The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, David Arrnott, describes his visit to Gaza as part of his visit to the Holy Land.
Gaza was not what I had expected. The transfer from Israel into Gaza caught me by surprise. As you approach the checkpoint I saw a prison wall with watch towers, only this prison was by far the worst I had ever encountered. As we moved through anonymous steel sheds, doors were opened by an unseen hand as we stood feeling powerless and helpless before them. By the time we reached the long wired walk way, which stretched for about half a mile, leading to the Palestinian checkpoint we were thoroughly de-humanised, nervous and depressed, and surely not by accident.
The drive in to Gaza City, in the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) mini bus, took us past small makeshift workshops making concrete building blocks. ( We later heard the increased building-works are encouraging a false economic boom.) We drove through traffic whose highway code was known only to the favoured few, passing streets filthy beyond compare and stalls laden with more fresh fruit than you have seen – and it tasted wonderful!
So far all was as expected, but then came the surprise. We met people: people with courage beyond measure, faith beyond compare and a commitment to do their best for the people of Gaza. Here are people who know better than we do their own situation yet they do not give up hope. They strive across cultural and religious divides to bring help to the needy, without question.
In the Gaza Strip there is a higher incidence of certain cancers. Is it because of the phosphorous bombs that landed on Gaza during the Israeli attacks 2 years ago; is it because of the poor water quality; is it because of the fertilisers the farmers use on their crops; or the feed given to their chickens? What we do know is that the blockade makes the situation much, much worse, because it forces people to cut corners just to eke out a living. It also means that if a patient has to be transferred to a hospital in Israel for further treatment it can take up to 15 days for the permit to come through. In the last three years alone 350 people died before their permits came through. Rosemary held a baby whose age she misheard. It turned out the precious new arrival was not eight weeks as the mother of three and granny of six thought; instead she was eight months.
Nobody knows for certain why the incidence of these illnesses is so high. What we do know is that there are more children underweight, and with vitamin deficiency than in other countries and that while USA has 1 in 1000 as a statistic for deafness in children Gaza has 7 in 1000. So we visited the Atfaluna School for the Deaf, supported by the Church of Scotland which is doing such marvellous work to help the children and their families.
To visit a hospital where we saw children with burns was very upsetting, as you would expect. What made us angry was being told that because of power cuts – we had three in that morning alone – homes have to be lit by candles; food cooked on camping stoves. Children, naked flames and boiling water never were a good combination and so we observed to our sorrow further results of the blockade.
In addition to all of this we heard and saw the empowerment of women by women. Many of the young women organising the clinics are far better educated than many of us, and are committed to working acrosscultural and religious boundaries. We met Chrisitan and Muslim women determined to live fully in the 21st century and to help many other women as possible also get the opportunity to live out their dreams.
Make no mistake the situation in Gaza is intolerable by any standard. Make no mistake the people of Gaza are resilient beyond all measure. To be told as you are leaving a visit in Gaza ‘Keep Safe’ takes on a whole new meaning as does Merry Christmas!