A Palestinian fights in court for a hill his family has held since 1916. But Jewish neighbors say the farm should be theirs.

By Richard Boudreaux, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 27, 2007

NAHALIN, WEST BANK — From his hilltop farm, Daoud Nassar can see the sun rise over the Jordan Valley and set in the Mediterranean, an arc that spans the territorial breadth of his people’s conflict with Israel.

He also can see the neighbors whose rival claim has drawn the idyllic 100-acre plot deeply into that fight.

The only large Palestinian property to occupy high ground in this part of the West Bank, it is ringed by expanding Jewish settlements and coveted by the one perched on the nearest hill, 800 yards away.

For nearly a generation, Nassar and his family have stood their ground, unarmed, against pistol-toting settlers who have barricaded the farm’s dirt lanes, uprooted its olive groves, tried to bulldoze their own roads and disabled a tractor and a rooftop water tank.

The family has rebuffed anonymous Jewish callers offering blank checks for the property, and spent $145,000 in a marathon legal battle to keep the land that Nassar’s grandfather, a Christian from Lebanon, bought in 1916 when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. For more than 90 years, Nassars have worked the land, growing almonds, figs, grapes, olives, pears and pomegranates.

The feuding over these stark hills, ridges and valleys south and east of Bethlehem, a 27-square-mile region that includes the Nassar farm, is emblematic of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a struggle rooted in land.

To open the way to peace talks that resumed this month after a seven-year hiatus, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to refrain from authorizing new settlements in the West Bank. But he said he would not prevent the “natural growth” of settlements such as the ones in this region, which Jews call Gush Etzion, on land Israel expects to keep under a final peace accord.

“The Israelis want this whole area. Their plan is to force as many of us as possible to leave,” said Nassar, a square-jawed man of 37 with a calm, hopeful disposition and a mop of curly dark hair. “But we have to encourage people, empower them, to stay.”

The struggle over his hundred acres, a drama both intimate and epic, has consumed Nassar’s adult life and reached what could prove to be its final act.

“It is our land, and our land is like our mother,” he said. “I cannot abandon or sell my mother.”

From the Jewish settlement of Neve Daniel, Shaul Goldstein can see the Nassars’ farmhouse across a narrow valley. He stops his car on a ridge where workmen are building $500,000 white stone villas with sloping red tile roofs for the settlement’s newcomers.

“In my view, Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan Valley is a Jewish state,” said Goldstein, 48, a mechanical engineer and air force veteran who is mayor of a group of settlements that form the Gush Etzion Regional Council. “Its lands are earmarked first and foremost for Jewish citizens.”

Goldstein is a tall, energetic and articulate defender of the settler movement and one of its more moderate leaders. He boasts of “very good relations” with his construction company’s Palestinian employees and most of his Palestinian neighbors, and says they must be accommodated in what he calls the land of Israel.

But he complains that his initiatives to cooperate with Palestinian village mayors on issues such as earthquake preparedness and water purification have been vetoed by the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. He depicts the Nassar family’s legal battle, which blocks his settlement’s expansion, as an example of the same rejectionist stance.

“It is very difficult to make coexistence and civil relations with people who consider themselves part of a society that declared war against you,” Goldstein said.
Israel says it has a special claim to this part of the West Bank, dating to David’s biblical kingdom.

A Jewish community flourished here until the Roman era and was reestablished in the 1940s as the Kfar Etzion kibbutz on land purchased the previous decade. But it was overrun by Jordan’s Arab Legion on the next-to-last day of Israel’s 1948 war for independence, a battle in which Goldstein’s father fought.

The community was again revived in 1967, becoming the first settlement on land captured from Jordan in the Middle East War that year — and a symbol of the Zionist dream of restoring biblical Israel.

Since then, Israel has vastly expanded the kibbutz’s pre-1948 holdings by seizing agricultural land from long-settled Palestinians and turning it over to Jewish settlers, a practice replicated across the West Bank.

Although that practice is widely viewed as a violation of international law, it is codified in Israel’s legal system. A military committee identifies coveted land it deems un-owned or unused and declares it “state land.” Any Palestinian with a claim has 45 days to appeal to a military court.

Most West Bank Palestinian families lack formal land titles. In theory, Israeli law allows them to keep rural land acquired without title before 1967 as long as they keep it cultivated. In practice, Israeli and Palestinian lawyers say, titled and cultivated land is often seized.

“The burden of proof is always on the Palestinians,” said Sani Khoury, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian lawyer who handles land holders’ appeals. “The other team makes the rules.”

Palestinians often learn they are being dispossessed when Israeli bulldozer crews with military orders and police escorts start clearing the land in question, the lawyers say. By then it is too late for legal recourse.

Parcel by parcel, Israel is taking control of farms, pastures and underground water sources to expand the Gush Etzion settlements for a growing population that now totals more than 55,000. According to Taayush, a Tel Aviv-based organization that advocates Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, the region’s 20,000 Palestinian residents have lost at least one-fifth of their land to the settlements, which sprawl closer to their homes by the day.

If Israeli planners get their way, the Nassar property, eight nearby farming villages and the 10 Jewish settlements in their midst will end up on the Israeli side of the barrier being erected between Israel and the West Bank, making them a de facto part of the Jewish state. Israeli leaders want to annex the enclave formally under any peace accord that would yield the bulk of the West Bank to an independent Palestinian state.

