Hope & Sumud – 50 Years of Israeli Military Occupation

By Seth Malone, Peace Program Coordinator, MCC Palestine and Israel

Today—June 5, 2017—marks the 50th year of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. Under international law, military occupation is always meant to be temporary. This is because the longer an occupation lasts, the more likely it is that respect for human rights and dignity are eroded. This is certainly the case in Palestine and Israel.

Magad Amgad

Magad Amgad from al-Najd Developmental Forum, an MCC partner organization in Gaza, walks through a strawberry field. This MCC-funded agricultural project aims to provide greater food security for the people of Gaza who have been subjected to a 10-year blockade imposed by Israel.

Day in and day out, Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) partners work tirelessly to help their communities grow and flourish. Our partners come up against the worst aspects of the Israeli military occupation but continue to work for justice and peace all the same. From rehabilitating homes destroyed in war, to providing counseling services to women whose husbands have been killed, to organizing against the construction of the separation barrier that devastates every community that it snakes through, our partners are active and hopeful despite all odds.

In Arabic, this “steadfastness” or “perseverance” is called sumud. Sumud, in the face of occupation, has become an indispensable part of Palestinian life and the work of MCC’s partners.

Nowar Educational Centre

Children at the Nowar Educational Center of MCC partner Culture and Free Thought Association are making materials for their community advocacy campaign for traffic safety, January 19, 2017

Despite five decades of brutal military occupation, our partners and the people of Palestine continue to embody sumud. This is because—despite all evidence to the contrary—they believe there is hope. In 2009 the Palestinian Christian churches issued a statement called “A word of faith, hope and love from the heart of Palestinian suffering.” Known popularly as the Kairos Palestine document, it describes hope in this way:

“Hope within us means first and foremost our faith in God and secondly our expectation, despite everything, for a better future. Thirdly, it means not chasing after illusions – we realize that release is not close at hand. Hope is the capacity to see God in the midst of trouble, and to be co-workers with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling in us. From this vision derives the strength to be steadfast, remain firm and work to change the reality in which we find ourselves. Hope means not giving in to evil but rather standing up to it and continuing to resist it. We see nothing in the present or future except ruin and destruction. We see the upper hand of the strong, the growing orientation towards racist separation and the imposition of laws that deny our existence and our dignity. We see confusion and division in the Palestinian position. If, despite all this, we do resist this reality today and work hard, perhaps the destruction that looms on the horizon may not come upon us.”

This is not a passive hope. This is a hope which calls all of us to action—to act in solidarity with those who suffer. It calls us to responsibility. In the face of such injustice and violence, we are called to act justly and peaceably in the hope that God can take our humble actions, multiply them and make them bear fruit. We are called to remain steadfast—to embody sumud—by never giving up on our responsibility to God and our neighbour.

Such a hope and such a steadfastness is terrifying for those bent on propping up such a terrible occupation. The resistance, however small it may be, will always be the quiet voice that bears witness to truth, and tells the world that this unjust and evil occupation must end.

Omar Haramy

Omar Haramy leads a group through Sabeel’s Contemporary Way of the Cross, which takes participants to locations representing the various forms of Palestinian suffering. In the background are soldiers preparing to discharge tear gas and rubber bullets at children who were throwing rocks in Shoufat Refugee Camp in Jerusalem. Sabeel, the Palestinian Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, is an MCC partner organization that seeks to deepen the faith of Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel and works for justice, peace and reconciliation by using nonviolence.

So let us have the courage to join this resistance. Let us call for justice and peace. Let us call for an end to this occupation.

A note to Canadians:  Please send a message to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, letting her know that 50 years of occupation is enough.

Support a future for Gaza!

“And this is how we see our future — to be killed by the conflict, to be killed by the closure (blockade), or to be killed by despair.”

These words, spoken by a 15-year-old boy, describe how the desperate situation in Gaza is destroying the hopes and dreams of Gazan youth. The boy shared this message with Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the UN, and Ki-moon shared it with the UN Security Council on July 12.

