Mi Gaza, Su Gaza

The cost of energy is up, your mortgage is due, the car is in the shop, the new job's a hassle, and the kids have the flu. Who has the time or the inclination to worry about full-suffering brothers and sisters half-a-world away?

A believer in Divine Mercy, that's who.

Even at that, though, with so many troubled areas, sectarian conflicts, and regional hotspots - so much ethnic violence and political unrest - even the most egregious injustice goes largely unnoticed and unlamented on the vine of public concern, where attention spans are measured in microseconds. Ironically, because you hear so much about world chaos on 24/7 cable news and the Internet, you labor in a self-preservative attempt to zone out.

Caregiver fatigue sets in, and soon you lump the craziness and chaos together. You rationalize trouble away like a smoker exhaling a blue cloud, cavalierly, in a fashion that gets it out of your system and lets your conscience sleep at night. You aren't your brother's keeper in a world of dog-eat-dog.

Nonetheless, the trouble doesn't go away, and suffering people can't escape as easily you. It's then, we hope, that your core identity kicks in. You are a child of God - a son, a daughter, made in His image and endowed with the capacity to receive and extend love.

You can't save the world, but you can save all of yourself. Isn't that what you do when you extend mercy to others? Do what you can, with what you've got, for whom you're able. To bring this down to concrete terms, take what's happening in a far off, misunderstood strip of Mid East land called Gaza.

Love: The Only True Answer
We use Gaza as a specific instance that proves a generality to be true, namely: injustice and abuse can never be remedies to resolve disputes, be they between two family members, two ethnic groups, or two nations. The only true answer to peace is love, just as the only practical means of extending love to others is through the practice of a mercy that comes only from God.

It's natural to look at the tangled politics of the Middle East and wonder what's God got to do with it. He seems so far removed these days.

Seems.

Israel acquired Gaza in a military takeover in 1973, and for 38 years, sustained a harsh military occupation. In 2005, bowing to public pressure, Israel voted to unilaterally leave Gaza. Jewish settlements in Gaza were dismantled and more than 9,000 settlers removed. Finally, on Sep. 12, 2005, the Israeli cabinet formally ended military rule there.

Nonetheless, to this day, Israel controls the air space over Gaza, its territorial waters, its tax system and economy, imports and exports, foreign visitation, and requires the registration of Gaza's population. In other words, the military occupation gave way to an occupation of thought, morale, intellect, and soul, making a vast prison of this beautifully sculpted land of mild winters and dry, hot summers that's a little more than twice the size of Washington, D.C.

The Palestinian side is no less problematic that that of Israel. From 2005 to June 2007, the Palestinian Authority governed Gaza unsuccessfully, its difficult job made near impossible by Israeli restrictions. Israel's policy of encouraging instability in Gaza has backfired. Today, Gaza is controlled by Hamas (Palestinian Resistance Movement) following its civil war against Fatah (Palestinian Liberation Movement). Of Gaza's 1.48 million people, 1 million are U.N.-registered refugees, most descendents of people who fled or were kicked out of their homes by Israel following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

A Forced Humanitarian Crisis
Since Israel's withdrawal in September 2005, the U.S. government has issued no official statement on Gaza. The current issue of the CIA World Factbook, an official publication of the U.S. government, still incorrectly lists Gaza as an Israeli-occupied territory, nearly three years after Israel's nominal withdrawal.

Citing Hamas aggression, on Jan. 19, Israel closed the only legal access Palestinians have into Egypt to the south (the Rafah Border Crossing), forcing a humanitarian crisis. Israel's draconian closure policies have in effect made a vast, undersupplied detention center of Gaza. Its residents have been shut off from work, water, energy, banks, and other staples required for human dignity. Nearly a million and a half people have been left without enough food or medicine. Another 800,000 have little or no electricity.

Meanwhile, the world has largely ignored their pleas for help. No spark has come forth to ignite a bonfire of compassion on the world stage. Human life went lost as Israeli and Palestinian leaders quarreled while America, the European Union, and the rest of the International Community looked the other way. One ray of hope came with a visit Feb. 5 from 10 members of the European Union Parliament, representing different political groups and led by Luisa Morgantini, Vice President of the European Parliament. At a press conference, the delegation reaffirmed what Vice President Morgantini calls "the need and the urgency to lift the blockade that represents an illegal collective punishment on the civilian population."

