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Senegal RPCV Alison Jones-Nassar fights for farm in Israel
Senegal RPCV Alison Jones-Nassar fights for farm in Israel
Palestinian Christian family fights for farm
BY MICHAEL MARTZ
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER Mar 16, 2003
As I write this, my husband is out making a last stand to defend his farm."
So begins the journal entry by former Chesterfield County resident Alison Jones-Nassar on Jan. 28, the day her husband, George, and a small band of unarmed supporters faced down a bulldozer driven by an armed Israeli settler on a hillside near Bethlehem.
The settler was not alone. The bulldozer, accompanied by a group of armed men from the nearby settlement of Neve Daniel, was clearing a road across land that Nassar and his family say they have owned and farmed for almost 80 years.
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The family's lawyer, Jonathan Kuttab, slipped as the bulldozer's scoop bit into the ground at the men's feet and then nudged him, according to accounts by the Palestinians. He stood up. They held their ground. The bulldozer stopped. The police arrived and turned back the settlers.
"Yet another unremarked act of courage in Palestine," wrote Jones-Nassar, a Virginia Commonwealth University graduate.
Jones-Nassar and her family are living at a different kind of ground zero, in the midst of one of the world's most intractable human conflicts. They are Palestinian Christians rooted in land that Jewish settlers - and the Israeli government - want to take.
Had the bulldozer made its way to the top of the hillside, a caravan of trailers would have followed, a new settler outpost would have been established, and a 12-year legal battle with the Israeli government would have been moot, the family said.
"It's not a pretty system," said Dorothy Weaver, a professor from Eastern Mennonite Uni versity in Harrisonburg who has visited the Nassar property. "It's not a just system."
Justice is not easy to find in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, a land that is part of ancient Palestine and, in the minds of Jewish settlers, a greater Israel that they consider a religious birthright. Acts of terror are not rare, though they never can be called common. The victims are not one race or faith.
"We know we are in a very dangerous situation," said Rabbi Arik Ascherman, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, established 15 years ago. "We face terror. We have to defend ourselves. Ultimately, our best self-defense is justice."
Ascherman does not see justice in the taking of Palestinian land for use solely by Jewish settlers. The facts may vary from case to case, he said, "but the overall picture is, yes, it's theft of land, and I don't mince words about it."
"I certainly hope we can turn this one back," he said.
The dispute began in 1991 - the same year that Alison married George Nassar - when the Israeli government declared half of the 100-acre farm to be "state land." The declaration asserted that the land was not privately owned or actively cultivated, but the Nassars regard the action as attempted confiscation.
"The issue of ownership of land is not clear-cut in many cases," said Alan Schneider, director of the B'nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem.
Moshe Fox, minister for public affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, contended, "It's untitled land that we are talking about."
But the Nassars said they have farmed the land and paid taxes on the property since 1924. It's known as "Daher's Vineyard" in the 1995 book, "I Am a Palestinian Christian," written by the family's pastor, the Rev. Mitri Raheb, of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem.
Raheb wrote that the family "could produce all the necessary documents proving their ownership, from the British Mandate authorities as well as from the Jordanian and Israeli governments" that had ruled the region.
The family - four brothers, five sisters and their mother - can't live on the land anymore because of the intensified violence between Israelis and Palestinians. But they still farm the property, growing grapes, olives, figs and wheat, despite attempts by armed settlers to stop them.
One brother, Daoud, is trying to grow a different crop on part of the property - peace among different faiths. The family committed part of the land two years ago to a project called "Tent of Nations," to bring together young Christians, Jews and Muslims in international camps.
But an Israeli military court ruled against the family's claim to half of the property a year ago. Their appeal is scheduled to be heard by Israel's Supreme Court on April 27.
The court's role is important to Tommy P. Baer, a Richmond immigration attorney and former president of B'nai Brith International. He doesn't know the facts of the case, but he said he believes in Israel's legal system.
"There is a rule of law. . . . Hopefully, the rule of law also translates into the rule of justice," Baer said.
"Whatever injustice these folks think has been wrought upon them, they have access to the highest court in the land," he added.
The day after the confrontation with the bulldozer, the Supreme Court issued an injunction against any further action by the settlers on the Nassar farm.
But the Nassars and their supporters say legal victory is always temporary for Palestinians in Israeli courts.
"The system as a whole is constructed to achieve an unjust result through legal means," said Kuttab, a Palestinian attorney who said he has handled many such land cases.
The other half of the property - which the government is not trying to take - is where the settlers from Neve Daniel tried to build a road. The next step, the Nassars said, would have been the sudden arrival of trailers on top of the hillside, creating "facts on the ground" that the family could not erase.
"The trailer - one day it's not there, the next day it's there," Alison Jones-Nassar said in a telephone conversation. "Once it's there, that's it - it's not going to move."
Jones-Nassar, 43, came to Israel in 1987 to work on an archeological project in Jerusalem. She had spent three years in the Peace Corps in Senegal in West Africa, after graduating with a degree in education from VCU.
She had lived in the Richmond area since 1974, when her father retired from the U.S. Air Force, and she graduated from Meadowbrook High School. Her mother and brother still live in Chesterfield County.
Now the mother of three young daughters, Jones-Nassar works at Bethlehem Bible College, coordinating all of the English-speaking classes and activities. She believes the region's Christian community is under siege.
"What's being done to Muslims is also being done to Christians," she said.
She is afraid for her husband's life. She thinks the family faces "overwhelming odds" in its court battle to save the farm. She said she hears little concern from U.S. leaders for Palestinians killed in the violence that wracks the West Bank.
"Ultimately, the impression that people are getting here is, our lives count for less," she said. "They count for nothing."
Rabbi Ascherman understands why the settlers want the Nassars' land. "As a religious Jew, as a Zionist, it is extremely painful to think of giving up . . . land where our ancestors walked, where our prophets walked.
"Having said that, there are things that are more important in this world, in this life, than land."
Contact Michael Martz at (804) 649-6964 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.