These greetings are never unemotional. They come from a place deep in me, a place of anger, a place that pushes me to a very turbulent edge and makes me want to cry out and rail against injustice like an OT prophet. I snuck away for a few hours in Jordan to visit the Dead Sea, a place I had never been to. On the way the taxi driver pointed to a sign that said we were descending into the lowest point on earth. Geographically or geologically, that might be true (although there is a place in Ethiopia that makes the same claim, and I am generally biased towards African claims, but that’s another discussion!). Be that as it may, in terms of injustice and the inhumanity metered out on people by people, this little strip of land must be the lowest point on earth.
At least this time we crossed the border easily. Last year with no other people to cross into this huge prison and four people on duty at the border, it took us over seven hours to get our passports stamped and for some like Archbishop Brislin it took even longer! Clearly last year the authorities did not want us to see first hand the raw aftermath of the 51 days of bombardment of this area nor hear the stories of the weary people who endured bomb after bomb with no place to take refuge. Clearly they had hoped that we would tire and return to Jerusalem. Instead we sat there, prayed, drank not very good coffee and claimed a protest space alongside the rolls of barbed wire.
I suspect that the negative publicity that it evoked made for the easier crossing this time, and it meant that the sun was shining as we walked the half km through the heavily barbed wire cage, under the watchful eye of armed soldiers, within the shadow of another great barrier wall extending to the left and to the right. Buffer areas deprive the populace of 30% of all arable land. Later we would meet a young man, legs bandaged and walking with difficulty on crutches who while keeping his father’s sheep, went after one stray lamb and wandered too near the buffer zone and was shot by the military. The Biblical story of the Good shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep rang hauntingly true as we listened to his story.
It just boggles the mind that 1.8m people live in this mostly desolate strip of land 41kms in length and between 6-12kms wide, people with no possibility of any movement outside of its borders. Israel controls the land, sea and air space, the water, the electricity. It has absolute control over any imports and exports, leaving the people in total captivity. Gaza is known by all, even the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron as ‘the biggest open air prison in the world’.
One of the most stirring moments on this visit was the farewell word spoken by the brave parish priest of Holy Family Parish, the only Catholic parish in Gaza, as he blessed us he reminded us that for the Church, 2016 was a Year of Mercy and in our tradition one of the great works of mercy was to visit those in prison. He bade us remember that we had just visited the biggest prison in the world. It set the paradigm for all that followed and gave a context for our thinking and praying in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. One of the NGO workers tells us that the bombing has stopped and the heavy artillery has been silenced but the subtle, low visibility/high intensity subjugation continues in insidious ways. He pointed specifically to the host of impossible bureaucratic demands that dog every step of ordinary life in the territory.
We drive slowly through the streets of Gaza, weaving between horse drawn carts, crippled lorries and heavily overloaded busses. The dust of this desert land covers everything giving it a rather dull look. We peer into the colourful markets, the piles of tomatoes and little pyramids of oranges and lemons perched on rickety stalls. This is, despite the relentless war, a land with centuries old traditions of growing citrus fruits, of perfuming their food with the zest of its peels, of mixing its cold juices with mint leaves to create delicate flavours. There are bunches of thyme and rosemary and slabs laid out with tiny fish caught in the limited band of water where fishing is permitted. It is bizarre but shops are full, shop windows display wedding dresses and motor dealerships offer new vehicles all of which very few are able to afford. There is the bizarre, cruel illusion held before the outsider that these shops represent normalcy in a most abnormal society. I find it hard to get my head around the fact that Israel holds this population in this stretch of land in total captivity and is at the same time, is the only importer and exporter of any and everything. So this population lives in captivity and then pays Israel for it’s survival in captivity. Indeed on top of the price of goods of which it is the sole supplier, Israel places an additional tax as if to add insult to injury. It is as if one is being taxed for the pleasure of incarceration. Yet in the midst of it all, voices call out encouraging trade, the call to prayer rings from a myriad of mosques, people fill the streets and the air is pregnant with resilience and courage.
We eat kebabs and chicken placed on piles of scented rice with tasty almond flakes. We drink mint tea. Even here amidst these difficult circumstances the traditional Middle Eastern hospitality is extended with great kindness and panache.
We ride along the Mediterranean Sea to visit the coastal communities and see some of the 500 wooden houses which the church has erected as temporary accommodation for those left homeless in the 2014 hostilities. Much of the debris of those hostilities is piled up in open spaces. Making whole city blocks look like archaeological excavation sites or sometimes like concrete molehills. Small restoration projects have begun but it is difficult to import cement as Israel believes that it used to construct underground tunnels to undermine the blockade. So too with wood. So any reconstruction is very ‘if and when’ and fraught with difficult bureaucratic processes. All along the coast we see fisherman bartering their small fish in exchange for vegetables or small packets of flour and jars of olive oil.