Gaza 2015 childre

This Gazan family (names withheld for security reasons) received MCC material resources after the 2014 war. MCC photo/Jesse Bergen

Through the months of July and August 2014, a war between Hamas and Israel resulted in massive death and destruction, primarily for Gazans. More than 2100 Palestinians, including 495 children, were killed, as well as 66 Israeli soldiers and 7 civilians. It was the third such war in six years. Two years after the most recent war, Gaza continues to suffer:

  • Of 11,000 homes completely destroyed in 2014, only 10 percent have been rebuilt; 75,000 people are still without a home;[*]
  • 250 schools were damaged or destroyed and many have not been repaired; 400 schools currently run double shifts as a result;
  • Severe electricity and fuel shortages lead to rolling blackouts that can last hours; this seriously hampers pumping systems for water and sanitation;
  • 80 percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance for basic necessities;
  • Unemployment levels are estimated to be 40 percent or more – among the highest in the world;
  • The psychological trauma of successive wars and the stress caused by unemployment have resulted in increased levels of domestic violence and divorce; for children, the impacts are nightmares, bed-wetting, difficulty concentrating and even completing school.
Gaza 2015

Many Gazans continue to live in makeshift shelters like this one. MCC photo/Jesse Bergen

A major reason for the lack of progress in Gaza’s reconstruction is because of the Israeli blockade on Gaza – a blockade on land, sea and air that has been in place for nearly a decade. The blockade has crippled the Gazan economy and isolated the people of Gaza politically and socially. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says that “the closure of Gaza suffocates its people, stifles its economy and impedes reconstruction efforts.” People frequently refer to Gaza as an open air prison with 1.8 million prisoners.

Israel says that the blockade is needed to limit Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli cities and towns, and to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. But critics say that the blockade actually fuels the rocket attacks and increases insecurity for Israelis; moreover, the blockade constitutes a form of collective punishment and a violation of international law.

A specific impediment to Gaza’s recovery is the restrictions placed by the blockade on the entry of basic building materials such as wood, cement, steel bars. The lifting of these restrictions would go a long way to rebuilding homes, even while a full end to the blockade is critical to a long-term solution for Gaza and for Israel.

MCC has joined the Association of International Aid Agencies in calling for action that will lift the Israeli blockade and specifically the restrictions on building materials.  Please join us by viewing this video and signing this petition.

Children constitute half the population of Gaza. Many of them have lived their entire life under the blockade. Please support a future for them.

Open Gaza

* MCC’s response to the 2014 crisis included emergency food assistance, the distribution of essential non-food items, and repair of 70 houses that had been damaged but not completely destroyed.

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

Defining “liveable” — a glimpse at Gaza

This week’s guest writer is Anna Johnson, Connecting Peoples Coordinator for MCC Palestine. Originally from Iowa City, Iowa, she studied International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington DC.

During my visit to Gaza in January, the words of a 2012 UN report questioning whether Gaza will be ‘a liveable place’ by 2020 echoed in my mind. The report, which looked at current and projected economic circumstances, population levels, and access to water, education, and health, concluded that “there will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory.” Looking out the car window and seeing so many children and families, I wondered, “What does a place need in order to be ‘liveable’?”

Amna Abu Halima and her daughters, along with MCC Palestine worker Jessy Hampton. (Photo credit Anna Johnson)

Anam Abu Halima and her daughters, along with MCC Palestine worker Jessy Hampton. (Photo by Jesse Bergen)

One morning, we visited families who had received assistance from MCC’s partnership with the Al Najd Development Forum. These families had been displaced during the summer bombing and had not been able to return to their homes due to severe structural damage. The home of Anam and Mahmud Abu Halima lost an entire wall and their family lived in a UN school and then a small tent for seven months before being able to move back into their home after Al Najd’s volunteers replaced the wall, windows, and ceiling. Anam and Mahmud’s eight children crowded into the small room with a new wall and window to express their gratitude for being able to return home, when so many in Gaza continue to be displaced. “Now we feel we are human beings,” Anam told me.

