News from Pontifical Mission

Personal Account — Visit to Gaza Posted: Mar 16 2010 12:00AM

The Long Introduction to Gaza

On Tuesday 2 March 2010 and after several attempts over the past four months the call came from the office of the General Administrator at the Latin Patriarchate Fr. Humam Khzouz that the “coordination” effort to enter Gaza finally paid off and I have clearance to enter Gaza. On Thursday morning I set out at 6:30 a.m. and was at the Erez checkpoint at 7:45 a.m. Anxious to spend as much time as possible inside Gaza, I was the first to arrive. I presented my ID and identified myself only to be told that the office that deals with Israeli ID’s inside the terminal opens at 8:30 a.m. and there is no one there yet to confirm that I have a permit to enter. At exactly 8:30 a.m. I returned to the security booth as the diplomatic cars were starting to arrive, as well as a heavy guarded delegation from the European Union. Obviously, these VIP’s had precedence over this over-eager Palestinian. Once all the VIP’s were processed, I was told that it does not appear that there is a clearance for me to enter. The young security agent asked for my mobile phone number and said that some official from inside the terminal will call me to explain the situation.

One full hour later, the lady called me up to her security booth, handed me my ID back along with the “permit” and started to explain to me the conditions of the permit, and in the middle of all this, the mobile phone rings and the long awaited call from inside the terminal came. I thought the officer will greet me and maybe apologize for this long delay, but instead, he started telling me that there was no coordination for me and I could not enter Gaza that day. I did not argue too much, now that I had the permit in hand. I politely ended the call and thought that given the circumstances I was not about to disclose the conversation to the officer inside the bullet proof booth. I thanked her for the permit and proceeded through the heavily guarded metal gate to the terminal. I was not sure what to expect next, may be the officer who spoke to me would show up and accuse me of disobeying his instructions? I acted as normally as I could and once inside the huge empty terminal was processed in about 5 minutes and was pointed in the direction of a very clear shiny sign that had an arrow pointing to a pathway clearly marked “GAZA”.

Walking the Lonely Path towards Gaza

Once I cleared the Israeli side, I started a long walk (approximately 1 kilometer) through a covered pathway with steel metal rods on both sides at the end of which I arrived at the Palestinian Authority checkpoint where I was cleared quickly for entry to Gaza.

My host, the Medical Director of Near East Council of Churches (NECC) Health Program, Dr. Salim Abadlah, was happy to see me come through, having been there waiting for me for two hours. We got into the car and drove for a few hundred meters where we were stopped again at the Hamas checkpoint. There was no question at this point as to who is in charge of Gaza. A businesslike questioning occurred as to who I was, my job affiliation, the purpose of my visit to Gaza and the address of my destination in Gaza. All the information was entered in their database and a personal photo taken, and finally I was cleared and on my way into Gaza....

First Impressions

Thus my long awaited journey to Gaza was now two hours behind schedule and had to end in a few hours. As we were rushing through to our first stop, I could not help notice the devastation and destruction. Countless buildings reduced to rubble, the streets were full of potholes and the rubble piled both sides of the narrow streets, mule and horse carriages filled the narrow streets slowing traffic on whatever is left of the various roads to a standstill. Sand and dust filled the streets and there were no clear signs of any cleanup after the war. Little did I know, but a lot is being forced due to lack of building supplies, asphalt, equipment, and spare parts. One common sight was children and youth colleting the remains of building bricks from the devastation of shelled buildings, which are now being primitively recycled to be used to build again. I am not an engineer, but I am almost certain that such recycled building blocks will be extremely unsafe to use. However, the continued blockade left very little choice to people who want to use their creativity under the harsh blockade conditions Gaza continues to endure with no supplies going in.

As we were getting close to our first destination, I could notice grocery stores filled with goods and an increasing number of cars on the same devastated roads. I questioned these two relatively positive indicators, and the quick answer came from my hosts that the many tunnels from the Egyptian side of Rafah to the Palestinian side is what stocks the shops with basic food commodities, but they were quick to point out that everything is so much more expensive given that such goods are smuggled in and thus the “transportation” costs are very high since many end up paying with their lives smuggling such goods through the primitive unsafe tunnels. As for the increasing number of cars I see on the road, again this was due to the fuel that is smuggled from Egypt. I was told that gas costs a mere NIS 1.30 per liter (we pay NIS 6.5 per liter in Jerusalem)!! Of course not all of it is good news, since the quality of such fuel is well below standard and this means frequent visits to car mechanics to clear clogged carburetors, which drives the maintenance costs up.

