Planting Peace One Olive Tree at a Time

Let’s explore a hypothetical situation: you live on 100 acres of farmland atop a hill overlooking a valley that your family has owned for the past 100 years. One day, about 25 years ago, construction began on a new plot of housing on one of the surrounding hills to the east, which soon turned into an established neighborhood. Houses were constructed, roads were paved, schools built, business started, and trees were planted. A couple of years later, another settlement was built to the west of your property; then one to the north; then another to the south. Eventually, in every direction you turned on your property, you faced a settlement. Only they are not internationally recognized as legal; the land they sit atop has technically been taken from your fellow countrymen. And now your new neighbors want your land and are willing to go to great lengths to confiscate it with the support of their government. How do you respond?  

This is a reality for Palestinian Christian Daoud Nassar and his family. They live six miles outside of Bethlehem in the West Bank on a 100 acre hilltop property that his grandfather bought in 1916 under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire. At the entrance to their farm, known as Tent of Nations (TON), sits a large rock painted with a simple, yet significant statement across it: “We refuse to be enemies.” Despite the daily challenges the family faces, they decided early on to protect their land from their often-aggressive Israeli settler neighbors with only nonviolent methods. Nassar and his family have been steadfast in their resolution over the past 25 years – even when their electricity was cut off, their water source rerouted, and the road to their property blocked by boulders.

But how did this situation come to be a reality?

Israel began building settlements outside its internationally-recognized borders after the June 1967 Six-Day War, when the state gained control over the Palestinian Territories and began its military occupation.  Settlements are Israeli civilian communities built today in the occupied territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Most are sponsored by the Israeli government, though others are funded by outside sources such as American nonprofits, or settlers, who establish independent outposts with financial support from Israeli government ministries or independent funding. Settlers themselves arrive for different reasons: some are staunch Zionists who believe it is their calling to settle Palestine and will use violent and extreme measures to enforce this, while some young families and recent immigrants to Israel are attracted to the government subsidies.

Whatever the motive, these settlements are recognized as illegal by international humanitarian law under multiple resolutions and articles of the Geneva Convention that outline humanitarian law of armed conflict, including Article 49 and United Nations Security Council Resolution 452UN Security Council Resolution 446 explicitly states that, “The policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

This position was recently supported by a European Union resolution, which urged Israel to end settlement activity. US Secretary of State John Kerry has encountered the issue throughout his attempts at facilitating a feasible peace process, and emphasizes that they are “illegitimate.”

In spite of these ongoing concerns and setbacks to a sustainable peace process, Tent of Nations (TON) has continued to actively live out their persistent faith in the power of nonviolent action and the belief that justice will prevail. “The idea behind Tent of Nations,” says Nassar, “is to build a bridge between land and people and between people and people.” By refusing to hate and refusing to live their narrative as victims, TON is building understanding through creative nonviolent action, one olive tree and person at a time.

We refuse to be enemies.

The Nassar family’s creative nonviolent resistance allows them to sustain and nurture their farm, while sending a clear message about the right to live and thrive on their family land. Despite being cut off from their source of electricity and water, the farm is completely self-sustainable and functions off the grid through solar power and biogas from compost; rainwater is also collected and filtered through cisterns. “Nonviolence forces the other to see you differently,” says Daoud. “[We] channel our frustration and anger into positive action." 

TON’s long-term goal is to “prepare young people [Palestinians] for a positive contribution to their future and their culture by bringing values of understanding and tolerance into their life experience and to teach them the true meaning of belonging to their country.” They run a children’s summer camp, a women’s empowerment project, and work camps for volunteers to visit the farm and help plant trees and harvest olives, fruit, and almonds.

“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart,” says the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:7. “For in my chains and in my defense and confirmation of the gospel, you are all partners in grace with me.” While the many layers in this conflict are vast, and resolving the issue of settlements is a seemingly intractable issue for governments to effectively resolve, the bottom line is that these settlements are illegal and a direct violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people, as seen in the story of Tent of Nations. By acknowledging the suffering of our Palestinian brothers and sisters, the American Church can help to bring about change within the conflict as “partners in grace.”

On April 20th of this year, church leaders from the US and the Holy Land convened to forge a partnership to begin a peace process. They wrote an open letter to President Obama, urging him “to deliver new hopes for a just peace in the region,” emphasizing that “the continuation of the settlement enterprise and the Israeli unilateral measures in the Occupied Palestinian Land remain the paramount obstacles confronting the viability of peace…”

This letter, which stresses the urgency of the need for peace talks, also demonstrates the necessity of the US government, church leaders, and citizens to recognize the prevailing human rights issues within Palestine and determine our shared responsibility in addressing them. In the Kairos Document of Palestine, inspired by the 1985 South African Kairos Document, representatives from the Palestinian church question the presence of the international community: “What is the international community doing? What are the political leaders in Palestine, in Israel and in the Arab world doing? What is the Church doing? The problem is not just a political one. It is a policy in which human beings are destroyed, and this must be of concern to the Church.”

“Let us not become weary in doing good,” says Paul in Galatians 6:9, “for at the proper time we will reap a harvest is we do not give up.” Peace is possible, and it begins with the responsibility within each of us as individual peacemakers, and extends that same duty within our churches and government, acknowledging there is a way of justice which “defends the oppressed and the dignity God has bestowed upon them.” The story of Jesus is that suffering is never the end of our shared narrative. TON exemplifies this in their story of building bridges across divides, one tree at a time. The faith that drives TON’s work and fuels their resilience is lived out on a daily basis, and serves as a reminder that it is always possible to make a difference and write a new story of hope, persistence, and justice. As Daoud says, every 1,000 mile journey always begins with the first step.

 -Sara Burback served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the glorious nation of Kazakhstan, where, in addition to teaching English, she developed a keen interest in democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech (or lack thereof) in the former Soviet Union. She expanded upon this at the University of Denver's Korbel School of International Studies, where she earned her MA in International Human Rights. She now works at the nonprofit the United States Energy Association in Washington, DC. Photo by Sara Burback.