It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had. The location was a hilltop west of Bethlehem about a month ago, and my fellow dinner guests were 30 pastors and church leaders from the United States. That night, our bus parked at a cement-and-barbed-wire barricade, and we hiked about half a mile over two such barricades to have dinner at the top of the hill -- in a cave!
The prominent sign at the end of our hike proclaimed the slogan: “We refuse to be enemies.”
The parcel of land west of Bethlehem is only about 100 acres. It is owned by the Nassar family, a Palestinian Christian family who have lived on and farmed the land since 1916. It is squarely in the West Bank, and according to international law, belongs to the Nassar family and is not part of Israel. But today, it is surrounded by 50,000 Israeli settlers, living on similar land confiscated from other Palestinian families.
Why did we eat in a cave? Because despite their legal title, the family that owns the land has been forbidden by the Israeli government to build any structures on the land. We hiked over barricades because the government has closed the only access road this family has to their own land. They have also cut off electricity and water to the family, so they must use generators and solar panels for power -- and they now occupy the caves on the land as their only recourse.
In 1991, the Israeli government served notice that they planned to annex the Nassar land in order to expand the Israeli Gush Etzion settlement. Under Israeli law, Palestinian land that cannot be legally documented back to the Ottoman Empire (pre-1917), can be taken. Most West Bank families, though their families may have lived on the land for centuries, do not have the official documentation now required to prove ownership of their land, let alone the resources to be able to fight lengthy court battles.
But the Nassars have the rare documents that establish their ownership and the will to fight back, so for the last 20 years, they have struggled to retain their property in Israeli courts.
The stalwart resistance of this one family taking a stand against the confiscation of their land has become symbolic for Palestinian families of their 60-plus-year struggle to keep their ancestral land and be recognized as legitimate inhabitants of the Holy Land. And the Nassars' slogan, "we refuse to be enemies," captures their desire to live peacefully and share the land with both their Jewish and Muslim neighbors.
Many in the United States, and especially within the Church, have taken sides in this conflict without ever having been to the Middle East or having met any of the real people at the center of the conflict. Palestinians are stereotyped as Islamic terrorists, when most are just trying to raise families and earn a living in the face of daunting obstacles.
All too often, isolated Bible verses about the Promised Land are quoted, and blanket rationalizations about fighting terror and ensuring security are made as though they somehow justify terrible injustices committed against Palestinian families. When we let the ends justify the means, we open the door for terrible moral consequences.
Many of the Palestinians our group met were Christians, despairing over the dwindling Christian population in the land of the Bible, and wondering why the American Church has turned a blind eye to their persecution.
Whatever your theology or your political views about the conflict in the Middle East, I ask you to put yourself in the shoes of this Christian family, the Nassars, and ask yourself three questions:
How would you feel if someone tried to confiscate your family home, rendering you and your children homeless?
Would the Jesus you worship cut off a family’s electricity and water, barricade their road, and confiscate their land?
Would He use this kind of force to accomplish His political goals -- or would Jesus, like the Nassar family, also "refuse to be enemies"?
For more information on the Nassar land dispute, visit www.tentofnations.org.
Note: World Vision’s position on the Middle East conflict is to oppose any and all human- and civil-rights abuses and violence of any kind by either side. We hope for a peaceful solution that recognizes the legitimate rights of both sides to live securely and with human dignity.