EPF PIN member Harry Gunkel writes about his time in Gaza earlier this year.
An early morning in March in Gaza. At the end of my three-day visit there, I am on my way to the checkpoint to return to Jerusalem. The streets are strangely, unusually quiet. It is Friday, prayer day, everything is closed, and everyone is with family at home.
But for tens of thousands of people in Gaza, “home” is a space made amidst rubble, or a makeshift structure thrown together from the detritus of the destruction brought from the murderous assault on Gaza by Israel in 2014. Or from the assault in 2012, or the one in 2008. I had occasion to visit one such home during my visit. I had been to a kindergarten in Beit Hanoun, one of the hardest hit areas, where I was invited to visit during a hot breakfast for the children there. For many it would be their only hot meal of the day. I watched several children eat some of the breakfast, then put the rest in their packs to take home. These babies, 4-5 years old, most of them undernourished and pale with anemia, already understand that they have a role in helping to feed the family. They have already learned the hard lessons of life in Gaza. I pray that they do not remember 2014 and that there will not be another attack that they will never be able to forget. I am not able to offer the prayer with much conviction.
A teacher asks me if I would like to visit the home where one of the children lives. We walk around the corner and there is a vast vacant lot that used to be a neighborhood. In the corner is a collection of – what shall I call them? – dwellings, composed out of blankets hung over ropes for walls, and a plastic covering for a roof that swelters in summer and roars thunderously during rain. Most of the space is open to the outside, blankets and mattresses are scattered about. This has been home for three years for this family. Israel will not allow the materials needed for reconstruction to enter Gaza. They say the wood, cement, and metal might be used against Israel. It is only one of many examples of collective punishment, a violation of international law that the Zionist colonialism project disguises as “self-defense” so that the international community can play along.
During the five years I lived in occupied Palestine and now on subsequent visits, it saddens me to see hordes of Christian pilgrims go there and scurry about to find Jesus. In this church here and that site there. On a bus to see where Jesus might have given a sermon or to the lake where he might have called friends to be fishers of men. But I fear that they are not finding the Christ who is living there now, today, hiding in plain sight. In Gaza, people wake up every day to find themselves still in captivity, but they step out into that harsh brutal world knowing that death is coming and facing it with faith and hope for new life. I don’t know about you, but I call that Christ-like.
I wish that visitors to the “holy land” would bypass that visit to the Dead Sea and instead go to Hebron where 800 Jewish settlers and almost 2000 Israeli soldiers create terror every day for the 150,000 Palestinians who live there. Go to Bethlehem and by all means visit the Church of the Nativity, but then step outside and talk to a shop owner about the members of his family in prison, or not being allowed to visit his relative in Jerusalem, or his neighbor whose home was demolished. Go to Jacob’s Well in Nablus and then step across the street into Balata refugee camp where people came when their homes were taken in 1948 and are still waiting to go back. Stand in line with Palestinians at Qalandia checkpoint and ask who is inciting violence and who suffers from it. Attend services at the cathedral in east Jerusalem and ask the Palestinian parishioners what it’s like to know they can lose their status as residents of Jerusalem or their home at any moment.
Then, after your holy land experience, go home and ask your priest or bishop why you aren’t talking about this in church. Ask why it’s more important to maintain those “interfaith” relationships than to talk about why children in Gaza live in blanket-houses and are hungry. Too often, too many of us are Peter. Not the good, post-resurrection Peter who led the Jesus movement, but the pre-crucifixion Peter who sided with the Empire and denied Jesus out of fear.
The holy land has a special claim on us as Christians. Today, it is a place where crucifixions are occurring every day. We have a responsibility to bring new life out of those deaths. Our church has nearly unbridled capacity to effect change. We can, if we only will.