We have just returned from a short and unusual trip to Palestine, not leading a large group as in the past but traveling with our son and 3 grandchildren. Our oldest grandson is now working for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund in Ramallah, so this was opportunity to share his and our experiences of Palestine.
In our short week, we visited Jerusalem, northern and southern West Bank and Gaza. As all readers will know, conditions have deteriorated dramatically everywhere in Palestine, most notably in Gaza. As I write this, President Trump, having shifted terminology from “Israeli occupation” to “Israeli control” of the West Bank and Gaza, has just declared Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. One fears Trump’s next declaration of Israel’s supremacy.
These are, indeed, precarious days for our beloved Palestinian friends and their communities, and everyone we met stressed the deterioration of the situation. But what was most striking to us were the amazing initiatives that we saw in the face of such oppression, when it would be easy to simply give up in despair.
Gaza starkly embodies the contrast: conditions could not be worse, with 2 million people blockaded into an area 1/12 the size of Rhode Island, lacking adequate electricity, water, food, shelter. Unemployment is rampant, the streets teeming with the 75% of the population under 25. The casualties from Israeli snipers at the Great March of Return continue to grow, with more than 250 dead and about 29,000 wounded, most maimed for life. And yet, life goes on. Rebuilding from the 2014 assault continues slowly with people using home-size cement mixers to try to construct multi-floor buildings.
We continue to be amazed and inspired by the work at Al Ahli Arab Hospital (Episcopal), where we spent 2 days. Ahli is not a first line hospital for emergencies, but it serves as a specialty hospital caring for cases that the overwhelmed state hospitals cannot serve. We visited the orthopedics department that provides care for the maimed, the women’s center with its extensive breast cancer program, the nutrition department that is fighting epidemic child malnutrition, the psycho-social program serving the vast number of children with PTSD. And we happened into the opening day of a workshop in the use of laparoscopic surgery taught by doctors from Scotland and their Jerusalem counterparts.
Given the dramatic funding cuts from UNRWA and USAID, one might think the hospital would retreat into survival mode, but each time we visit, there is a new initiative underway that serves the greater Gaza community. Suhaila Tarazi, the Director of Ahli, summed up the philosophy of the hospital, “We don’t know the word impossible.”
That was the theme in all our other visits: Mazin and Jessie Qumsiyeh continue their remarkable work at the Palestinian Museum of Natural History, preserving the flora and fauna of Palestine and developing new methods of agriculture for even the smallest plots of land. The fight to preserve the Bedouin communities from forced removal continues among the Jahalin, whom we visited at Al Khan al Amar, where the school is made of tires and mud because the Israelis prohibit permanent structures. Sabeel has dramatically extended its local programming to empower the youth of the West Bank and Jerusalem with liberation theology. The Episcopal Vocational and Technological Center has created a guesthouse where we stayed in Ramallah, part of an extensive computer and hospitality program that gives non-academic young people job skills. And Palestinians continue to preserve their cultural heritage as we experienced at a sold-out dabke dance and music festival.
Each time we go to Palestine, we wonder if it would be better to contribute the money spent on travel to these and similar projects, but the warm welcome we received everywhere reminded us that there is a ministry of presence, a time to simply be with those who are suffering so deeply but are constantly working to insure there will always be a Palestine. Our long-time friend and staff member at Ahli Hospital shared a story that sticks with us. He has 5 children and is in debt because he has built a home and is educating his children for the future. His oldest child has finished university and cannot find a job in Gaza; his second child, a daughter, is studying accounting, and feels the fees are too high when job prospects are low. But our friend is emphatic that she continue her course because if there is no work now, “someday there will be.”
It is this amazing sumud, this steadfastness in the face of such adversity that inspires us. Surely, we cannot give way to despair when those whose lives are so deeply impacted continue not only to survive but to innovate. They are doing their work there. We must do our work here, telling their stories and supporting them however we can.