The resilience shows itself in many ways; in the sacrifices people make to send their children to school, in the resolute attempts of the deaf community to run a small restaurant where the deaf manage the place, cook the food and serve at tables. The customers are few and consist mainly of NGO staff. I love the small harbour nearby with its well worn jetty missing a plank or two and the small dinghy boats bobbing gently on placid waters, with greedy gulls making loud noises and looking out sharply for the next meal. Old fisherman gruffly bark out prices for their catch. These are cameos that seem to carry a time warp. The resilience shows itself in the generosity of Gazans. I sat at the evening meal next to a young lady who had done her post graduate studies in Plymouth and made the courageous decision to return to Gaza knowing that she might never leave it again. Her commitment to teach and prepare future leaders for the seemingly far off time when freedom comes, is just incredibly humbling.
We worry about the future of a place where 70% of the population is under 30 years of age and 80% of that number is unemployed and together with the rest of the population have no way of leaving this strip of land. The official narrative holds that its Hamas’ terrorist practices that keep these people captive. The people we spoke to over the past three visits seem to think differently.
We gather in the evening for Mass with the small Catholic Community. This strip of land in Jesus’ time was the route into Egypt and so after Herod’s dire threats and the massacre of the Innocents, this would have been the road that the Holy Family would have trodden to escape the threats of Herod. Thus for those of us from the Archdiocese of Cape Town which is under the patronage of the Flight into Egypt, it has a special significance. For that reason Archbishop Brislin usually presides at the Liturgy on the day we arrive. Tonight he draws the parallel between the vulnerability of the Holy Family, of political expediency and powerful jealousies, now and then. He points to the dire plight of refugees and the politics of exclusion. There is a lovely photo on one of the websites of the Archbishop preaching under a mural of the Flight into Egypt. We have coffee with parishioners and hear the stories of their frustration. There are only 1,313 Christians in Gaza and about 200 are Roman Catholic. There are fears of growing religious extremism, fears that even in the Catholic Schools some radicals are pushing for majority dress codes, for Christian girls to cover their heads and other small worrying practices. In a land where the young are unemployed, where there is nothing to do, where hope often seems to be in short supply, families of all religious persuasions worry that the young can be easily seduced by radical religious ideas. The Mayor tells us that these are very marginal voices and points to dozens of shared projects and centuries old tolerance in communities. The Sisters point out that the Holy Rosary School was built on property which was a personal gift of Yasser Arafat.
We see the swings and the little park in the church compound that the Church in Cape Town sent money towards last year. We rejoice that it is on the boundary of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity’s house. The severely disabled and chronically ill children find a wonderful home there, a place filled with light and painted in bright colours, exuding welcome and care. The Sisters in their distinctive white sari’s care valiantly. Yet one can never walk through those cheerful corridors without recalling that at the height of the 2014 hostilities these most vulnerable children were threatened with bombs, the military phoned to give the Sisters ‘fair warning’ but they did not and could not have budged, it was physically impossible. In that desperate moment, people, neighbours of every creed and every ideological persuasion gathered round the house to support and defend this special place of grace. Happily common sense seemed to prevail in the military command. The thought that we in a diocese which honours the Flight into Egypt have made the contemporary journey on the road to Egypt, for the vulnerable children a little happier warms my heart. I test the bright red swings but steer clear of the see-saw.
We watch Fr Mario play soccer with local boys at the YMCA. Even in his cassock he plays skilfully and the children acknowledge his prowess with the ball as he dribbles between them. Someone suggests that Manchester United given their dismal performances recently might be advised to play in cassocks given Fr Mario’s deftness. We miss Fr Mario’s confrere Fr Giorgio who worked in this parish for years. Fr Mario tells us he needed a change, needed something different, so he was transferred to Baghdad. My jaw dropped…Baghdad or Gaza…talk about challenging assignments!
As we drive, I see that the famous bit of graffiti which has been there since 2014 in bold red painted on the dull grey wall, has survived. It says quite simply: ‘If we wash our hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, we side with the powerful. We do not remain neutral.’ The breeze blowing off the sea carries packets and carriers, bits of paper and grubby plastic bags. They come to rest against the wall just below the graffiti. I wonder if there is some symbolism in it all. If there is I don’t get it, but the message is clear enough, a daunting challenge and a lodestar for the journey. It’s that message that commits us to return to Gaza as often as we’re allowed in.
The crossing out of Gaza is very demanding; three types of security checks, thorough searches, x-rays, it’s rather like an airport on full alert. We cross with no fuss, outside the bus waits for us and the billboard proclaims ‘Welcome to Israel.’ The journey, like the struggle, continues.
Fr. Peter-John Pearson, a South African priest who is the Chairperson of the African Forum for Catholic Social Teaching, Parliamentary Liaison for the South African Bishops Conference and a member of the Vatican Commission on Gaza
N.B. see also “other articles of interest” Link A – Israelis Ignore the Gaza Ghetto Until the War Drums Are Heard, and Link B – A Decade of Siege on Gaza.
Source: Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns