Gaza’s Father Manuel

Father Manuel Musallem, Roman Catholic Priest in Gaza. (Dr. Bill Dienst)

November 19, 2006 in Gaza City

After visiting Rafah, former Santa Cruz mayor Scott Kennedy and I meet with Father Manuel Musallem in Gaza City.

Father Manuel runs a school here and is the head of the Christian Affairs Department for the Palestinian Authority. He was born in Birzeit near Ramallah, and lived his entire childhood in the West Bank of Palestine, which was considered under the control of Transjordan prior to 1967.

Father Manuel happened to be on the East Bank of the Jordan River training to be a Roman Catholic priest when Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and Sinai in June 1967. As a result of being on the wrong side of the river at the wrong time, he became a refugee.

It took him three years to make it back home to Palestine. Finally, through the Vatican, in 1970 he was able to get a one year permit to get home. Ever since then, he has had to submit paperwork every six months through the Vatican to the Israeli authorities to extend his Lassez-Passer.

Father Manuel has been the Vatican’s main representative in Gaza since 1995.

In the mid 1990s Father Manuel was initially optimistic about the Oslo accords, thinking that the problems of Palestine would be solved. Instead, problems only became worse. Beginning in 1995, the Israeli authorities required that he obtain a permit specific for Gaza before he could get back home.

In 1997, he traveled from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv with his sister from Ramallah to the Vatican in Rome on business. Traveling to Rome on his diplomatic passport was easy. Returning back home would prove to be a nightmare.

He and his sister left Rome at noon and landed at Ben Gurion Airport at about 4 pm. By 6 pm, they had cleared the airport and arrived by taxi at Eretz Crossing on the frontier with Gaza. They had five big suitcases.

The Israeli soldiers would not allow them to hire a porter. So they had to spend the next hour going back and forth hauling their luggage from the taxi stop, past the initial checkpoint another 100 meters to the Eretz terminal.

From 7 pm until midnight they were stuck at the terminal undergoing endless bureaucratic hassle. The end result was that Father Manuel’s sister would not be permitted into Gaza because she had only a Ramallah permit.

Father Manuel had to part with his sister in the middle of the night and enter Gaza without her. So from midnight until about 1 am, Father Manuel hauled his sister’s luggage back to the taxi stand on the Israeli side of the border.

The Israeli taxi driver was only willing to take her to Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, and was unwilling to travel 20 km more to Ramallah. So Father Manuel’s sister was dropped off all alone with her baggage in a very vulnerable position at Damascus Gate at 3 am.

Jerusalem taxi drivers were not authorized to take her to Ramallah, so finally she had to contact her other brother who lived in Nazareth. He had to drive down around the West Bank and through Israel, pick her up in Jerusalem and take her to Ramallah, where she finally made it home at 5 am.

If this would have been before the Oslo Accords, she could have been with her brother in Gaza 11 hours earlier.

Without all these stifling regulations, the drive from Ben Gurion Airport to Gaza, or Ben Gurion to Ramallah should each take less than an hour. Simply because Father Immanuel and his sister are Palestinian, they had to be separated, and it took over half a day to get home from the airport.

“Even if I am a priest, I am not a human being in Israel” says Father Manuel. When his mother died in Ramallah, the Israeli authorities would not give them a permit for a hearse to drive Father Immanuel’s mother’s body from Ramallah to their family’s burial ground in Birzeit; so instead, his mother’s coffin was hand carried by pallbearers in a relay down the road for 10 kilometers from Ramallah to Birzeit. “We are like animals, according to the Israeli mentality,” he remarks.

Though militarily ineffective, Father Manuel believes the Qassam missiles carry a symbolic significance, as if to say to the Israelis, “One day, you will lose this war.”

I ask Father Manuel, “How many Christians are there in Gaza?” He answers that there are about 3,500 Christians here, but he carefully emphasizes that Palestinian unity is more important than the differences between Christian and Muslim.

In his own school, about 10 percent of the students are Christian, and 90 percent are Muslim. The majority of his staff at this school are also Muslims.

I ask him about the obsessive fear and hype over “terrorism” that is so prevalent in Israeli and American culture today.

“Fear is the punishment the Israelis and Americans must pay for their crime of oppression,” he responds.

I ask about three possible futures for Israel-Palestine: 1) More Apartheid, 2) a two-state solution, and 3) A democratic and secular state of Israel and Palestine.

Father Manuel is emphatic in supporting a fourth solution:

“The world, the US, the UN, the EU the Arab League and the Palestinian Authority and all people of faith who believe in peace through justice must all work together to impose a fair solution. The government of Israel is currently a spoiled brat that is totally out of control, and must be taken to task.
Otherwise, Israel will continue oppressing Palestinians indefinitely, unless it suffers direct economic consequences from these world entities, which prop it up financially; if nothing happens to change this path, things will continue to get worse.

Editor’s note: This article originally named Father Manuel Musallem as Father Immanuel Musallem, and incorrectly described him as the Vatican’s representative in Gaza since 1970 rather than 1995. The Electronic Intifada regrets these errors.

Dr. Bill Dienst is a rural family and emergency room physician from Omak, Washington, USA.