Of course, this title is the most ironic one I could choose as it is something I will never do, and yet I choose it because it is the one thing many who are imprisoned in Gaza believe is most often done, by those of us, who live outside their walls, …forget them. It would also be the easiest thing to do because this truly is one of the most complicated situations we currently live with on this globe. And that is often what we humans, even people of faith, do in the face of such situations.
Bishop Barry Beisner (Northern California) and I were granted permission by the Israeli Government to enter Gaza and we did so just about a week ago. We both were grateful for this permission and for the invitation. We were the guests of the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. As Rector of St. James’, Austin, Al Ahli Arab was one of our major outreach ministries. The Director of the Hospital visited St. James at one point, and some from our congregation had visited there, but I had never gotten to do so.
We traveled from Jerusalem to the Erez crossing. This is the only crossing on the Israeli border. There is a crossing on the Egyptian border but the people in Gaza I spoke with say that crossing is actually often closed and even more unreliable, which is hard to believe. Still, Erez is no picnic. You will not find pictures here as we are not allowed to take them and I know why. While getting through it was simple enough, coming back was a bit more troubling. I was wearing a purple shirt and a collar, had a government permit, and was put through a few things that could only be considered humiliation, and having nothing to do with security. I wondered, if they did this to me, what it must be like for those they are actually profiling and consider their enemies here, and not their countrymen.
It was reported while we were there that the population of Gaza has hit two million. All in 139 square miles, a strip 25 miles long and about 7 miles wide at its widest part. In this population, about 2500 are Christians. The unemployment rate is 40%. People there get about two to four hours of electricity a day. In the 24 hours I was there it went off countless times. Many places we visited had generators, a fact of life, but most homes do not.
I could write forever about Gaza, its plight and history, but that has been done again and again. Instead I want to tell you of our visit this time and I hope you will take the initiative to find out more about Gaza but even more I hope you will take the time to go to the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem Website and learn about the many ministries they have across Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, and the Middle East. In fact, I urge you to visit two websites, that of the Diocese and the American Friends of the Diocese of Jerusalem (Ms. Janet McCully from St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle serves on this Board and we have many supporters in this diocese including me!) The American Friends support many of the ministries we visit on our trips, and they support the hospital in Gaza too.
We were specifically the guests of the Assistant Administrator Ms. Samira Farah and the Medical Director, Dr. Maher Ayyad. Dr. Ayyad had traveled to Jordan in the days before our visit. On his way back to see us he was detained in Jericho for over 6 hours before he was allowed to make his way back. This entire trip, unencumbered, would be about 2.5 hours, and it took him almost a whole day. Sadly, this is usual. But once he made it, he made time for us, and the staff at the hospital spent a generous amount of time with us for both days. You cannot imagine the good this small hospital does in this huge population. From the website “The hospital offers to serve all who seek treatment without prejudice to any religious or ethnic community and irrespective of social class, gender and political affiliation.” This is very rare in other institutions within Gaza. And patients we talked to reiterated this very important point over and over again. Here is Samira, our host, greeting a staff member.
Thanks to US Aid, there is a new building, a diagnostic clinic on the grounds. This is one of the first buildings on the campus in many years. The American Friends of the Diocese of Jerusalem have recently purchased the first Digital Mammogram in Gaza. The hospital currently does provide mammograms but it is not digital. In other words the current machine still produces actual radiological film that you can hold in your hand and must be read on-site or sent “hard copy” to another site. A digital machine produces a reading that can be read from anywhere in the world. This is the only piece of equipment currently in this new building, but they have built space for an MRI and a CT Scanner. As of this time they are not sure if they will ever actually get those machines.
Ms. Suhaila Tarazi is the Administrator of Al Ahli Hospital. Unfortunately she was in Turkey at a meeting for administrators so we did not get to meet with her, but I offer this video of her where she explains the history and importance of this hospital in Gaza.
There is a beautiful chapel in the middle of campus. Just left of the altar in this picture, is a repaired mortar hole. The chapel was hit by an Israeli rocket in the early 2000s. It punctured the roof and then landed in the floor of the chapel.
We were shown around the hospital by the Psycho-Social Director Muhamad Ali shown below on the far right, and the Nursing Director, whose name I cannot remember, but his most welcoming spirit I will never forget.