Again I returned to my questions: What is ‘liveable’? Is Gaza ‘liveable’ now, for people like Anam and her family? Was it ‘liveable’ during the 50 days of bombardment last summer?

Based solely on statistics, one might be quick to declare an emphatic “NO” to these questions. We see on the news that hundreds of thousands of children continue to experience the side effects of trauma. We know that international donors have failed to come through on their pledged $5.4 billion for rebuilding Gaza and that thousands of people remain displaced. If anything, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is exponentially worse than it was when the UN report was published three years ago.

Gaza 1

Al Najd Development Forum director, Khaled Abu Sharekh, joins Ali, Mohammed, and Fadi (last name unavailable) under a blanket received in an MCC material resource shipment. The boys and their six other brothers were displaced during the 2014 summer bombardment of Gaza. Though they had not had electricity for three days when this picture was taken, they were grateful to be back in their home, thanks to Al Najd volunteers who rehabilitated it. (MCC photo by Anna Johnson)

Yet, during my two days visiting MCC’s partners in Gaza City and Khan Younis, I was struck again and again by the vivacity and tenacity of life in Gaza. Turns out, some of the funniest and most compassionate people I’ve met live in Gaza. They stubbornly refuse to give in to despair. They do with their three to six hours of electricity each day what many of us fail to do with our limitless supplies of power, water, and other resources. Through their resilience, they embody sumud – Arabic for “steadfastness.”

The question to ask ourselves is not whether Gaza will be ‘liveable’ in 2020; 1.8 million people live in Gaza today, and by 2020 it is expected that 2.13 million people will reside in Gaza’s tiny strip. We owe it to these people, then, to ask ourselves how we can make Gaza ‘liveable’ by 2020. International funds are needed to rebuild Gaza, but even more so, international pressure is needed to end the 7-year blockade on Gaza (which restricts the flow of people and trade, and prevents the delivery of needed medicines, fuel, and building materials, among other things). The UN report states that “herculean” efforts are needed to ensure that Gaza’s residents are able to “exercise and enjoy the full range of human rights to which they are entitled.”

Just as MCC’s partners in Gaza continue to serve their communities with grace and compassion, we must be steadfast in our resolve to see the people of Gaza freed from the devastating constrictions under which they are forced to live.

A prayer for peace in the Middle East

This prayer was written by Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.  Through the month of August, MCC Manitoba has organized weekly gatherings for staff and constituents to pray for peace with justice in the Middle East.  This prayer was written for use on August 29, 2014.

Volunteers wearing MCC and Al Najd Development Forum vests deliver mattresses to families who opened their homes to other Gazans displaced by the Israel-Hamas conflict. MCC provided $35,000 of bedding and related supplies that were distributed through partner organization Al Najd in late July. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

Volunteers wearing MCC and Al Najd Development Forum vests deliver mattresses to families who opened their homes to other Gazans displaced by the Israel-Hamas conflict. MCC provided $35,000 of bedding and related supplies that were distributed through partner organization Al Najd in late July. (Photo courtesy of Al Najd Development Forum)

Lord God,

We pray to you for peace in this day.  We give you thanks for life, for love, for hope and for goodness.  And we give you thanks for peace.  Sometimes it feels that peace is elusive both within our hearts and in the world.  We ask that we might know and understand your peace and your way of peace.  We pray that our world – your world – would experience true peace in the ways incarnated in Christ and in ways that reflect your coming Kingdom. Forgive our doubts, our faintness of heart, and our complicity with structures of violence. Guide us and all the earth into the ways of peace.

O God, we give you thanks for the ceasefire in Gaza. We grieve the deaths of Palestinian civilians, especially children, even while we mourn the loss of all human life and are grateful that the bombs have stopped.**  We pray that the blockade of Gaza will end. We pray, O God, that against all odds and predictions, this ceasefire would lead to a lasting truce with the conditions for true justice and reconciliation for Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Muslims and Jews.  We pray that as children of Abraham we would all learn to see each other as a blessing to all nations.

