As I recall my last visit to Gaza in March 2011, it was extremely tense for me; on 24 March, the day before we went, 50 Qassam rockets were launched into southern Israel. Upon our arrival, Israeli warplanes had already bombed several locations including one of Gaza’s electric generators near our hotel. Upon arriving at the hotel, the clerk gave us a customary warning:
“There may be shelling tonight by the Israeli army… if you hear loud explosions during the night, there is no need to panic and come running down to the reception area in your pajamas. Stay calm in your rooms and you will be all right!”
If we were not alarmed at that point, he gave us a good reason to worry. As we continued visiting the institutions later that day, everyone thought we were crazy to visit Gaza during “active wartime” and advised us to leave as soon as the Erez Crossing opens the following morning. Everyone expected an Israeli incursion; should that happen, the border would close and we would be stuck in Gaza until calm returns.
Not surprisingly, the next night was a sleepless one for me as I envisioned all of the “what if” scenarios. Moreover, Israeli F16 warplanes hovered in the skies and the occasional sound of shelling shook windows and caused widespread power outages.
When morning broke, I went downstairs to catch up with my colleague to compare notes over breakfast. Our driver later arrived and gave us a report about the events of last night and asked if we were ready to go to Erez. Despite the anxiety, we decided to stick to our original schedule and continue our visits to the various Christian institutions.
By noon, we made our way to Erez, bid goodbye to our driver and walked the lonely one-kilometer path inside the Erez terminal. Along the way, one more huge blast shook the whole building. All I could think of was the suffering of the brave people in Gaza and, in particular, the small Christian community that was left there. As we were driving to Jerusalem, I started to think of plans for a return visit as a show of solidarity.
That visit finally happened in July. After two attempts over a three-month period to secure a permit to reach Gaza, it was not until 18 July when we were told that the permit was ready and valid for the next two days. Frantically, I cancelled all my appointments and plans. The memories of the last visit were vivid, and I was expecting to see the same scenes.
Once in Gaza, it was very clear that the most obvious effects of the war were no longer visible. Buildings shelled during the war of December 2008 that remained in ruins have since been knocked down and bulldozers were busily clearing in preparation for reconstruction. The streets were much cleaner and some were paved with recycled materials or laid with bricks.
Four new shopping malls were opened and a series of chalets were constructed on Gaza beaches. Finally, we could not help but notice the number of brand new cars on the road. This is not the same Gaza I visited in March 2011!
Though my reflections are rather personal, I will attach a report generated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published this month, which highlights the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. After all, I do not want anyone to think that there is an economic boom going on in Gaza as a result of my account!
I was very happy to observe that Gaza is finally starting the long recovery from the war and public services are restored and open. In fact, Gaza’s beaches were full of people enjoying a dip in the Mediterranean. It was also a pleasant sight to see small children on the beach playing and swimming instead of collecting rubble from destroyed buildings.
In the midst of it all, we visited our Christian partners including:
- Near East Council of Churches (NECC), its executive headquarters to discuss future cooperation in a new project that will provide employment opportunities for university and vocational training graduates;
- NECC Clinic (Darraj) — to evaluate the impact of the new electric generator and dental clinics provided by some of our generous donors;
- NECC Vocational Training Center (VTC, in Qarrarah) — to sign a new cooperation agreement to renovate the center and provide equipment and workshop supplies;
- Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, to brief them on the status of the new project we are developing jointly to provide training and employment opportunities in the health sector;
- Rosary Sisters School, to discuss some of their small needs and to work with them through our networks to secure funding for the expansion of the school;
- The Orthodox Society of the MyrrhBearers, to obtain a progress report on the scholarship fund to assist Christian students studying in Gaza universities and to brief them on the status of their pending project to start a tailoring business that will provide employment opportunities;
- The Greek Orthodox Society, to visit their cultural center which is under construction and to discuss how we can support this important project;
- Catholic Relief Services, to catch up with their many efforts to assist the Christian community and to share the many operational difficulties they are currently facing;
- YMCA (Gaza) — to check on the progress of the gymnasium renovation project and encourage them to submit projects in favor of youth for possible funding.
- The Society of Women Graduates, to discuss the selection criteria of the beneficiary women university graduates and review forms used during this process.
During our many visits to mostly Christian institutions, there was always a reflection about the visible changes on the ground in Gaza and the relative calm. We were reminded everywhere we went that we should not render judgment without a serious evaluation of the situation and without being exposed to the real problems that face many institutions and the Christian community.
The Hard Reality
The reality of the Christian presence is indeed very dim. During this visit, I heard for the first time from many of our friends there that there is a need for the Church and Church-affiliated institutions to start seriously thinking of Christian senior citizens. With so many youth leaving, there are few left behind to take care of the old generation. Even people my age in their early fifties are starting to wonder what will become of their lives when they grow older. What will they do and who will take care of them? While in many other places this seems to be a standard concern, given the complexity of Gaza I was surprised to see these middle age professionals voicing their major apprehensions about the years ahead.
As far as employment prospects for the Christian youth, they fret that once they graduate from school and university, there will be no employment opportunities for them. Thus, we have a responsibility to see how we can work with them to develop their entrepreneurial skills so that they can be self-employed and grow their own employment opportunities.
There remains a great need to strengthen our Christian institutions in Gaza. The institutions and the people behind them are the true heroes of keeping the Christian witness alive. Whether in education, health care or social services, Christian institutions are strong pillars providing assistance to anyone who knocks on their door. Being a Christian in Gaza is not an easy task and being willing to stay there is a great challenge. Any support given to sustain this Christian presence will go a long way towards building society on a strong foundation rooted in Christian values.
- Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) for its ongoing support to subsidize the NECC Clinics in Darraj, Shaja’ia, and Rafah.
- Caritas Luxembourg / Switzerland and Kinderhilfe Bethlehem provided the electric generators and dental units.
- The Swiss Holy Land Foundation (SHLF) for supporting the operations of the Vocational Training Center in Qarrarah.
- The Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher for providing scholarships for Christian students studying at Gaza universities.
- The office of the Dutch Representative Office in Ramallah for subsidizing the renovation and equipping of the YMCA gymnasium.
- Kindermissionswerk for supporting some youth activities at the Holy Family School.
In a special way, I also wish to acknowledge the initial interest of the following donors who are seriously considering funding parts of the short-term employment projects in support of the marginalized unemployed inhabitants through the active Christian institutions in Gaza, particularly: Caritas Luxembourg, Caritas Switzerland, Misereor, Secours Catholique, and Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) Canada among others. Additional funds are needed to complete this important project. If interested, please contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of the proposal.
Regional Director for Palestine and Israel
29 July 2011