It is hard to write about the wall — Israel’s security fence, or the separation wall, the Apartheid Wall, as the Palestinians call it. It is such a huge thing, with such profound impact, and so hard to comprehend.  It deviates considerably from the green line established in 1949 armistice between Israel and Jordan. The wall consumes Palestinian lands, divides Palestinian towns, Palestinian people from their fields, Palestinian children from their schools. (A tour guide from Green Olive Tours–a former Israeli soldier now sympathetic to the Palestinians’ plight–told us that because of a lack of land now, the Palestinians are short 5,000 classrooms.) What’s more, the Palestinians live in terror of the day the bulldozers show up at their homes to be demolished for the building of the wall. 60 Palestinian homes are destroyed yearly, one or two at a time, and residents are given only a few hours’ notice. When they see the bulldozers approach, they don’t know which houses are next to be demolished.

Palestinians and Internationals protesting the building of the wall (and its guard towers) write their feelings of anger, their hopes for peace, their messages to the world on the wall. We saw the graffiti especially where the children played at Wi’am and at the Aida Refugee Camp. We saw the wall many, many times as we drove through the West Bank. Its monolithic presence has a devastating impact (along with the 600 checkpoints  throughout the West Bank) on the freedom of the Palestinian people, who have welcomed us warmly into their community, and their homes. Often they ask us: “Do you feel unsafe here?” “Do we seem like terrorists to you?

It seems laughable to us now: yes, we feel safe; no they aren’t terrorists. Our only nervous moments have been beneath the towers at the wall, and at the checkpoints.

Life in this land is everything to the Palestinian people — they live under the monolithic shadow of oppression rather than leave their land; they refuse a check for $1 million rather than leave their farm; they live together in refugee camps rather than be separate from their village even after they’ve long been removed from it. I go home soon to a different kind of land–to the wide open prairie, the embrace of an uninterrupted sky, wondering how to stay connected from one land to another.

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Da’oud and Da’har Nassar are the third generation of farmers to hold the paper title to a piece of land on the top of a rocky hill near a village just a few miles southwest of Bethlehem. In addition to the fact that Ann and I are also the third generation to care with the land on our farm on the Oklahoma prairie, there are other similarities with these two farms, so far from each other.

The Nassars use composting toilets, solar panels, greenhouses, plant trees, have a structure built of straw bales and mud and deal with lack of water. They are doing some of the practices in ways we still hope to. They use a terracing system that is 4,000 years old, capture rain water in large cisterns and plant a wide variety of trees that produce food. Their dwellings are energy efficient – most of them, caves; some tents.

Meeting Ja’hin Nassar, Da’oud’s wife, I experienced an instant warmth and sisterhood.  As we do at Turtle Rock Farm, the Nassars invite and welcome many visitors to their farm. Not only are they trying to farm here, they have established an organization – the Tent of Nations – to bring people together to increase trust and find ways to live together in peace. Ja’hin works with women in the village to establish education and empowerment programs.

The difference between our lives at Turtle Rock Farm and theirs in Palestine is profoundly striking. Living under the Israeli occupation, their water and electricity, as for everyone in the West Bank, is controlled by the Israeli government. Sometimes West Bank residents have water and electricity and sometimes it is shut off. But the Nassars never have electricity and water. It is illegal for them, because the Israeli government wants their land. All around them – on every side – are settlements the Israeli government has built on Palestinian land. And the government wants the Nassar farm. Because they have a paper title, the Nassars have been able to hold on to their land. They have been in court trying to keep their land, for 21 years.

The Israelis use many tactics to drive them away, yet they adapt. Their electricity is produced by the solar panels. Rain water is captured in cisterns. It is illegal for them to build on their land, so they live in structures built before 1947 and in the caves that their grandparents lived in, there on their farm. It is also illegal for them to hold the land if they don’t improve it (build structures.) Twice a year the Israelis take aerial photographs of their farm. They have had to put up a high fence, with a locked gate all around their farm because some settlers have attacked them. The road that leads to Bethlehem from their farm has been blockaded with giant boulders by the Israeli Defense Forces so that they and all in the village have to travel a steep, narrow, winding road about 30 minutes longer than the 10 minutes it would take if the road were not blocked. We were at the blocked road when one villager drove up from Bethlehem, parked his car on one side of the giant boulders, walked through them to get in the car of a friend or family member who had driven up from the village to pick him up.

 

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Still, the Nassars remain on their farm, planting trees (olive, almond, carob, fig, apple,) growing vegetables. Still, they  fight to hold on to their land despite mounting court costs and harassment and occupation tactics that seem insurmountable. Even so, they welcome  and work with people from all around the world to try to find ways to live together in peace. And they especially work with children, so that future generations might know peace.

I feel a warm and vital connection to the Nassars, their farm and their work (inspired by their father) at the Tent of Nations. (www.tentofnations.org)  Sometimes our work at Turtle Rock Farm, helping people connect with the natural world that is our home and helping them come to understand we must live in harmony with the natural world, seems slow and insurmountable. Now, when it does, I will remember, with profound sadness, the incomprehensible dilemma the Nassars face every day in their life on the land. I will remember, with profound appreciation, their abiding commitment to freedom and peace. I will remember the warmth of the connection of a farm atop a rocky, fertile Judean hill in the West Bank of Palestine, to the rolling mixed grass prairie of Oklahoma.

