Daoud and Jihan Nassar held their first children’s summer program 12 years ago on the 100-acre farm the family has owned since 1916. To reach the land, located near Bethlehem outside the West Bank village of Nahalin, the kids must walk up a steep hill and crawl over hunks of stone made into roadblocks by the Israeli army. At the top of the hill, five Israeli Jewish settlements surround the Nassars' Tent of Nations educational and environmental farm.
Children spend two weeks in music, drama, art, and creative writing classes—this is part of a larger effort the Nassar family is making to renew a Palestinian connection to the earth to foster peaceful resistance against the Israeli occupation.
“We want the new generation of young people to be connected to the land and bear its responsibility in the future,” Nassar said. “We used to be a farmers' society. The new generation is disconnected for different reasons from their own land. They cannot understand how important it is to keep nature because they don’t feel the soil—they don’t feel it on the ground. This is a way to educate them and try to create a new generation that is able to shape their own future.”
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, the percentage of Palestinians employed in agriculture and related industries has dropped from 46 percent of the workforce in 1967 to only 11.4 percent in 2012.
One way in which the Israeli government has contributed to this decline in Palestinian agricultural output is by application of an 1858 Ottoman law. The law states that if a plot of land is left uncultivated or seems to have been abandoned for three consecutive years, it becomes state land. This land is often used for further Israeli settlement construction.
But registered Palestinian property cannot be legally declared Israeli state land. Daher Nassar, grandfather of Daoud, first bought his farm from the Ottomans in 1916 and registered it in 1924-25 under the British Mandate. When the Israeli government declared the Nassar farm state land in 1991, the family challenged the declaration in court.
As the court debated issues of the Nassar family's ownership, the cost of the appeal continued to rise. In addition, settlement road projects tore into the farm, first in 2001 through the east side of the land and then through the west side in 2002.
Finally, by 2005, the Israeli high court declared that Nassar could begin to register the land.
Since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, no other Palestinian has undergone the Israeli land registration process. Unprecedented, the process has required even more legal work—and more money for the Nassar family. So far, the legal battle has amounted to over $145,000, an amount that for any Palestinian farmer living under occupation is virtually unpayable.
The Nassar family's Tent of Nations project not only provides resources by which to help pay for these legal proceedings but also facilitates the farm’s self-sufficient viability.
In addition to the contributions paid by the 6,000 international visitors Tent of Nations receives every year, Daoud and Jihan travel abroad to raise awareness of the effect of the occupation on their farm and to ask for donations.
Although Daoud doesn’t want the farm to remain reliant on international donor aid, contributions often help further the self-sufficiency of the farm. Since the farm is disconnected from all municipal electricity and water sources, the German and American Friends of the Tent of Nations have financed and helped install solar panels and a diesel engine. These contributions have saved the Nassars over $35,000 since 2009.
Fourteen cisterns scattered around the farm are the Nassars' answer to absence of municipal water. The cisterns hold about 500,000 liters of rainwater to be rationed throughout the year. Because water costs the Nassars 20 NIS per liter (in contrast to 6 NIS, or about $1.68 per liter for settlers), these cisterns are the only viable method of water acquisition. But without a building permit, almost impossible to obtain, cisterns are illegal under Israeli law, and under constant threat of demolition.
Every year, internationals from across the world volunteer at the camp. Activities range from planting, tending, and harvesting fruit and nut trees to building compost toilets, fixing fences, and digging cisterns. January through February, Tent of Nations holds a tree-planting program, during which sponsors come to the farm and plant the trees they have donated.
Daoud says that to plant a tree is to believe in the future: “When we plant an olive tree, the first olives might come after ten years…When we plant an olive tree we hope that one day we might eat the fruits of this tree.” “Hope,” because the Nassars, like so many other Palestinian farmers, have seen hundreds of their trees cut down by Israeli settlers without repercussion.
During the two-week summer camp, volunteers learn about the ways in which the occupation affects the lives of the children they instruct. They aim to help the kids foster their creative talents, focus on positive aspects in their lives, and realize that they are able to shape the future with their own hands.
“Sometimes I think, here, they forget about the conflict,” Felix Tenbaum, a 19-year-old German volunteer and musician, says. “Here, they are doing something with nature, they are doing something with music…if you have something to focus on, you forget everything around you. When you concentrate, it is amazing; you forget about everything—you just feel the music.”
But it’s not so easy. Returning camper Mihan, a 10-year-old from Bethlehem, says, “I’m coming next year to learn more about how we can save our land from the occupation…my favorite activity is when we go under the oak tree and speak about how we are having problems.”
Over the years, the Nassar farm has become much more than just a farm. Under the motto “we refuse to be enemies,” the Tent of Nations has become a place of education and non-violent activism.
By reconnecting Palestinian children to the land, Daoud hopes that they realize they are not alone in the struggle. "We need the children in the end to not feel how miserable their life is, because then they will run from their situation," he says. "We need the children to realize that, yes, it is difficult, but still, I am able to shape my future with my own hands.”