nations farm is located.  Settlements are attempting to join together into settlement blocks encompassing large swaths of land, and Tent of Nations stands in the way.

Daher Nassar was the grandfather of Daoud, Amal, and Daher who now operate the farm.  Their grandfather bought the 100 acre farm on a hilltop near Bethlehem in 1916 and registered it with the Ottoman Empire.  The family lived in caves on the farm and cultivated it in grapes, olive trees, and other crops continuously since that time.  In 1991 the Israeli government declared the Nassar land and its surroundings as Israeli “state land.”  The Nassar family has the documents to establish their claim to the land and have been in court for many years.  The history of their struggle is at this site.

In 2014 Israeli bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night and bulldozed 1500 olive trees.  With the help of the international community, including Jewish people living in England, 1000 new trees were planted.  The Nassar family is determined to protect their family land and at the same time “embody a positive approach to conflict and occupation.”  Tent of Nations  seeks to “work with others in the local area to lay the foundations for a future Palestine, in the belief that justice and peace will grow from the bottom up.”

Yesterday in Hebron, we spent time with a family being squeezed at very close quarters.  Hani and Reema Habuhaikal and their children live in the Tel Rumeida area of Hebron where settlers live in close quarters next door or across the street from Palestinians.  Hani and Reema can no longer keep a car at their home, since their cars have been burned by settlers in the past.  They must pass through checkpoints staffed by Israeli soldiers to go back and forth into the heart of Hebron.  Their car is now parked on the other side of Tel Rumeida where they haul all their purchases up and down steep rocky slopes and long paths to reach their house, passing security cameras and armed soldiers along the way.

Sometimes the power lines or the water pipes to the family’s well have been cut by settlers.  On one occasion Hani organized the neighborhood in a nonviolent action to demonstrate their community’s legitimate need for water.  They ordered a tank truck to deliver water to the community after the well had been disabled.  When the soldiers refused to let the truck pass, down the hill came all the little children with bottles and bowls and pitchers to fill with water and take it back up the hill while major media network cameras rolled.

Hani is a strong believer in using nonviolence to work toward social change.  He said he learned about nonviolence when he was jailed during the intifada along with many professors and activists with “huge minds” who held discussions about their methods.  He said jail gave him lots of time to think.  When an oppressed people uses violence, he says, their actions feed into the hands of the powerful oppressor who uses it against them. He has taught his five children not to hate the settlers or the soldiers and to greet each person with respect.  I’ve encouraged him to ask his daughter who intends to study journalism to write down these stories to share with the world.  We all need inspiration for ways to demonstrate the realities of oppression without engendering new hate.

That evening Hani’s family invited us to celebrate Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, with them, and we are grateful for their hospitality.

What unites all of these stories and many others we heard is the families’ conviction that staying put is worth it.  The occupation has made their daily lives difficult, and they could let the difficulties drive them out.  They choose to stay, however, and view the simple acts of daily lives in their homes as their own contribution to nonviolent resistance on behalf of their people.  Capturing the spirit of their lives is the tree that Amal Nassar told us about at Tent of Nations.  The bulldozers left one fig tree standing in the middle of the grove and they have named the tree “Sumud” or “steadfastness.”  At the entrance to the Tent of Nations stands a rock with these words inscribed in three languages: “We refuse to be enemies.”


Palestinian farming: land, access, water

Maybe because I grew up on a farm, the plight of the Palestinian farmer speaks to me.  When Iyad Burnat in Bilin tells me his father and grandfather used to take their sheep out across the hilltops to graze, I remember my own father’s stories of shepherding in his native Holland, where he took the sheep out all day walking out across the heather to find enough grass to graze.  Holland’s heather is more lush than the dry, rocky hills of the West Bank, so the Palestinian shepherd needs to take his sheep out for long distances and many days to find enough grass to feed them.

The Burnat family can no longer make their living from sheep herding, because Israeli settlers hace colonized the hilltops where the family’s sheep once grazed.  There is no longer enough area to feed many sheep.  Iyan took us out to the wall that separates their fields from the settlements.  We looked out across a steep gulley to a development where many multi-story buildings are being built.  These settlements have grown greatly since I visited four years ago, confiscating land that by rights belongs to the West Bank, bringing it under Israeli control.  Our eyes sweep out 180 degrees from our perch and I see that not much wild ground remains for sheep-grazing.

Next we walked a hundred meters over to the wall that is meant to protect the settlements from the villagers.  Bilin’s residents succeeded in the courts and through their popular resistance movement to get this wall moved closer to the settlements so that Bilin farmers could have access to their own farmland, but it has been a rare victory.  Even so, some of their farmland remains behind the wall.  In many spots across the West Bank, the wall has cut across farmer’s olive groves and vineyards, cutting off farmers from their own land.  They may apply for permits to pass through openings in the wall to work their land, openings which often are far away from their plots of land. In some cases these permits are issued only to the owner of the land.  Even if the owner is elderly, he alone can access the land, not his sons and grandsons.  Many olives, grapes, and other crops go unharvested.  To make matters worse a farmer can never be sure that the Israeli soldiers will give him access on any particuar day.  The soldier might tell him to go home and come back another day.

Not only is land confiscation and access to the remaining land a problem, obtaining water for irrigation is also a critical issue.  Iyad took us on a tour of villager’s vineyards and organic vegetable farms.  We saw cucumbers planted beneath grapevines to make the most efficent use of the land, and efficient drip irrigation systems were laid out across the beans, peppers, tomatoes, and more.  Yet we learned that not all the land can be planted at one time, because the farmers do not have access to enough water.  Their farmland sits atop the West Bank’s mountain aquifer.  Israel uses 80% of the water from this aquifer while the Palestinians receive only 20% which they must buy from Israel at inflated prices.  Meanwhile the settlements are able to fill swimming pools and irrigate landscaping while West Bank farmland goes dry.  Water rights will be a critical issue for any peaceful solution for Israel-Palestine.

Several years ago my father and I attended a talk back home in Ohio given by Daoud Nasser, a Palestinian farmer, who shared stories of similar difficulties at his educational and environmental farm, called Tent of Nations, near Bethlehem.  My father was delighted to find out that Mike Phillips was on the board of Friends of Tent of Nations.  My father used to milk cows for Mike’s father, Norm Phillips of Risingsun, Ohio.  Through Mike’s farm experience, he understood well the plight of farmers who suffer from land confiscation, access restrictions, and water shortages, and so did my father.  Daoud told us that he has spoken with a number of American farmers on his US speaking tours and finds that they are sympathetic to the Palestinian farmers’ problems.  My father died at the age of 90 in 2015, and I’m sorry I won’t be able to share this trip with him.  The Palestinian cause interested him for the last decades of his life.

I hope I’ll have the chance to tell you more about the specific challenges the Nasser family faces in another post.  Many thanks to fellow delegation member Tessa Laubacher for providing the photos for this post.

P.S. After our land tour with Iyad we returned to the Burnats’ home to share in their Iftar meal, the breaking of the Ramadan fast.  Later some of our delegation members got up at 2:30 am to share Suhur with them, the last meal before dawn and the start of a new fast.  We’re grateful to the Burnats and their children for sharing their wonderful food, fellowship, and warm hospitality.