Our hearts remain troubled with the plight of the Yazidi people of Iraq. We pray for mercy, kindness and justice for them and for all. We pray that the Yazidi would experience alleviation of their distress. O God, the fruits of your Spirit are needed in every region, in every corner of this world.  We pray that we would live by these fruits and be known by them also.

O Lord, for many of us these situations are distant and do not impact our day to day lives.  For those living in many parts of the Middle East the impacts are much more tangible.

For those who have lost homes – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have lost family members – we pray to you, O God.
For those whose lives and potential have been lost to their communities – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed in the name of their religion – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed in the name of the state – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have ordered killings – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have killed because they saw no alternative – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have sought to bring peace in the Middle East – we pray to you, O God.
For those who have labored to heal those injured and traumatized – we pray to you, O God.
For those who provide humanitarian assistance to those in need — we pray to you, O God
For those who negotiate ceasefires – we pray to you, O God.
For those whose lives are indirectly impacted by these conflicts – we pray to you O God.

We pray for the healing of the nations, for the healing of our own souls and for the healing of people in the Middle East.  Lord have mercy on your children.  Listen to your children praying.  Amen.

 

** As of August 28, 2014, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the  Occupied Palestinian Territory  noted the following: “Palestinian fatality toll is 2,104, of whom 1,462 have been identified as civilians, including 495 children, according to preliminary assessments… As of August 20,  10,224 Palestinians, including 3,106 children and 1,970 women and 368 elderly, have been injured. The cumulative Israeli fatality toll is 69, of whom at least four were civilians, including one child, in addition to one foreign national killed in Israel.”

A prayer for Palestine and Israel

“Then justice will dwell in the land
and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
The effect of righteousness will be peace
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” — Isaiah 32:16-17

In December 2013, Hashem Al Attar stood in front of his tin-roofed, one-story, two-room concrete home in the Beit Lahia area of northern Gaza. Beit Lahia is one of the areas where MCC is providing a month of food to people affected by the recent conflict with Israel. MCC's partner, Al Najd Development Forum, is working in this area to address food shortages and malnutrition, which were problems even before the assault. (MCC Photo/Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

In December 2013, Hashem Al Attar stood in front of his tin-roofed, one-story, two-room concrete home in the Beit Lahia area of northern Gaza. Beit Lahia is one of the areas where MCC is providing a month of food to people affected by the recent conflict with Israel. MCC’s partner, Al Najd Development Forum, is working in this area to address food shortages and malnutrition, which were problems even before the assault. (MCC Photo/Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

O God of life and love and peace,
As the cycle of violence in Palestine and Israel repeats itself,
Our hearts break once again.

Our hearts break for the people of Gaza —
For those killed and injured and displaced by Israeli bombardments
For the children and young people who have witnessed and experienced violence
For the parents who cannot protect and provide for their families
For the grandparents who have lost hope and a will to live
For all who live with indescribable suffering.

Our hearts break for all Palestinians—
For the victims of violent attacks throughout Palestine
For those who have endured decades of occupation and oppression
For those whose homes and olive orchards have been demolished
For those who languish in Israeli prisons
For those who steadfastly choose nonviolent resistance
For those whose rage has turned to hatred and violence.

Our hearts break for the people of Israel—
For those threatened by rocket attacks
For the families of abducted and murdered teenagers
For those who live with fear and insecurity
For those who re-live the trauma of the past over and over
For those who work for a just peace for all
For those who support violent force as the only way to security.

Our hearts break for the wider world—
For those who are indifferent to the pain in your “holy land”
For those who distort or turn their eyes from truth
For those who label all resistance, even nonviolent resistance, as “terrorism”
For those who fail to see the humanity of all your children.

Heal us all, O God. Heal the brokenness.

