“We are not alone” - Churches lend hope to Palestinians’ struggle to survive

As peace in the Middle East proves elusive once again, Action by Churches Together (ACT) International remains committed to accompanying people in the occupied Palestinian territories as they search for ways to survive the daily tribulations of Israeli occupation.

Despite efforts by the international community to push the “road map for peace,” Palestinians still face travel restrictions, unemployment, hunger, and the daily litany of humiliation under occupation. Yet they also can count on support from ACT members which have been working in Palestinian communities for decades, healing the sick, providing jobs training, and helping Palestinians build a new, functioning civil society.

“We are grateful to ACT, because through their support we’ve been able to treat many in need and give hope to those who are hopeless,” said Suhaila Tarazi, director of the Episcopal Church’s Ahli Arab Hospital in the strife-torn Gaza Strip. “Because of ACT’s support, we feel we are not alone.”

ACT is an international alliance of churches and church-related agencies responding to emergencies. Much of the work of ACT members in the region focuses on helping people survive the occupation, which has turned particularly cruel during the current intifada, or popular uprising, which began in late 2000.

The ministries of ACT members regularly take on heroic character. In August 2002, when several West Bank cities were completely cut off by the Israeli military, the International Christian Committee (ICC), a service arm of the Middle East Council of Churches, which is a member of ACT, sent five trucks loaded with 1,900 food packages to the besieged cities of Tulkarem and Nablus. The convoy, accompanied by international church leaders, faced down Israeli tanks to deliver the emergency supplies.

Khaldiyeh Hamdan was one of those in Nablus who received food from ICC/ACT for her family. She had lost part of her house when an Israeli bulldozer smashed through it in order to open a wider access for military tanks to enter the narrow streets of the old city. Four months pregnant, she fled with her children to a neighbor’s, and they were only allowed to return home three days later, their hands in the air under the gaze of Israeli snipers. Searching through the rubble beside what was left of their home, her children found the body of a neighbor, yet they weren’t allowed to remove the body from the neighborhood until the curfew was lifted for a few hours seven days later.

As the weeks went by, with Israeli special forces patrolling the streets and a sniper’s nest installed on top of a neighbor’s home, Hamdan said the food provided by ICC/ACT helped restore hope to people who were terrorized by the incursion. “We were crowded together inside, with nowhere to go, every mother trying to hug her children as if we could shield them from the horror. When the food came it not only helped us survive physically, it reminded us that people outside of here cared about us,” she said.

In Hebron, an ancient city in the southern part of the West Bank where more than 5,000 Israeli soldiers protect some 500 Jewish settlers, whose presence is illegal under international law that forbids nations from settling residents in territories they occupy, a state of siege earlier this year trapped thousands of Palestinians in their homes. The city’s vegetable market was destroyed in January by Israeli tanks and bulldozers, and in the weeks that followed people started to go hungry. ICC/ACT prepared 1,000 family food packages, each weighing 30 kilos and containing sufficient food to feed a family of five for three weeks.

“Getting the packages to the hungry families wasn’t easy, as the city was under curfew and the soldiers would often shoot anyone who moved in the streets,” said Ramzi Zananiri, the executive director of ICC/ACT. “So in many areas we took the packages apart and children smuggled the food from house to house until it got to its final destination. They’d first take the milk, then come back for the rice, until we had finally moved all the food to people who were truly desperate with hunger. It was a complicated task, and it took us almost three weeks to deliver all the food. But because of the bravery of the people, especially the children, we helped people stay alive and gave them hope in a very difficult moment.”

While ACT members have delivered emergency food when necessary, it’s not a primary program focus, in part because most Palestinians would rather produce their own food. “They don’t want handouts. They want to work. They want to live freely. And it’s only when they can work and live freely that they are going to have true development,” said Nora Kort, the country representative for International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), another ACT member.

Yet the opportunity to live freely remains just a dream. Kort said the chronic closures have had a devastating impact on the economic and social life of Palestinian communities. Travel to work or to visit relatives or take products to market turns impossible when Israeli bulldozers pile rubble on the main Palestinian roads, blocking all vehicular traffic, and soldiers at military checkpoints either refuse to let Palestinians pass or leave them waiting for hours in the sun before letting them through. Since Palestinians are not allowed to use the well-maintained highways reserved for Jewish settlers, they are forced to use what they refer to as “the back door,” the small agricultural access roads that weave through the mountains. Since these roads are often poorly maintained, bus drivers charge riders much higher fares to use the back door. In order to facilitate transportation of people and farm products, IOCC/ACT has helped several villages refurbish these small roads, only to have Israeli bulldozers destroy them.