Mother and Child Clinic at Shajaia

As we were getting close to our first destination, being the Mother and Child Clinic which we re-established as a result of the complete destruction of the previous clinic which we subsidized, I asked to stop at the site of the destructed clinic. To my amazement, it is an empty lot surrounded by three buildings, one on each side and one behind the lot. I asked my host if the other three standing building are new construction, and the answer was that all three buildings were there when the clinic was demolished by a missile, and it was clear that the only building in the neighborhood that was targeted was the clinic. Until today, no one has any logical explanation as to why a clinic that is clearly marked would get demolished completely in the middle of the night only eight days before the war ended in January 2009? After surveying the site and its surroundings we got back into the car for a short drive to the next block where the new Clinic proudly stood.

Needless to say, a person my age with four children and aging parents has been through many clinics in his life, but none like this one. As I entered, I saw cleanliness, order, women and children happily sitting in the waiting area and in clinics, getting professional, complete and courteous service. The women doctor on duty was happy to interrupt her routine to explain to me the sophisticated homemade computer program they use in the clinic to maintain patient records. There is no paper used here she explained.

Once a patient comes in for the first time, we create a data base for them and an ID number is established. All pertinent and historical data is entered and a thorough examination is conducted. If lab tests are needed, they get through electronically to the lab technician and the request goes on a queue that appears in the lab, and the patient moves on to the lab. Should medications be prescribed, the same electronic communication takes place and the patient proceeds to the pharmacy across from the doctor’s clinic and receives the medications. All communication is electronic and all data is stored and archived for future reference. Patients receive quality service and they are off the door. I was impressed at first site with how sophisticated this all is, especially that the server of the clinic complex is a modest laptop computer, and electrical outage averages about 12 hours during the day and the center is hanging on the thread of a small generator during the continuous outages. It was amazing how much can be done with such limited resources and when all odds are against you!

I still was not entirely convinced and thought that these professionals knew I was coming and thus wanted to paint the most positive picture to impress me. So I proceeded to visit the various sections of the clinic including the expectant mothers section, the psychosocial section, and the office of the social worker, the laboratory, the pharmacy, and the site of the dental clinic which is still in progress. In the corridors, there were a few women waiting their turn to get into the laboratory, so I thought this is my chance to get the real story, straight from the end beneficiaries. I walked up to them and introduced myself and asked about the level of service they receive and if they come here only because the service is free. To my pleasant surprise came the answer from all three mid-aged women. “All clinics and medical centers in Gaza provide free services, but we only come here because we get quality treatment with respect and in dignity. We do not get that in other places”. I was speechless and moved to the next stop on the upper level of the clinic where a loud noise of clapping and singing was coming from.

We went up the few stairs to find a group of about 20 children aged 10-12 singing and happily dancing the traditional Palestinian Dabkeh. My host explained that the clinic staff is also engaged in psycho-social therapy sessions targeting school children severely affected by the war, and they bring them in, one group after the other to be engaged in extracurricular activities and help them be children again. I watched in amazement at the loving and caring spirit with which all this is taking place.

“Pontifical Mission acted swiftly to re-establish the clinic when word of its destruction circulated and within a mere few weeks we started re-establishing and furnishing and equipping the clinic and it was in full service a mere 3 months after its destruction” remarked Dr. Abadlah in a very appreciative way as he reminded me of our time limitations and the need to move on. Had I had more time, I would have loved to spend the full day in this place full of life, love and caring. Had I had to leave Gaza at that point, I would have left a very proud man of what my agency has done to relieve the suffering!

Near East Council of Churches — Our Strategic Partner

We were back in the car in the midst of the midday traffic jam heading towards the headquarters of the NECC in Gaza City. I could not help notice the large number of motorbikes on the road. Evidently, with no new cars coming in since the blockade, these forms of transportation became the next best thing, other than mules and donkeys, which could be smuggled in through the tunnels. Once we arrived at the NECC offices, the first thing you see are some damaged remains of a few pieces of equipment pulled from the rubble of the destroyed clinic at Shija’ia — a constant reminder of the brutality of the senseless attack. I could not resist but to ask our host if we can take a photo. At long last I stepped into the office of Mr. Constantine Dabbagh, better known as Abu Su’ad, who is the executive secretary at NECC and our main collaborator in Gaza. Though we never met before, there was this rush to hug and greet each other the traditional Palestinian way. I felt at first sight that we knew each other for a very long time. Finally, and after months of keeping in contact over the phone and via emails, we had a chance to sit across from each other and discuss the challenges and successes. It was a wonderful exchange at the end of which I was taken for an extensive tour of their facilities.

Though we have been subsidizing the operations of the NECC for over 20 years, as I am told by my colleagues in the office, I must admit that I knew very little about their operations other than the three clinics. The tour of the facilities revealed a very vibrant operation that has many training centers and workshops. On the ground floor is a tailoring workshop dedicated to older widowed women to provide the use of equipment free of charge so they can use their skills and earn a living in dignity. The proud look on the faces of these women was very clear.