This is shrapnel damage which penetrated a window in the Maternity Ward. The rocket was fired by the Israeli Defense Forces at a cemetery which is directly adjacent to the hospital.
As a former hospital administrator I was intrigued by the key system. This bowl of keys sits on the main desk of the hospital. It reminded me of how many things we take for granted in our world which are pure luxuries in Gaza.
Taking a brief break from the hospital, we were taken to the Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius just behind the hospital. Porphyry is a saint specific to Gaza. I encourage you to read more about him online. This church began in 402.. The Crusaders built the current structure. We wanted to see it because this church took in 2000 people displaced by the bombing last year and housed them there for many days. The surprise was the beauty and history of this grand place. The font was amazing, built out of stone, right out of the floor.
We were also taken to Jabalyah, a small community just outside Gaza City which was the main location of the most recent 2014 bombing. We saw street after street of bombed out homes. But this area was hit also because it is the industrial and manufacturing area. We saw a major dairy farm, a concrete factory, and other manufacturing destroyed and still in ruins. Most of the homes, such as these, were still inhabited by the families that call them home.
While there is some rebuilding, for the most part this area remains in ruins.
A term you might google is “Roof Knocking”, whereby the Israeli Defense Forces send a warning shot before bombing. They also call the people who inhabit these homes and tell them they are targeting their home and they should vacate. It was reported to us that they will often call many more than they will actually bomb, of course displacing those who vacate and causing major disruption. In most cases the IDF states that weapons were known to be in this place, or it is the home of terrorists or their family, or that they detected a rocket being fired from the site. This “intelligence” is not always so. The death toll in the 2014 bombing vary by organization counting. You can find some of the lists here. The UN stated that 2205 Palestinians died in this bombing, compared to 71 Israelis. Of these 1483 were Palestinian civilians and 5 civilians on the Israeli side. This leads to a question often heard in the conflict about “proportionality.”
This particular building is called “The Italian” I believe because it was designed and built by an Italian. When the 2014 bombing neared an end, the IDF began hitting high rises. In this case they called the 500 residents of this building warning them to evacuate, and then they did, in fact, bomb it. It remains as it was when the bombing ended. There was much talk of the word and rumor that the IDF has said, they will begin where they left off in the next bombing. Another term you might look up is “mowing the grass” which is what the IDF policy is termed of doing enough bombing each time to knock Hamas back just a bit, weakening its ability to launch rockets, etc.
I have to say in my many travels here, in the West Bank, and now Gaza, I am far, far from an expert on this. But I have no problem stating something is very wrong. I am still one that believes in the right of the State of Israel to exist. I understand my Jewish friends who are very clear that they desire peace, but they also worry about those who want to kill them and most especially their grandchildren. Were I in the similar situation, I think I would feel exactly the same. Israel’s desire for security is not misplaced or sinister. However, the process to attain this has run aground. It is no longer tenable to assume that all Arabs, Muslim or Christian, are an enemy. This is why I am very troubled by US candidates who say such things as “I would carpet bomb them into oblivion”. Who is “them”? When you carpet bomb, “them” becomes anyone in the path of that bomb. “Them” works if you want to eradicate an entire faith. “Them” works when you want to wipe out anyone and everyone that does not look like you. “Them” works when you have decided that those being killed are not equal to you, or even human in your eyes. Otherwise, “them” is reckless, ignorant, and petty and it has nothing at all to do with the values in our Christian faith, or any Abrahamic faith.
As in so many troubled places I have had the privilege to visit in this world, the vast majority of the population in those places simply want to live in peace, to provide for their families, to have some modicum of freedom of movement. I believe that about Gaza too. I did not hang out with military officials, or a resistance movement, or people plotting how to bring down another people. I met with people trying to feed their family, trying to pray as they desired, who were plotting how to find some peace in all that had been handed them, who are deeply desirous of a life where they, and those they love, can laugh, and grow, and learn, and live in something other than constant fear. In some ways, people on all sides of this conflict share this desire, if they share nothing else. Though it is not new, I so pray that this shared hope and dream will come to the top of the list of issues and demands, and not be pushed to the bottom, viewed as an unrealistic hope. Only leaders make it such. The kind of leadership needed on both sides will be courageous, and risky. I pray for the rise of the ones who have those qualities.
The last words our new friends and fellow Christians said to us as we left the hospital and headed back to the crossing were these, “Don’t forget us.” For me, that will be, forever, impossible.