May weapons and war, apathy and blame be laid down
May diminishing and demonizing of “the other” cease.
May there be acknowledgement of harms committed
May there be new energy for building bridges of understanding
May there be new efforts to address root causes of the violence
May there be new visions of a shared and peaceful future.

O God, whose heart breaks for the world,
May your justice dwell in the land
May your righteousness abide in fruitful fields
May the effect of righteousness be quietness and trust forever
May the effect of justice be peace — enduring peace.

Amen

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator for the Ottawa Office.

Putting Faces to the Facts: The Last Five Years of the Gaza Blockade

This summer we have occasionally re-posted material from MCC colleagues
and partner organisations. This photo essay, by MCC Palestine service worker
Ryan Rodrick Beiler, was first published in the MCC Palestine Update.

A Palestinian worker scavenges for recyclable materials near the restricted access zone along the wall on Gaza’s northern border. Israeli troops often open fire on such workers and several have injured or killed. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Five years ago, Israel intensified its blockade of Gaza as a form of “economic warfare”against the de facto Hamas government which controls the densely populated Palestinian enclave. As in all forms of warfare, civilians, especially children, suffer the worst consequences of actions taken by those in power. As part of a coordinated advocacy effort by the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA), MCC has joined more than 50 other humanitarian NGOs in endorsing a simple statement:

For over five years in Gaza, more than 1.6 million people have been under blockade in violation of international law. More than half of these people are children. We the undersigned say with one voice: “end the blockade now.”

The United Nations also recently released a clear and concise fact sheet on the impact of the Gaza blockade. But while facts are important, it’s even more critical to remember that real people face these facts on a daily basis. So here are a few key selections from the UN report, accompanied by photos of Gazans struggling to overcome these conditions:

44% of Gazans are food insecure and about 80% are aid recipients.

Aysha Qaramesh and her son Ayman (6), beneficiaries in a food security project raising rabbits with MCC partner Al Najd Development Forum in the eastern border area of Gaza. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

34% of Gaza’s workforce, including over half its youth, is unemployed.

Mahmoud Abdim, age 20 (left), is a second year student studying to be an electrician through a vocational training center run by MCC partner, Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work (NECCCRW), in the Qarara area of Khan Younis, Gaza. Mahmoud did not finish secondary school in order to work to support his family which includes his parents, four brothers, and four sisters. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

During this period, nearly 2,300 Palestinians have been killed and 7,700 injured by Israeli forces, about two thirds of them during the “Cast Lead” offensive. Over a quarter (27%) of all Palestinian fatalities were women and children. Since June 2007, 37 Israelis have been killed and 380 injured in attacks launched from Gaza, 40% of whom were civilians.

Artwork by children at the Nuwar Center of MCC partner Culture and Free Thought Association depicts the bombardment of Gaza by Israeli helicopters. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

The productive capacity of Gaza’s economy has shown almost no recovery, rendering recent economic growth unsustainable. … The continued ban on the transfer of goods from Gaza to its traditional markets in the West Bank and Israel, along with the severe restrictions on access to agricultural land and fishing waters, prevents sustainable growth and perpetuates the high levels of unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency.

(l-r) Khaled Albieri , his brother Ibrahim, and Mohammed Ashenbari use a pivot and levers to straighten iron reinforcement bars recovered from buildings bombed by Israel in Gaza City. Such recycling of building materials is necessary because of Israeli restrictions on goods entering Gaza. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

The quality of infrastructure and vital services, including in the areas of health, education and water and sanitation, have significantly declined as a result of the import restrictions and the rapid population growth. A failure to address existing gaps would increase the humanitarian vulnerability of the people. Despite the June 2010 measures to ease the blockade, international organisations continue to face challenges in responding to the most urgent humanitarian needs in these fields, due to the complex approval system for projects put in place by the Israeli authorities.

Zeina Mefij, age 1 month, bravely awaits the prick of a blood test administered by Nabila Adnan (left) and Sihan Abu Hasan as part of a well baby program at a medical clinic run by MCC partner NECCCRW in the Deraj neighborhood of Gaza City. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Since 2009, the Israeli naval forces have prevented fishermen from accessing sea areas beyond three nautical miles from Gaza’s coast, where the main sardine shoals are found. This has severely undermined the livelihoods of 35,000 people.

