From Hebron to the Tent of Nations to a Settlement Community.   This is going to be a very long blog…

When I sank into bed after this 12 hour adventure, I could not believe that I had seen what I saw today and that I ended up in my bed rather than in some Israeli interrogation office or some other awful place.

The day started harmlessly enough.  My host, also the manager of the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), took a group of people to Hebron.  The Tent of Nations (TON), my destination for the day, was on the way and he was going to drop me off.  But the group he had on the bus seemed interesting and the idea to go on a guided tour to Hebron appealed to me – I had missed the mosque after all during my first visit since that was on a Friday (See Day 89) – and so I decided to join the tour. This is not the thing I usually do as an organized tour like this runs about $80 and I can do it on my own for about $8.  But I was interested in Samer’s input and I am already so much in debt that it hardly matters any more.  He is full of real-life stories about the situation around here and that is priceless.

As you may recall, Hebron is the hot-spot of fanatics on both sides and one of the earliest settlements.  Having spent a full day there already, I had seen much more than Samer could cover in 2 hours.  But a few things were interesting.  The metal mesh that was suspended over the souq seemed to me to be a barrier for rocks going up (from the Palestinians towards the Settlers).   Samer explained that it was protection put up by the Palestinians to prevent rocks from coming down.  He pointed to an old, dilapidated and seriously bent awning at a store front explaining that it had been bent by a huge rock coming down.  When I saw a similarly old, dilapidated and seriously bent awning at a different place where no rock could possibly have come down, I had to ask myself how much “evidence” is really out there anyone can point to using it for any possible narrative, especially when you are talking to foreigners like us who are clueless and when you point to it years after the fact.

Samer, as a Palestinian, is not allowed to enter the settlement.  But we went in for about 15 minutes on our own.   “Don’t talk to anyone!” was the order.  Settlers are not particularly interested in talking to us, but they are used to groups coming through – I saw several pro-settler groups on my last trip — and it is hard to tell by just looking if there is a group of pro-settlers or con-settlers coming through.  At every corner there is a police watch point.  There simply is no imminent danger.  But there is a lot of perceived danger.

After having lunch at one of only three stores whose owners refused to leave the area, right across a check point, the group drove back to Bethlehem to tour the sites there.  I was dropped off at a godforsaken intersection in the middle of four settlements and with vague directions on going up and down a hill for a kilometer to find a farm known as the Tent of all Nations (TON).  This was one of the hottest days yet, and from here on out I took a real beating as far as the sun is concerned, but I will not mention it any more.  Settlements are recognizable by at least one of these features:

1.       Very uniform building styles indicating a short building period

2.       Red tiled roofs

3.       Brand-new roads

4.       Greenery

5.       Security fences, walls, or roads for patrol vehicles

I was walking towards an intersection where the road split; a new road and an old one.  I followed the old and soon headed towards a hill in the center of four surrounding hills, all four of which contained settlements separated by valleys from the central fifth hill.  The road ahead of me soon deteriorated even further and was blocked by two massive piles of rocks.  A side road indicated an earlier attempt to bypass the block, but the second blockade had definitively cut off access to the farm ahead.  After a few hundred yards I reached a huge metal fence – locked.  The sign confirmed I was in the right spot:  Tent of all Nations (TON).  Now I understood Samer’s instruction:  If the gate is closed, go under it.  What???  I had about a foot clearance.  Going under it meant scraping the floor lying on my back, inching through; not what my thin type of linen clothing is made for.  I searched for alternatives, but was left with none.  I wish I could have taken a picture of this.  One hole in my pants was a small price to pay for what I was ahead of me.

I approached the hill of the farm and found two women sitting under a metal awning in front of a cheerfully decorated bungalow.  They did not seem surprised to see me and welcomed me in.  I explained that I had heard of the TON from Samer, and as an educator in search of an understanding of this region wanted to find out more.  Almer, the younger of the two women, started to explain:

This farm was bought by her grandfather Daher Nassar in 1916 from the Ottomans.  It has been in the family ever since and is known in the area as Daher’s Vineyard.  Her father, Bishara Nassar, inherited the land and he, as his father had done before him, lived in Bethlehem and on the land in a cave where he raised his family of 8 children.  He died in 1976, when she and her siblings (four sisters and four brothers) were still very young.  He had always dreamt of making his farm “the meeting place of all nations”, a spot where people would reconcile and live in peace.  For ten years, this dream has been turned into reality.  The Nasser family started a non-profit project which they named “The Tent of all Nations”.  It involves summer camps for local children, especially underprivileged ones from the nearby refugee camps, language and other training and activity for the women of the nearby Muslim village Nahila, and countless seminars, lectures, and volunteer camps.  Up to 40 people can live in the three big green tents which are pitched during the summer months.  Everyone involved in these activities is helping to prove one of two main goals the Nasser family is pursuing:  refusing to be enemies and practicing peace, tolerance and hope.