 

 

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Today is Christmas Eve for the Orthodox Christians. And we got to see the day-long celebration at Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Our hotel is nearby and before breakfast, we heard the sounds of drums and bagpipes. Yes, bagpipes. Scouting  is popular here and the scout troops parade in tartans, playing bagpipes and drums. All day long, they paraded in the streets to Manger Square in preparation for the arrrival of the church patriarchs.

We went through the checkpoint and into Jerusalem to attend services at the Church of Scotland Afterward, as  we were approaching the checkpoint to re-enter Bethlehem, we saw many police cars and realized it was the patriarchs queing up for the procession. West Bank cars (you can tell a West Bank car because it has a green and white tag; West Bank taxis, yellow and green tags) are only permitted to leave the West Bank three times a year – at the western celebration of Christmas, the Orthodox celebration and the Armenian celebration of Christmas (mid-January) (by permission only.) It is a rare sight: Palestinian cars outside of the checkpoints.  By the way, it is illegal for Israelis to enter the West Bank. Giant red Israeli signs announce that it is illegal  for Israelis to enter because, the signs say, It is dangerous. Our experience in Palestine has been one of welcome and hospitality. More than once, we have been invited into the homes of Palestinians we have happened to meet.

Traffic was jammed throughout Bethlehem all day and even more so towards evening because the president of Palestine would be coming to Manger Square. On the streets people celebrated, Santas delivered gifts. In our hotel lobby, the manager’s family held their celebration, complete with Santa.

We visited Manger Square in the afternoon. It was packed with people as the patriarchs’ procession and introductions were made, bagpipes played, scouts crowded around. The call to prayer continued from the minaret at the corner of the square. As we shared Merry Christmas greetings with all we met today, we realized that many Muslims were returning or initiating the greeting. Here at ground zero, we are realizing, the people live together.

We traveled into the West Bank on Wednesday. We were all a bit nervous about our first pass through a checkpoint. There were no problems; we were on a tour bus and were passed through. And then all was quiet. We had been traveling in Israel, on nice roads.  Immediately, the road became bumpy and the well-landscaped highway disappeared. Nobody wanted to say anything, but Kristen finally asked if we saw any differences. And everyone spoke up: “Yes, and immediately.”

The West Bank is divided into three zones: some maintained by the Palestinians (the smallest percent); some maintained by Israel and Palestinian governments both; and, the largest percent, Israeli- controlled. The Israeli government seems to not get around to maintaining some roads in the northern-most part of the West Bank. We were on several of them. And some roads are barricaded, without warning. If you live on that road, you can’t get home that way. Surprisingly, we would see this for ourselves  before our day ended.

Our first stop was Zababdeh, at St. George Melkite Catholic Church. We held a morning-long vacation bible school for the children in the Palestinian village of about 3,ooo. Not many tour buses come here and it wasn’t long before the children knew we had arrived and began coming to the church. We introduced them to Ocho the Octopus, played games with a parachute, blew bubbles, played soccer, did crafts with them and offered snacks. They were beautiful and we loved being with them.

After the children left, the pastor and his wife and family made a traditional Palestinian meal for us, a delicious “upside down” dish of couscous, lentils, vegetables with baked chicken and yogurt. We shared gifts and bid farewell, sadly.

We drove to Sebastya, which is a Muslim village with an ancient ruin from King Ahab’s day. It was a good hike in a beautiful landscape to the ruins  of Ahab’s and Jezebel’s palace – especially for Beth and Kristen, who made much of the hike on piggy-back since the terrain was too rough for Beth’s wheelchair.

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We climbed aboard our big bus and drove the narrow collonade road down the mountain. There was a man in a small white car in front of us. Little did we know that as we slowly descended the mountain he was escorting us. At one point he stopped his car and came back to tell the bus driver, Shaddy, that there were barricades ahead. There was no way the bus could turn around on the narrow road. We climbed out of the bus and walked the road to the barricades. Turns out, the man in the car, Ali, had suspected that this would happen; that the IDF (the Israeli Defense Forces) would block our exit down the narrow road. We removed two blockades of stones and a third of branches and stones.

Removing blockade.

Removing blockade.

We journeyed on through the largest Palestinian city, Nablus, and entered Bethlehem after nightfall. That was yesterday. Today, we went to Old Jerusalem, making our way through crowds and the fascinating markets along the Via Dolorosa. We had a wonderful lunch of local cuisine in a busy restaurant and then entered again the narrow, crowded streets passed endless shops and stopping at many famous churches. Standing outside the Church of the Seplucher we heard for the third time in the day, the call to prayer from the minorette towering above.

This place of three religions with the same roots yet with histories of life together and life at war with each other for centuries is mind-boggling, as churches and temples and mosques have built one on top of each other, share space in this ancient city.

We had our first views of the giant wall  that divides Israel from Palestine and Palestine from Palestine in some places; the Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land and the checkpoint where Palestinians pass through each day to go to their jobs and schools. We saw many IDF soldiers with their semi-automatic rifles.

There is a saying here: After your first visit to Palestine, you want to write a book; after your second visit, you can only write an article, and after your third visit you can’t write anything. The layers of ancient history, the layers of political and religious intrigue and devastation and sacredness, the layers of occupations and the confusing meaning and strategies underlying it all eventually have us shaking our heads. “It makes no sense,” is heard often. And beyond it all, through it all, around it all, this is a beautiful land.

((Pat is blogging while traveling in Israel/Palestine.)