As part of this love, a few years ago he daringly invested all his savings in a small plot of land which he bought from a family who had emigrated to Chile. It was a neglected piece of land – about 5,600 square metres – and his dream was to clear it, cultivate it and grow almond trees, apricots, olive trees, tomatoes and grapes. His vision was to make it into a family haven where his children and grandchildren could picnic and play.
“It is my dream,” he says, “to grow summer fruit and vegetables and come and relax here with my family”. He hopes he might eventually follow an age-old local tradition and build a summer house where they can stay overnight during the beautiful spring and hot summer.This is a dream that any of us might have, but Nasser’s plot is in Area C, one of three divisions of Palestine that came into being in the 1990s during the Oslo Accords, and as such it is under full Israeli civil and military rule. Nothing can be built, expanded or developed without Israeli permission, but permits are nearly impossible to obtain.
Sixty percent of the West Bank is Area C, including 85% of the Bethlehem Governorate, but the Israeli Civil Administration, who grants permits, has approved only 1% of plans in Area C. Structures built without permission are demolished. In Al-Makhrour for instance, since 2011 a successful restaurant has been demolished three times, electric utility poles (funded by the EU) demolished twice and three agricultural structures have also been demolished. They were all built without permits.Nothing daunted, Nasser applied for and received a grant from HIRN (the Hebron International Resource Network) to develop the land. He hired some stone wall builders, employed two men to clear the boulders and began work. Although it was very heavy work he could not rent a bulldozer because the local contractors refused to come. They knew, as did he, that the Israeli Civil Administration would never give a permit for such a large piece of equipment, so he compromised and hired a small tractor and donkey instead. When we first visited it, the field was a mass of thorns, thistles, stones and broken walls, but within a month it was transformed. The ground was ploughed, stone walls rebuilt, the entrance made safe and the back-breaking business of clearing boulders begun. This may seem like a simple story of an agricultural adventure, a private dream, but it is in fact also an act of defiant resistance to the occupation.
Since 1967, Israel has been confiscating privately owned Palestinian land in order to build illegal Israeli settlements against International Humanitarian Law which does not allow the confiscation of private property except for military purposes. To get around this, Israel has used an outdated law from Ottoman times that states that if a land has not been tended for over three years, it will be declared “abandoned” and taken over by the state. As the human rights organisation the Society of St Yves says:
“Israel interpreted this outdated land code out of its proper meaning and context and uses it until today to justify the confiscation of Palestinian land in the West Bank whereby failure to cultivate land or ceasing of cultivation is used as an excuse to confiscate land.”
This is a violation of both local and international law. By cultivating this neglected piece of land with great care and attention, Nasser is doing all he can to stop this happening in Al-Makhrour.
But menace is never far away for Palestinians in Area C. When Nasser brought his 88-year-old mother to see his progress last week, Israeli police were patrolling his field, on the lookout for “illegal activity”. In previous years his predecessors had olive trees cut down by the police and the nearby Israeli settlement of Har Gilo, along with other surrounding settlements and outposts, is expanding towards him at a sickening rate. It is part of the huge and controversial Gush Etzion settlement block which, according to the UN and human rights organisations such as B’Tselem, is growing in a way that threatens to cut Bethlehem off from the rest of the West Bank. They compare it to the notorious E1 expansion of East Jerusalem into the Jordan Valley and call it E2. Al-Makhrour is right in the path of this strategically planned settlement development.Nasser’s dream is an example of hope against the odds. There is every chance that once his field begins to produce a harvest it will be attacked by settlers or by Israeli police, and it is also more than likely that he will never receive a permit to build a summer house. Nasser knows he is taking a risk, but he knows what he is doing and is determined. “I am committed to the land and to my family,” he says. “I would like to share in our independence, keep our land and develop it.” Nasser holds on to his dream of independence and land. He is full of hope and he makes this clear by giving me a warm invitation to visit him and his family this time next year to drink mint tea on his patio, overlooking a field groaning with summer fruits, a riot of flowers and dozens of bright almond and olive tree saplings.