The situation has continued to degenerate. On Feb. 7, 2008, Israeli raids on Gaza killed six Palestinian fighters and a teacher, this action coming on the heels of a suicide bombing in Israel earlier in the week for which Hamas claimed responsibility. Hamas responded to the Israeli raid with rockets and mortars.

Life Reduced to Numbers
The Palestinian teacher died when a shell from an Israeli tank shattered the high school where she worked, in the town of Beit Hanun. Medics said three students also were seriously hurt. In Israel, two children aged 2 and 4 were wounded the same day when a Hamas rocket hit their home in southern Israel.

These anonymous people immediately disappeared into the statistics of war like so many ships being sunk and slipped traceless into the ocean, spoken of only in terms of the numbers they have become on casualty lists and manifest sheets.

From an Agence France Presse newswire report: " ... at least 168 people have been killed in violence between the two sides ... " Each one of these numbers were people who had lives and homes, knew loves and hurts, shared feelings with family and friends, sunk in failure, elevated in success, succumbed to sin, and rose to saintliness. Each now has suddenly vanished, their humanity wiped away, and for what?

Or consider this dry news report issued by the Israeli Defense Forces (Israeli journalists have been barred from visiting Gaza for a year now, on government orders): "Twelve Palestinians were killed during the holiday by Israeli Defense Force fire [in Beit Hanun, Gaza]. More than 30 Palestinians were wounded. There was a confirmed hit of a cell of launchers of anti-tank weapons," read the IDF report. Stop there and it sounds like a justified defensive action, but conscience forbids us to stop there.

About four and a half months after the Sept. 26, 2007 attack, and most of the wounded still lie in Gaza's Shifa Hospital, according to a post by journalist Gideon Levy filed from Haaretz, Israel. Levy, who can't go to Gaza because of his government's ban on journalists entering the Strip, had the information of the September attack independently confirmed by Catrin Ormestad, a Swedish journalist and author who visited Beit Hanun to investigate the sanitized report.

Putting a Face on a Statistic
According to Levy, "The 'cell of launchers of anti-tank weapons' was actually a group of teen-agers who had gone out in the street after school and saw tanks approaching." One of the members of this "cell" was a 15-year-old ninth grader named Assad Mahmoud.

"Not much is left of the scrawny youth's body," Levy writes. "He lost both legs and an arm as a result of the shell that soldiers fired at the teens, who were outside, near their homes. [The boy] was also badly wounded in the abdomen. Assad lays in bed, staring at the walls, while his father makes a plea to the world to help him acquire a pair of prosthetic legs and a prosthetic arm for his son."

Ormestad filed this report of her visit to the teenager, "In the surgical ward [of Gaza's Shifa Hospital], high up on the fourth floor, lies Assad Mahmoud. Upon entering his room, a visitor is perplexed at first. What is lying there in the bed? It takes a few seconds for the eye to adjust to the unbearable sight. A boy. Half a boy.

"What's left of his upper body is exposed," Ormestad writes. "A bandage covers his stomach, to which a drainage bag is attached. Bandages cover his three stumps, a blue sheet covers what's left of his body. His expression is blank, staring, dead. His father, Jabar, tenderly clutches the remaining wounded hand, his eyes bleary with grief and lack of sleep. For the last three weeks, 40-year-old Jabar has not left his son's bedside, except for occasional trips home to change clothes. He sleeps on the hospital floor at night ... [Assad's] mother, Maryam, 32, doesn't budge from his bedside, either."

How can these lives be reclaimed? Is it even possible? What can words do, even words of prayer?

I'm reminded of Marian Founder Blessed Stanislaus Papczynski's lifelong commitment to pray for those who experience sudden death, especially innocent victims of war and combatants who die on the battlefield.

We cannot succumb to questions about the effectiveness of prayer in the face of so horrible a physical, psychological, and spiritual need. More than ever, we need to put such situations in God's hands and, relying on trust, continue to pray regardless, especially when there is little else we can do. Prayer is pure intent directed by will toward a good purpose. That's all we know and all we need to know. The rest we let go.

Action is also in the toolbox of the compassionate. In Gaza, we can witness Divine Mercy in action through the response of two organizations of caring and fiercely determined people.

Christian Community Responds
In a desperate plea to draw attention to the forgotten Palestinian suffering in Gaza, the Patriarchs and Heads of Local Christian Churches in Jerusalem issued an unprecedented joint statement condemning the situation there.