Gazan fishermen cast their nets off Gaza’s Mediterranean coast near Gaza City. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

Farmland located within 500 meters from the perimeter fence is totally inaccessible, while access to areas up to 1500 meters is risky due to frequent ‘warning shots’ by the Israeli army.  An estimated 75,000 metric tonnes of produce are lost each year as result of limited access.

Farmer Nizar Abu-Halim of Beit Lahia points toward the northern border zone from among rows of strawberries on his farm supported by MCC partner Al Najd Development Forum. Smokestacks from a coal-fired power plant across the border in Ashkelon, Israel, are visible on the horizon. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

To learn more about AIDA’s campaign, click on the following links:

Press Release – International Pressure Mounts Over Gaza Blockade

5 Fallacies in Gaza and the Facts of Life 5 Years in to the Blockade: Trapped by Land, Air and Sea

5 Years Lost: Case studies looking back at life under blockade

Credibility and truth-telling: Why MCC Middle East visits Ottawa yearly

Guest blog posting by Daryl Byler.

Cindy and I have served as MCC representatives for programs in Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel since 2007.  Every year we spend four to six weeks visiting the MCC advocacy offices (Ottawa, the United Nations and Washington, D.C.) and speaking in Mennonite schools and churches in Canada and the United States.

Is speaking in North America an effective use of our time when there is so much work to do in the Middle East?  Aren’t there school kits to deliver, and water and peacebuilding projects to attend to?

For MCC partners in the Middle East, education and advocacy in Canada and the United States is a high priority.

MCC partner explains to MCC learning tour participants how the separation wall divides Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. (photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

They rightly believe that the Western media does not offer a full and accurate picture of the realities on the ground in the Middle East.

  • Too often, for example, the media highlights suicide bombings or other individual acts of violence
  • without mentioning structural violence like military occupation, house demolitions, land confiscation and sweeping economic sanctions.

Furthermore, MCC partners remind us that the policies of the Canadian and U.S. governments have consequences for the lives of ordinary Middle Eastern folks.

  • They want policymakers to be aware of the implications of their decisions.

In early 2010 we traveled to Gaza with the leaders of MCC’s three advocacy offices.  One of MCC’s partners there told us pointedly that

his organization did not want MCC’s money for health care and job training projects if we are unwilling to do advocacy highlighting the economic blockade that suffocates life for many Palestinians in Gaza.

The chairperson of MCC’s Palestine advisory committee recently shared a similar sentiment.  Samia Khoury, a Palestinian educator who has been a tireless voice for justice and peace, expressed great appreciation for MCC’s 63-year presence in the region.

But she added a word of caution.

  • “I wish to emphasize how important (it is) that the prophetic courageous voice of MCC is heard (in North America),” Samia urged.
  • “Otherwise MCC work in our region would be a cover up for the reality on the ground that can go on forever with no hope for liberation, and MCC will lose its credibility and purpose of being in the region.”

In our visits in Ottawa last week, May 28 and 29, we had an opportunity to meet with Members of Parliament and other policymakers, articulating the concerns of MCC’s Middle Eastern partners and listening to the perspectives of Canadian officials.

Manar (5), Awad (3 months) and Mohammad (8) Abu-Samra, children of a family that raises rabbits through Al Najd’s MCC-supported food security project.

Later, we spent several days interacting with MCC constituents across Alberta, again sharing the stories and perceptions of MCC partners in the Middle East.

This kind of public engagement augments MCC’s work on the ground.  It also allows us to return to the Middle East and share information with MCC partners about the broad spectrum of views that North Americans have about the Middle East.

Credibility and truth-telling: this is why we yearly visit Ottawa, Washington, and churches across Canada and the U.S.

By J. Daryl Byler, MCC Representative for Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Palestine