Everyone up on the hill is also proving another point:  This is not land without people as the settlers around have been made to believe.  This is land that has been occupied and owned by a family for nearly 100 years.  In 1991 the Israeli government declared this area State Land.  Most of the other owners did not have the paperwork to prove ownership and did not have the stamina to withstand the harassment that followed.  For starters, the Nasser family had to spend all of their savings of $70,000 to have Ottoman State records searched in Istanbul to prove their 1916 purchase.  They were able to do so.  It did not give them peace for long.  Despite these papers the Israeli government decided to build a road right through their property in 2001 and another one in 2005.  Each time, the family was forced to go to court to stop these orders.  They succeeded but at an emotional and financial price they were no longer able to afford.  They needed help.  That’s when the TON project was founded with the help of Christian organizations in Switzerland, Germany and other countries.  It has survived for 10 years.  But the struggle is grinding and continues on a nearly daily basis:

The Israeli government has refused to grant building permits for any structures on the land and has issued demolition orders for everything from a simple metal shed used as toilets, to the meshed wire surrounding the chicken coop, to the green tents pitched in the summer for the camp activities.  The only way around this was to go underground or to go to court.  The family has done both.  The original caves hewn by hand by Daher and Bishara were expanded and additional caves were dug.  Now there are seven, one of which serves as an interfaith chapel.

Permits for electricity and running water have been refused.  Collecting rain water and digging cisterns has been the only option.  Water at the farm comes at a premium and at times there is not enough to go around even for drinking water.  For years the family lived without electricity at all.  A costly gas-run generator provided up to two hours of emergency electricity.  Recently a donation gave them four solar panels.  Now there is some light.  Six years ago, the road blocks were put up by angry settlers and Israeli soldiers stood idly by.  Removal of the road blocks would put the Nassers into prison.  They still have a way out of the farm, but it adds over 30 minutes to their commute.

Almer’s report stunned me.  I had heard about these things but had not imagined them to be quite like this.  I always assumed that there are two sides to every story.  But I could not see the second one, no matter how hard I looked.  Israel wants this hill to connect the settlements.  They want this family out and no measure seems too low to achieve this goal.

The Nassers are deeply religious.  They are the only Christian family left in the valley and they are determined to spread the Christian message of non-violence and righteousness through their actions.  In one incident the settlers uprooted 250 olive trees, an asset hard to imagine in the Western world.  These trees take years to grow before bearing fruit; then they last for generations.  In Jerusalem you can see six trees that can be traced back 2000 years!  Instead of fighting back, they called on their supporters and quietly replanted 500 trees!  I sponsored four trees and left a donation towards their ongoing and formidable legal expenses.  I hope some of you feel compelled to help as well, perhaps even to come here some day and to volunteer.  You can find them easily on line:  www.tentofnations.org

After Almer explained their history, Daher, her brother took me around showing me the facilities which attest to the presence of children and adults from all over the world through murals, mosaics, and inscribed stones.  Living at TON means roughing it but it also provides visitors with an unforgettable experience.  My most touching moment was when Daher sat down with me in the chapel cave.  I commented on the beautiful acoustics in it and asked if they sing here.  I will teach you a song, he said.  In Arabic let’s sing “I praise the Lord”.  And so he taught me and we sang.  He could complain.  He could despair.  He could resort to violence.  But he chooses to act and to praise the lord.

I praise the Lord.  Mejdan Lerob.

To be continued in the next blog.

Good night.

1 comment so far

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  1. I’m glad you made it to “the tent of nations”.
    It is an organization I would fully support in its peaceful approach, greeting people with tee instead of machine guns or body searches.
    I checked out their website , but I did not find a link to make a donation.
    The only option is through a sister organization , called “Friends of the tent of nations North America” .
    I will try it through their website!
    Medjan Lerob…. music is the universal language !