"The siege over Gaza should end now," the prelates wrote under the name of the Very Rev. Michael H. Sellors, Coordinator to the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. "In the Name of God, we ... urge the International Community, President Bush, and the leaders of Israel to put an end to this suffering." The statement implored the Israeli government to take up the Palestinians' plea for access to medicine, food, fuel, and goods.

The church leaders addressed both sides directly:

We urge the Palestinian leadership to unite in ending their differences for the sake of their people in Gaza. Put the differences aside and deal with the crisis for the good of all human beings, demonstrating that you care for your brothers and sisters who have suffered enough already. We would say to all concerned parties: While you persist in firing rockets into Israel, you encourage public opinion outside this Land to feel there is a justification for this siege.

We urge Israel to act responsibly and immediately end this inhuman siege. To deny children and civilians their necessary basic commodities [is] not the way to security but rather throw[s] the region into further and more dangerous deteriorations. This siege will not guarantee the end to rocket firing but will only increase the bitterness and suffering and invite more revenge, while the innocents keep dying. True peace-building is the only way to bring the desired security.



The statement ended with a ringing endorsement for life:

We pray for the day when the people of Gaza will be free from occupation, from political differences, from violence, and from despair. We pray for the Israelis and the Palestinians to respect human life and God's love for every human life, and to take all possible measures to end this suffering. Only bold steps toward just peace and ending the violence will protect the life and dignity of both peoples.



Tending to Physical, Spiritual Needs
Beyond the mayhem caused by military action, the sealed border has led to other tragedy. One young Palestinian man died after a tractor fell on him and rescuers could not get through the gated to a hospital. Israeli soldiers waited for more than 90 minutes before opening the gates, according to Caritas Jerusalem, the socio-pastoral organization of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. By then, the man had died. More recently, two women were forced to give birth in their cars after soldiers at a security gate did not allow them to pass to get to the hospital. One of the women later required surgery because of complications caused by the arbitrary delay.

"The mood in Gaza is a dangerous one," says Jameel Khoury, Caritas Jerusalem's Gaza Program Manager. "The atmosphere is very charged, and it is not safe to venture out much at this time. People [live] in great fear of the situation. People feel trapped in Gaza, and we see the actions on the Egyptian border [in which Hamas blasted a breach in the security barrier] showing people want freedom."

Khoury says that Caritas Jerusalem works to provide physical resources such as food, medicine, and clothing, but it also pays attention to the people's spiritual needs.

"Our team also has responsibilities to reach out to [the families of] those who were killed or hurt and offer needed condolences and sympathies to relatives and families who have lost loved ones or who suffered injury," Khoury says. Caritas volunteers try to help as best they can, helping people who need time to bury and mourn their dead in the midst of nightmarish upheaval.

Khoury noted the work is hazardous, saying that the father of a Caritas Jerusalem volunteer had been killed in a recent Israeli military operation. Also, one of Caritas Jerusalem's village health workers saw her home destroyed in a recent military incursion.

Khoury says Caritas Jerusalem provides medical care as best it can, operating a medical center in Al-Shati Camp, running a mobile medical clinic, and establishing six medical service areas in remote parts of Gaza. The efforts, difficult even under the best of local conditions, have been made nearly impossible by the recent unrest.

"Our work in Gaze continues," Khoury says, "but in addition to our regular work, we are responding to urgent emergency health care needs, which are many. Regarding the work of the general clinic, they are doing what they can to sparingly use the power generator.

"A lack of fuel and electricity affects the work of the health center because we cannot keep the generator on all the time. In addition, electricity is not always available, which means we cannot turn on medical equipment needing power."

Elemental Needs, Elemental Mercies
The problems in Gaza have become so elemental, Khoury says, that the number one priority of Gaza residents today is "to bring food to their families, at any cost. They have limited opportunities to do this."

Despite all the difficulties and hardship, Khory says Caritas Jerusalem "will continue to work in Gaza addressing the urgent needs that are now present."

That is mercy in action, this most elemental and effective of human capabilities. No one person can save the world, but each of us can respond in some way to human need and misery, whether it's making a meal for a sick neighbor or risking your life on the Gaza Strip to bring hope and comfort to those without both.

For more information on Caritas Jerusalem and its work in Gaza, write by e-mail to communication@caritasjr.org.

Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of "Dan Valenti's Journal" for thedivinemercy.org and is a frequent contributor to marian.org.

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