Hope for Gaza? Despite a tough year, Catholic aid group says yes

Children amid devastated buildings in Gaza. Credit: Shareef Sarhan/CRS.
Children amid devastated buildings in Gaza. Credit: Shareef Sarhan/CRS.

.- One year after an outbreak of violence between the Israeli military and Hamas militants in Gaza, Catholic Relief Services is helping conflict victims to find new homes.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been a year already. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been a particularly productive or positive year,” Catholic Relief Services country representative Matt McGarry told CNA July 22.

About 117,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were displaced or left homeless in the destructive conflict between Hamas militants and the Israeli military in July and August 2014.

Many Palestinians’ destroyed homes represented all of their wealth.

“They lost just about everything,” said McGarry, who represents the Catholic agency in Jerusalem and Palestine. The agency is helping to supply 200 transitional single-family shelters, at a cost of $5,500 each.

The shelters are typically built on the family’s land. The transitional homes provide a “safe, dignified and adequate place to live,” McGarry said.

“It’s just one of the small things we’re able to do to try to help people regain a bit of dignity and peace of mind in difficult circumstances.”

One CRS beneficiary is Abu Hussein, a Palestinian who fled his Gaza home with his family in July 2014. He returned to find his home reduced to rubble.

“I was so shocked,” he told CRS. “I had to ask my son, ‘What did we just see? What was that? What happened?’”

He had been sleeping under blankets outside the remains of his home when he first met CRS team members.

“At the time, we were totally marginalized,” he said. “Nobody was helping us.”

Hussein, his sons, and hired workers helped build his family’s transitional shelter with CRS help.

"If we didn't have this shelter, we wouldn't even have a shadow to sleep under,” Hussein said.

In June 2014 the murders of three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent murder of a Palestinian youth increased tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.

These tensions turned violent in early July. For more than a month Hamas militants fired rockets on Israel from the Gaza Strip, while the Israeli military responded with hundreds of airstrikes and a ground force invasion to destroy Hamas weaponry.

Almost 2,200 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, including more than 500 children. In Israel, 66 soldiers and five civilians were killed. Thousands more Palestinians were injured, and many were permanently disabled.

CRS is supporting about 18,000 displaced families in Gaza with emergency kits of basic household items, cooking supplies, water storage, and hygiene.

The 2014 conflict also destroyed farms, schools, workplaces, and infrastructure. Gaza still suffers electricity and water shortages. There is continued contamination of the aquifer.

Many conflict victims are suffering from psychological trauma as well as loss of livelihood.

With support from partners including the U.S. Agency for International Development, CRS is assisting a counseling center that helps traumatized children.

The agency is also working to restore agricultural land on more than 700 farms and to provide sustainable economic recovery.

Reconstruction efforts are complicated by the Israeli blockade.

McGarry said that restricted movement into and out of Gaza has a “terrible impact” on the ability of families to rebuild their homes and their lives. Economic activity is almost halted and the unemployment rate is among the worst in the world – about 44 percent, according to World Bank figures.

“It’s been a pretty difficult, depressing and frustrating year,” McGarry explained. “Palestinians by nature and by necessity are pretty resilient and hopeful people in my experience.”

The majority of CRS beneficiaries in Gaza are Muslim. Some beneficiaries are Christians, as are many CRS employees.

“There’s an indigenous Christian community that goes back 2,000 years in the Holy Land. Palestinian Christians are really woven into the fabric of the larger society,” McGarry explained. Joint Christian-Muslim relief efforts are not particularly risky in Gaza.

“But it is, I think, a nice example of how things ought to be, and how things could be with more effort,” he said. He added that CRS work in Gaza is an example of “how we can work together across faith lines.”

“We have donors who are Christians, Muslims, and Jewish,” he said, noting that the agency’s implementing partners and employees come from different religious traditions. McGarry added that CRS is “first and foremost a humanitarian relief and development organization.”

He said it is important for Americans to understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is controversial “because it’s complicated.”

“It’s not a black-and-white issue, it’s not a question of right and wrong. There are at least two diametrically opposed narratives here,” McGarry said. “There’s a lot of history, a lot of emotion. It’s extremely important to people. This is a place that evokes religious beliefs. Obviously, it’s the Holy Land: issues of identity, history, ethnicity, faith and everything else.”

He said the conflict merits study, thought, and research “because people have suffered a great deal over the past hundred years,” both Palestinians and Israelis.

McGarry encouraged Catholics to educate themselves on the situation in Palestine and to be “impartial advocates for a peace that is just and secure and sustainable.”

“The conflict won’t ultimately resolve itself without strong support from the U.S. … we have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to be part of pushing that involvement forward.”

He said CRS’ Catholic affiliation provides an advantage over many other relief agencies.

“It grounds us in the local community here. We have a very strong network of Church partners and peer organizations that we’re able to share information with, work with, support, and be supported by.”

CRS is able to work with the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and similar highly regarded organizations with community connections.

The agency also can draw on the Catholic community and others in the U.S. to help with its work. In turn, CRS can “educate and engage them on issues of justice and peace in the Holy Land,” according to McGarry.

Tags: Catholic Relief Services, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, CRS