The state of siege has also had a devastating effect on health care, as sick people and their families, turned back at military checkpoints, endure lengthy delays and detours in order to get to their health care provider. “As a result, patients come to us, when they do come to us, much later, much sicker, much more acute, which means we have to spend more money, give more medication, practice more interventions. That makes the emergency impact us financially,” reported Tawfiq Nasser, executive director of the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, which is run by the Lutheran World Federation’s World Service, a member of ACT.

Augusta Victoria and other ACT-supported medical programs in the Palestinian territories are reaching out in creative ways to deliver health care to poor Palestinians. Hospitals are bussing in patients from remote locations in order to get them through checkpoints more efficiently, and several ACT members have started rural clinics or dispatched physicians to refugee camps, thus taking health care directly to isolated residents.

Health professionals in ACT-supported facilities long for the day when they can focus on encouraging wellness rather than repairing bodies broken by the occupation’s madness. “During the worst of the intifada, for more than two years, I was in the operating room from seven in the morning until well past midnight. Every day. I know how a child dies from bullets. I know a father’s face when he comes to pick up the body of his son. I’ve lived with war for too long. When it comes someday, peace will be good for health care. And the best way for the Israelis to have peace is to give it to others, because you can’t live in
peace when your neighbor is hungry, when your neighbor is sick, or when your neighbor lives constantly under pressure,” said Dr. Maher Ayyad, the chief surgeon at Ahli Arab Hospital.

ACT members in the occupied territories, where the overall unemployment rate is more than 35 percent, are also engaged in a variety of income generation and vocational training programs. Participants have done a better job than the population at large in supporting their families with a dignified income.

According to Bernard Sabella, a professor of sociology at Bethlehem University and executive director of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches, the mandate of his organization and other ACT members goes far beyond simply equipping people with vocational skills or better market access.

“While those programs are important, even more important is what kind of society we want, what kind of person we want. There’s that old cliche about how it’s better to teach a person to fish. I don’t like that because it doesn’t go far enough. Our mission is to empower the person to say: ‘I want to be. I want to be a person, to fulfill my potential, even when I am in the worst conditions.’ Too many of us have been begging, saying, ‘I have an infirmity so please give me money.’ No more. I want that person who’s begging to see that using their infirmity to beg is not healthy, that if they can live with that infirmity and make their
living without begging, without becoming a business for someone else, they will have discovered a new level of dignity,” Sabella said.

“Yet sometimes it feels more comfortable to be a victim, because in being a victim-and this is a symptom for the Israelis as well-you have a role to play. ‘I am a victim. I cannot do anything. So please help me.’ This is the worst kind of attitude for someone to have,” Sabella said.

Noting that his family, like thousands of other Palestinian families, lost their land when the state of Israel was established a half century ago, Sabella argued against that memory becoming debilitating.

“I know the pain of my mother, even on her death bed, mentioning the home she lost in West Jerusalem. That was very painful, extremely painful. But at a certain point in my life, with all due respect to my parents’ memory and their pain at being refugees, I have to divorce myself from their legacy of being a refugee. It’s painful, it’s not easy. And I’m not saying we should not work for the right of return. I insist on the right of return. But psychologically, I have to live and to make my children learn to live as people, not as refugees. I pity Israelis who are using the notion all the time of Jews as victims. I much prefer to live with a Jew who doesn’t feel a victim, because they’re more natural. They may like me or they may not like me, but not because they’re a victim. Because they’re interacting. Because they’re alive. A victim is not alive,” Sabella said.

“Dignity is important. Getting people to understand the potential within them is very important. A person with dignity can really accomplish things, for themself and their community. But a person who has no dignity cannot move, cannot do, cannot be. There are many creative people in the Palestinian community, people who respect themselves. They are models that we should be encouraging our young people to follow,” Sabella said.

For further information:

ACT Communication Officer Callie Long (mobile/cell phone +41 79 358 3171). ACT is a world-wide network of churches and related agencies meeting human need through coordinated emergency response. The ACT Coordinating Office is based with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in Switzerland.