Today, I think I only want to tell a couple of stories and let a few pictures speak for me. I’m not sure I could do justice to what we have seen and heard.
First, we went to one of the offices of Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees here in Jerusalem, and we spoke via video call to two of their workers in Gaza (as close to Gaza as we’re going to be able to get, many of you friends and family will be relieved to hear — the entrance is under even stricter Israeli control than usual because of the current situation). But before we could speak with them, we had to wait for the electricity to be turned on there, as it’s only on for 8 hours (and while we were waiting, our electricity went out temporarily as a result of the torrential rain we’ve had today).
The young woman we talked with told us about her experiences of the summer:
We have war in Gaza every two years. I am 33 years old, so I have witnessed many wars. But this was my first war as a mother. All I could think of was how to protect my one year old child. For 51 days, I lived in fear of losing her, and every day, I prayed that if she was going to die, I would die with her. I cannot be without her.
My husband works with the Red Crescent, so I was not only afraid of losing my child, but also my husband. We know many people who died, and one time, our building was under attack.
Please, go home. Talk about our city. Advocate our cause. Tell everyone we are against the conflict. We just want peace.
They said that Hamas has minority support (only about 25%, though it rises slightly during conflicts), but that Gaza is like a prison (let’s be honest: it is a prison), and when the pressure builds, it has to be released somehow. Gazans do not teach their children violence. They do not raise them to be terrorists. But, they freely admitted, kids play with the bullets and the bombs and the shrapnel because that is what they find in their streets. War affects the psychology of children (and part of DSPR’s work is to provide psychosocial support to child victims and witnesses of war), and so violence and terrorism are taught indirectly.
There were 1313 Christians living in Gaza. Ten were killed over the summer. And the situation throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories is increasingly concerning for Christians. In conversation after conversation, the Christians we have spoken with have confessed that they are thinking of leaving: ‘I love this country’, they say. ‘It has been my family home for generations. And I could tolerate it before, but now, I have to think of my children’s future, and I do not want them to be raised in fear, or as second-class citizens.’
We then went via the Qalandia checkpoint to the Jalazon Refugee Camp in Ramallah.
We visited the YWCA community centre and learned about the kindergarten they run and the vocational training they give to women in the community. Sadly, because of the rain, we couldn’t meet any children. Rain means school is cancelled. There is poor drainage, which means the streets become rivers. There is an inadequate sewage system, so the water is not safe for the children to walk through. And the rain had knocked out electricity in parts of the camp.
But we did have the rare opportunity to visit a family in the camp.
They shyly but warmly welcomed us into their home, and we sat in an open plan lounge/kitchen area, almost dark but for a lit oil lamp, despite the fact it was early afternoon. We could smell the Arabic coffee being prepared. They have lived in that house for four years, but the extended family had been in the camp for over 60 years, after the husband’s family was forced from their home in 1948. His father’s picture and story are in a book he proudly showed us.
They have six children, but their eldest son is in jail and will be there for at least two years. He had been arrested while playing with friends near the settlement which sits opposite their school. The second-eldest was killed, shot in the back by Israeli soldiers, also while playing near the settlement. They found a picture of him, taken after he had died, on their mobile phone and passed it around for us to see.
The father cannot work because he was shot during the first intifada and his injury still causes him pain. It’s likely the family is supported by extended family.
‘Is there anything you would like to say to people back in Scotland?’ we asked.
Only that we want an end to occupation. We want peace. We are tired of the fighting. Tired of death.
‘What gives you hope?’
That one day there will be peace.
‘Do you think it will happen, and if so, how?’
I don’t know how. No, I don’t think it will happen. Not in my lifetime.
As this conversation took place, the youngest child came into the room with a laptop, switched it on and started playing video games. The parents promptly put an end to that.
A moment of total normality and familiarity in a situation that was anything but.
‘How do you feel about living here?’ someone asked the children.
We like it. Our friends are here. We can go to school.
‘What is your favourite tv programme?’ someone else asked.
The news. Always we are watching the news. Always we hope to see change and peace.
As we left, they quietly said thank you to us for coming and listening. And I couldn’t help but think that the privilege was entirely ours.
I have never felt so humbled or helpless. ‘What does my priesthood have to do with this?’ I found myself asking as we ran back through the pouring rain to the community centre. What — in these last days as we look forward to the start of Advent and Christmas, as we prepare for the birth of a Palestinian refugee — what message of hope, what Good News, what act of love does the Church have to offer people like those I met today?
I have no answers.
Psalm 30 says that weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning. Morning still feels very, very far off.