That would enclose the Nassars and the villagers in a mostly Jewish enclave, cutting them off from Bethlehem, the West Bank city that sustains them.

“They would be severed from their places of work and education, their medical services, their extended families and, indeed, the rest of Palestine,” said Ghiath Nasser, a lawyer who is challenging the planned barrier route on behalf of the Palestinian villages. “I don’t believe that these small communities could survive for long.”

Showing a visitor around his property — a scattering of vineyards, orchards, livestock and cave dwellings around a low cinder-block house — Daoud Nassar recalls the sinking feeling, on his first day in court, that he was about to lose it all.

In 1991, the Israeli military committee had ordered three-fourths of the farm taken by the state, claiming it was neither privately owned nor actively cultivated. The family went to court to challenge the order with land ownership papers dated and stamped 1924. But the military judge rejected the challenge, ruling the hand-drawn map inadmissible as evidence.

The ownership papers had been honored by Turkish, British and Jordanian rulers who came and went. And until the 1991 order, there had been no hint of trouble with the new Jewish overlords.

“I had nothing against the Israelis as a people, but to see them coming from other countries and trying to take this land, which we had owned for generations, it really frustrated us,” said Nassar, who was a 21-year-old undergraduate at Bethlehem University when the case went to court. “What else did we need, a document from God?”

Nassar, who has since married and fathered three children, sprinkles his conversation with biblical citations. He speaks with the upbeat certitude of someone who, not unlike the Jewish settlers, views his land battle as a matter of religious faith.

“There is a goal behind why we are here,” he said, explaining what he accepts as a Christian calling: While mounting a legal defense, he has plowed his frustration over judicial setbacks and delays into a project that uses the farm as a center for nonviolent activism.

With help from volunteers in Germany, where he did postgraduate studies in accounting, Nassar and his wife, Jihan, have started a summer camp called Tent of Nations, where children 12 to 16 years old, from war-torn countries, are invited to come learn about cross-cultural understanding and reconciliation. They also play host to visiting peace groups.

“We have to move out of this circle of blaming others,” Nassar said over tea on his wide porch as a large group of European peaceniks unloaded camping gear from a bus.

“Frustration is a power. It can prompt us to react violently, or to despair. We need to invest it creatively, building something, even if it is small.”

The Nassars returned to military court with a new survey map and scores of witnesses to back their land claim. The case languished until 2002, when the judge, without explanation, ruled against the family.

Few Palestinians have the money, will, know-how or faith in Israeli justice to challenge land takeovers in court, much less to appeal the military courts’ routinely unfavorable rulings. But Nassar tapped his family’s modest wealth and a peace-activist network that includes interfaith organizations in Europe and the United States, the Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights and his own Lutheran congregation in Bethlehem.

The Nassars appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court.

“Their faith in nonviolent resistance is a bit unusual,” said Jonathan Kuttab, a Virginia-trained Palestinian lawyer who teamed with Khoury to represent the family. “They had this crazy idea that maybe they could get justice.”

Eventually, the family got what it considered a fair hearing.

A skeptical Supreme Court panel demanded an explanation of the military court’s ruling and ordered a halt to the settlers’ incursions onto the property. The state attorney’s office argued that the farm’s coordinates did not precisely match those in the 1924 land documents.

The Nassars countered with a surprise star witness. At a cost of $70,000, they had hired a leading Israeli surveyor and sent him to London and Istanbul, Turkey, to dig up colonial land records, which were used in 2004 to rebut the state’s argument.

The state attorney’s office did not challenge the surveyor’s evidence but stalled for three more years before dropping the case — before the Supreme Court could rule. It has notified the Nassars that they may register their land, a process expected to take an additional year.

“For now they have won,” Kuttab said. “They get to keep their land — until the Israelis find another way to try to take it.”

That’s exactly what Shaul Goldstein was thinking as he eyed the Nassar farm from the neighboring ridge.

The Jewish mayor still rejects the Palestinian family’s claim to any land except the patch where its farmhouse sits.

“That is state land,” he said, pointing to a steep, uncultivated stretch. “Daoud Nassar went to court and tried to claim it, but he has not proven a thing.

“The state will decide what to do with that land,” he said, predicting that the family would not be allowed to register all 100 acres it claims. “If the state wants to give it to me, for my settlement, they will give it to me. All the land belongs to Israel. We can build wherever we want.”

Later, the mayor lamented that the settlers are not really so powerful. “The Supreme Court despises us,” he said, and “that provocateur, Daoud Nassar,” is using the legal system to stir up opposition to the settlers among Israelis as well as Palestinians.

The two adversaries, who live about half a mile apart but have never met, might be stuck with each other for years to come.

That is why Nassar proposes a dialogue with his Jewish neighbors, as long as they meet him unarmed.

“We have to change the picture we have of each other — the enemy picture, radical settlers and radical Palestinians,” he said. “If we talk face to face, we could lay a foundation for peace, a peace that cannot be dictated by our leaders.”

For his part, Goldstein said he has no objection to talking to Nassar.

“I will ask him to show me one document that proves he owns that land,” the mayor said, “and I will show him dozens of documents [from the military court] that prove otherwise.”

Told about the mayor’s idea, the farmer smiled.

“If he believes the land is given to him in the Bible as the Promised Land, then he ought to believe in the whole Bible,” Nassar said. “The Bible also says: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’

“If we can live by that rule, we can end this conflict.”

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times. boudreaux@latimes.com

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