Magazine article The Christian Century

A Farm in Palestine: In the Shadow of the Settlements

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Farm in Palestine: In the Shadow of the Settlements

Article excerpt

Every time I visit Israel and the occupied territories I set aside a day or so for farm work. Though I enjoy the historic sites and am fascinated by the archaeology, I also feel compelled to blister my hands by working the Palestinian soil. No, it's not the Iowa blood running through my veins. It's a question of justice. You see, the land I work is land marked for confiscation for new Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

I don't consider myself an activist, and I usually don't get involved in public protests. In fact, like most Americans, I've generally supported U.S. policy toward Israel. Yet when Daher Nasser, a longtime Palestinian friend, invited me to visit his farm, I soon found myself bonded to the land and to the concerns of the Palestinian people.

I first stood on the hilltop of Daher's 100-acre plot, located about eight miles south of Bethlehem, on a clear May afternoon in 1992. When I stood to stretch my back, sore from clearing fields of stones, I could see the Mediterranean glimmering in the distance. To my back was the Dead Sea and the rugged Judean desert.

What impressed me most were the beautiful rolling hills, green with olive orchards, vineyards and grass for grazing animals. My imagination transported me back to biblical times and to the thousands of years that Daher's ancestors and others like him have cared for the land. Yet this idyllic picture was marred by the disturbing and imposing presence of Israeli settlements: Newe Danyel, Efrat, Betir and Tekoa, which surround and encroach upon Daher's farm. With their modern houses, shining new cars, swimming pools and tennis courts, the settlements remind one of American suburbia.

"That's American tax dollars at work!" Daher informs me. "The subsidies and incentives for the settlements are made possible by U.S. foreign aid and a $10 billion settlement loan guarantee offered by the U. S. Congress."

In October 1991 Daher learned that the Israeli government had confiscated his land for further settlement expansion. No one bothered to tell him face to face. It was only through word of mouth and his own inquiries that he learned he was "trespassing" on his own land.

Fortunately, Daher has papers to prove ownership. His grandfather purchased this farm nearly a century ago for his two sons. One became a Christian evangelist and settled in Bethlehem, raising his family there. The other remained a bachelor and worked the land, making his home in a cave on the property.

With their passing, Daher's generation continued to farm the land. Yet the occupying military government rejected the family's requests for a permit to build a house on their land. Instead, the family must travel back and forth each day from Bethlehem, a circumstance that the Israeli authorities used as an excuse to confiscate the land.

During the first months after the confiscation notice the situation looked hopeless. Most people would have given up. But Daher had an energetic, young Palestinian Lutheran pastor, Mitri Raheb. What would you do if you knew that the world you counted on might end tomorrow? Raheb offered Luther's advice: "Plant a tree!"

So Daher bought trees: olive trees, apricot trees, almond trees. We tired our muscles planting these trees, along with some tomato and cucumber plants and grape vines. …

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