By Rev. Robert Tobin and Maurine Tobin
Having viewed countless reports, photos and videos, we felt prepared for what we would see on our visit to Gaza in early December 2014. But the reality was overwhelming. No video can capture the scope of the destruction, block upon block of Israeli-demolished apartment buildings, bullet-sprayed shops and homes, children playing in rubble, men searching for reusable stones.
Arriving days after Gaza had been flooded by torrential rains, we were met by Suhaila Tarazi, director of Al Ahli Arab Hospital, and taken on a “tour” of northern Gaza, starting with Beit Hanoun, a village near the checkpoint that had long since lost its citrus groves to an Israeli-created “no man’s land” and had struggled to survive by bringing light industry to the area, now bombed, adding thousands to the pre-war unemployment rate of over 50 percent.
Thinking we had seen the worst, we were overcome by Shujiya, on the edge of old Gaza City, a neighborhood of native Gazans, unlike the two-thirds of citizens who are refugees from 1948. We were shocked to see people living among the debris — blankets over gaping holes attesting to habitation for some of the 250,000 now homeless. We talked with a family living in a sort of cave created by the fallen four floors of their apartment building, interrupting the father’s lunch, bits of canned meat and bread distributed to the 80 percent of Gazans dependent on international aid. His wife and son were not eating.
As we later learned from the pediatrician at Al Ahli, children under 18 make up 54 percent of the population of Gaza, and 70 percent of all children in Gaza are anemic and malnourished, 25 percent developmentally delayed as a result. Post-traumatic stress disorder is almost universal among children who have experienced three devastating wars in the past six years.
After viewing the lovely waterfront where people seek some respite, we drove alongside the Beach Camp, one of the densest refugee camps in the world, from which raw sewage flows to the sea. We passed a bombed-out mosque in an untouched area, obviously one of the 73 mosques targeted for destruction.
The next day, we visited Al Ahli to experience the ongoing miraculously good work that small hospital does. Dr. Maher recounted the trauma of the 51-day assault — surgeons operating round the clock, countless shrapnel and burn victims, and the horrifying puzzle of what new weapon the Israelis were testing in this war, not the white phosphorous of the previous attack, but something that caused the internal organs to become toxic after shrapnel had been surgically removed, forcing the surgeons to repeat surgeries to stop the infections if they were able to do so. We visited the pediatric unit, where mothers receive nutritional advice while children receive medical care; the burn unit where a wide-eyed little boy stood waist deep in a hydrotherapy tub, soothing his badly burned legs. We talked with a young man receiving physical therapy for a shrapnel-shattered arm after two of his family were killed and 12 injured, and we visited a beautiful new diagnostic center recently built with funds from USAID funneled through ANERA because only American institutions can receive such funding.
The building proved to be the metaphor for our entire visit: we entered the state-of-the-art structure for high-tech diagnostics only to find it completely empty! There is simply no money for the desperately needed bone density and CT scans, the MRI, the laboratory equipment, the mammography machines. In fact, Ahli struggles to buy fuel to keep the generator working for the many hours a day when there is no electricity and to purchase urgently needed medical supplies.
The empty center reminded us of the Palestinian flags flying proudly on every collapsed building; the fisherman tending their boats although they risk their lives when going to sea; the palpable sense everywhere that the people of Gaza, despite the ongoing siege and the repeated assaults are determined to live and even to thrive. We in the United States, whose taxes furnish the weapons that cause this miasma of suffering, must say that we will no longer support such violence and demand an end to the siege of and recurrent attacks on Gaza.
The Rev. Robert Tobin and Maurine Tobin are residents of Deer Isle and long-term volunteers at Sabeel Ecumenical Theology Center and the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. They have led 23 groups to see the facts on the ground and to meet with Christian, Jewish and Muslim advocates for a just peace.