We then moved to the tailor training workshop which provides a one year training course in tailoring techniques targeting school dropouts to equip them with a profession they can make a living with. The energy demonstrated by these twenty students who must have been in the 16-18 age group was not one of school dropouts, but rather teenagers looking eager to finish their training and move on in life. The third stop was at the computer lab which is also the house of the administrative secretary training program which is a one year training program in languages, writing, and computer skills. One of the students decided to show off her English skills and told us in perfect English that she hopes to land a job with one of the international corporations that will eventually come to Gaza once she graduates. It was clear that the hope is very well alive in the eyes of this young lady for a better future for her and for Gaza.

The final stop at the center was to meet with the staff of the Emergency Assistance Program still ongoing as I visited, and with the social workers who receive the applications, do the home visits and onsite evaluations, collect the supporting documents and make a determination on the worthiness of each case to receive aid. A clear criterion is followed and the workers are very faithful in ensuring that they work in a very transparent way.

The team went out of its way showing me samples of their work and urged me to talk to some of the applicants available in the center at the time of my visit, an invitation I appreciated. It was clear that the recipients were very appreciative of the assistance granted to them, and noted that they use the money to buy basic food supplies. Their only complaint was that the NECC team was too strict in their selection criteria. My host was proud to point out that they would rather return unused funds rather than spend them in an inefficient manner. He added that the needs are great, but more time is needed to get the funds to the neediest. I promised him and his team to lobby with our many contributors to this project for more time to allow them to do their work properly.

Our Eyes and Ears on the Ground — Myrrh Bearers

My next meeting was with members of the board of the voluntary Myrrh Bearers Orthodox Society who manages the emergency assistance program to help some 100 Christian families. The mostly ladies group was most appreciative of the assistance granted to the Christian families, especially after the war. They explained to me the mechanism they use to allocate funds, especially the attention they pay to ensure there is no duplication in funding. A list of needy Christian university students who study at Gaza universities was presented to assist them with their tuition fees. The list was clearly marked with a column that included their evaluation of each case, and they noted if there were other organizations assisting the students. A great sense of responsibility was clear in their approach. I explored with them some possibilities for future funding to meet their growing needs. Though the meeting was short, it was important to touch base with this group of dedicated Christian local volunteers trying to do the best they can under very difficult circumstances.

The Important Interventions of the Church

Due to the lack of time and an emergency meeting scheduled with municipal officials, I was not able to visit the Rosary Sisters School in Gaza which we helped renovate major parts of the school premises that were damaged during the war. However, I spoke on the phone with Sr. Davida Twal, school principal who briefed me on progress of the renovations and apologized for not being able to receive me due to this emergency meeting with municipal authorities. She had prepared a report including photos of the renovated spaces and she sent the report to me with the school secretary.

I told Sr. Davida that I hope to visit Gaza soon and look forward for a meeting in the very near future. She was most appreciative with what we were able to do from a distance.

Fr. Jorge Hernandez had barely completed one year as the Latin parish priest, as well as the principal of the Holy Family School in Gaza — my next appointment. He arrived in Gaza immediately after the war, replacing Fr. Manuel Musallam, an icon and the leading Christian voice out of Gaza for so long. Though born in Argentina, he spoke fluent Arabic and was very eager to share with me the many challenges facing the whole Palestinian population in Gaza as a result of the continuing blockade, and in particular those affecting Christians. “It is clear that life under Hamas cannot be categorized as systematic persecution against the Christian population, but it is neither a very welcoming environment either” Fr. Jorge said. Alcohol is no longer permitted in Gaza, even for Christians, and the general feeling is neutral. He explained that the situation seems to be a tense one and there is a lot to be desired to make the local Christians feel welcome. His assessment is that many of the remaining Christians talk about emigration should the opportunity arise. He complained about the meager resources available to him and the sense of isolation. I offered assistance in the traditional areas we work in, primarily in youth support and job creation programs and invited him to submit proposals for funding. He was very happy to hear my offer and said that one of his main priorities is to care for the youth and reactivate the Boy Scout troop. Despite the difficulties, this young priest is full of energy and ideas and will do what he can to be a voice of love and peace in a hostile environment.

Brotherhood Park — A Great Sign of Hope

With the limited time I had left, I asked my hosts to arrange for a visit to the Brotherhood Park at Al-Shati (Beach) Refugee Camp which was launched with funding from The Doty Foundation in 2001. A hastily arranged visit was put together to include a meeting at the Park with Gaza municipality officials.

