A Christmas Hope for All
Dear IPMN members and friends,
In this season of hope, my expectation is held captive by Gaza, where two months ago I visited the open air prison with a clergy group. Having seen so much of the pain in Gaza with my own eyes, I find myself thinking of the people of Gaza as Advent progresses and Christmas approaches. I write you now to tell you about their hope and to ask that you keep them in your prayers in the swirl of the holiday season.
Gaza is 140 square miles (about the size of Detroit) and is entirely controlled by Israel. Thirty percent of the farmland within is determined by Israel to be a military zone and rendered unusable. Gaza lives with walls on the north, balloon drones above, snipers and tanks to the east and blockaded sea and air space .
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs states: “There is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and no shortage of basic goods. Israel does not limit goods; the amount each day reflects the needs of the Gaza market.” In 2006, an adviser to the Israeli prime minister said, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,” the idea being that the “hunger pangs” would force Hamas out of power.
From our hotel, we viewed young men with a net, hoping for a haul of fish. There were none. In 2014, Israeli bombs destroyed the sewage treatment plant up-shore, so sewage pollutes the shoreline. Children swim anyway in the disease-ridden water — a break from the Gaza heat. Fishing boats go out, hoping to catch enough to pay for petrol or feed their families. Though Gaza boats are supposed to have access up to 15 miles out, the Israeli Navy arbitrarily limits the distance allowed each day to 9, 7 or even 3 miles. Consequently, many fishermen are shot at or killed, boats confiscated, rammed or even sunk. While we watched on the beach, a scouting group played, exactly where in 2014 an Israeli missile hit and killed four children; cousins playing soccer.
The eight United Nations refugee camps are full. One half of the population receives food aid from the UN. In 2017 the US gave $90 million for Gaza. In 2019 the Trump Administration withdrew US funding and now the UN agency in Gaza is $30 million in the red. The UN director of operations for Gaza told us, “Israel gets to do the occupying and the rest of the world gets to pay for it.” They in fact profit from it; an extra $8 million a year is paid in fees by the UN to Israel to get food into Gaza.
Gaza has the resources to be self-sufficient, but due to Israeli control, they are unable to use them. Seventy percent of reconstruction funds go into Israeli pockets. No exports are allowed. Suicide, normally rare, is increasing due to the blockade and lack of opportunity. The social fabric is being destroyed, with less support in the traditional extended family. Unemployment leads to family violence. The economic cliff undermines cultural norms, a symptom of PTSD. Dehydration causes one to think less about others, when trying to survive.
Israel has bombed so many schools that kids need to attend in shifts, morning & afternoon. They bombed the power plants - there is only enough electricity for 3 hours a day. And the bombing can begin again at any time. When it rains, the aquifers become poisoned from bomb residue. Israel has targeted the municipal purification systems, so systems need to be set up in each local community. Children are the most vulnerable. Because of the poverty, water needs to be free. Israel delays the importing of water purification systems and maintenance parts. They say, “Israel controls even the rain.” According to the UN, Gaza will be unlivable in 2020. But Gazans can’t leave.
Since the great March of Return at the eastern fence (a non-violent protest for the refugees’ Right of Return) hundreds have been killed and thousands have been shot in their limbs by Israeli snipers, resulting in thousands of young amputees —many of whom we met— with severe bone infections. We learned that Israeli snipers use new toxic bullets, causing comas and intense bleeding. Gazans are trying to figure out how to treat the poison. As visitors, we asked ourselves, “How is this anything but premeditated murder?”
In an effort called We Are Not Numbers, several hundred young people gather online and in person to tell their stories about life in Gaza. They choose to not be a statistic. They release their stress through telling who they are and how they feel. When we met with some of them, the majority admitted to having suicidal thoughts. They said things like: “I’m expected to have a child at my age, but I won’t, I have no job.” “We have much pride, but it’s hard to push through.” “If you don’t have a dream, you’re already dead.”
There is still a small Christian community in Gaza and they live side-by-side with their Muslim neighbors, supporting each other, united in their struggle and hope. A church first built in Byzantine times sits a few feet from an ancient mosque in old Gaza city. The people of Gaza, say over and over again, “we want to live, we do not want to die.” They are resilient, steadfast and in the midst of all their despair - hopeful. They are hopeful because that is all they have left; no life, no opportunities, no vision for the future, so all they can do is hope.
Hear Omnia, a young Gazan woman. She is 23:
There is sadness in this city:
in its bumpy streets,
in a cloudless sky that's empty of all the opposites of sorrow,
in the lamps with no power,
in the darkness that mirrors our daily lives,
in the depths of a sea that embraces both loved ones and the tears of those who lost them,
in trees so dry only trunks are left,
in every grain of sand that holds the memory of someone gone before their time,
in dreams dreamers are not allowed to dream, much less grasp,
in houses, partially standing, exposing their skeletons of iron bars,
in silence redeemed by the ever-present buzzing of drones and the roaring of the power generators,
in hearts more broken than healed,
in eyes that water with pent-up longing,
in smiles that only show how good we are, at bottling this all up.
If our sisters and brothers in Gaza have hope, then we must too. But our hope is not on a first world, privileged, frolicsome hope, but one that is based on and relies solely on the babe of Bethlehem, God with us, all of us; the one who offers justice-hope even to God's beloved in Gaza.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. ~Romans 15:13
Join with me and them, in claiming the hope of the world, the hope born this Christmas.
San Francisco Presbytery