I was delighted to see the park in full operation: old people sitting on benches chatting, children playing in the sandy playground, and youth playing a game of soccer in the basketball court. Even some of the grass was greener than ever and some of the rose bushes in full bloom. The areas that needed renovation and maintenance were pointed out to me including the mid-park pool area, some broken benches and tables, maintenance work for the restrooms, painting for the wooden and steel panels, new basket board rings, etc. Much of the needed work is a result of normal wear and tear after it has been in use with minimal regular maintenance for over 9 years. There was no evidence of vandalism or war related damage. The park area seemed to be an oasis, despite the needed maintenance works, in a sea of destruction.

This was one space where the residents seemed to want to cling to, to keep clean. There was a different feeling around the park, away from the crowded dusty streets; a safe, clean place that people wanted to preserve. There was a desperate plea to provide funding to do the needed restoration and maintenance works. We took many photos and promised my hosts and the municipal staff to lobby on their behalf to secure the necessary funding to do the works.

Quality and not Quantity is what Counts

The last stop was a working lunch with the board of trustees and senior staff of the NECC at a fish restaurant on the Mediterranean Sea. This was an opportunity to get an honest assessment of the situation on the ground from the leaders of the Christian community in Gaza, a group of dedicated professionals, successful businessmen, doctors, and university professors.

After the first 10 minute social encounter, it was clear to me that these professionals were not a bunch of defeated people facing the challenges of the blockade or life under Hamas. On the contrary, what I heard was much of the same discussions I hear in Jerusalem and during my travels and encounters with Christians on the West Bank. As Christians, we have a role to play in society despite our small number. “Quality and not quantity is what counts” said the chairman of the board Mr. Elias Manneh and continued “despite our small number, we are a force to be reckoned with and we have our weight in society”. These are proud people of their contributions to society, of their long history in Gaza, and of the importance of the Christian presence. No one was speaking of emigration or of persecution around the table, but rather how best we can strengthen the Christian presence in Gaza. The discussions were truly inspirational and only solidified my belief that our intervention in Gaza was timely, much needed, and went a long way in strengthening the Christian presence.

The Rush Back

I was reminded by my host that we needed to get back on the road to ensure that I meet the deadline for my exit from Gaza. After a great meal with wonderful company, I set back into the hard realities of Gaza. The driver took us back through the wrecked streets of Beit Lahia where destruction was so evident. Many buildings were destroyed, a school on our way half destroyed with the middle part completed demolished and both ends standing tall, and garbage lined the streets. We finally arrived at the Hamas checkpoint, now the first clearance point on my way back. There were about 6 diplomatic and EU marked cars ahead of us lined up to enter. It looked like this is the place, as a Palestinian, I was being given preferential treatment where I was cleared ahead of all the VIP’s ahead of me. Maybe it was a statement by the Hamas official in the rusty container that since the international community does not wish to talk to Hamas, we can at least make you sweat a little on your way back to Israel! We drove quickly to the PNA checkpoint where a final clearance must be coordinated with the Israeli side before I am allowed back in this lonely one kilometer pathway. After a 5 minute wait, clearance was given. I said my goodbye to these fine people I only met a mere 5 hours before, but now feels that I have known them a lifetime, and started to walk. There was only one other person making the lonely return back.

We both started rushing to make this 20 minute walk before the magical closing time of 3:30 p.m. I was standing inside this state of the art metal detector that encircles you twice as you wait with your hands up in the air at exactly 3:25 p.m., a mere 5 minutes before the deadline. Though no questions were asked, and although the terminal (which can potentially process hundreds of people at a time) had only 4 people inside it, it took a further 40 minutes to grant me the final clearance to leave.

Final Thoughts

I am sure it will take me a very long time to absorb what I saw in this brief visit, but my initial reflection is one of great pride of the wonderful work we were able to advance in Gaza in 2009 as a result of the war and beyond. Some of the work is ongoing into 2010. Our work is much needed and is very much appreciated. My only hope for the future is that we will be able to do more. Our strategic contributors to our work, namely Caritas Switzerland and Luxembourg, Secours Catholique, Manos Unidas, Kinderhilfe Bethlehem, Misereor, PMK, CNEWA — US, and CNEWA Canada should be very proud of how their money was spent and how far it went to alleviate the suffering in Gaza. The NECC Mother and Child clinic is back in full operation serving tens of thousands of disadvantaged people in Gaza. And again, all the quality services are provided with love and in dignity.

As for our strategic partners in Gaza, administrators and staff at NECC, particularly Mr. Constantine Dabbagh, staff of Shija’ia Clinic, staff of Rosary Sisters School, Myrrh Bearers Orthodox Society volunteers, Fr. Jorge and his school staff, and many others, it should be pointed out that they should be very proud of their contributions to society at large, but most importantly to the Christian witness in Gaza. Indeed, it is quality and not quantity that counts.

I am enthusiastically looking forward to my next visit to Gaza!

Sami El-Yousef
Regional Director
Pontifical Mission
Jerusalem