Meeting of Bishops’ Conference Presidents
With Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land
Jerusalem, 14 January 2003
Presented by: Claudette Habesch
Secretary General, Caritas Jerusalem
President, Caritas MONA - Vice President, Caritas Internationalis
The situation in Palestine today is not simply a result of the uprising that started in September 2000, but rather a culmination of events, lost opportunities, and injustices spanning over half a century. These events can be briefly summarized as follows:
1- In 1948, the state of Israel was created on 78% of Palestine. Whole cities and villages were evacuated of their Palestinian inhabitants, forcing them in the diaspora. Many today still live in refugee camps awaiting a solution.
2- In 1967, the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip started after the 6-days war. Occupation, in itself, is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention ratified by many democratic countries including Israel. The tools of implementing this occupation are all in direct violation of the Convention and thus a violation of human rights. This includes the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people, continuous confiscation of land for the purpose of building settlements, and the control of the natural resources of the occupied land, such as water. It also means mass deportation of political activists, collective punishment, imprisonment, administrative detentions without trial or charges being brought against detainees, restriction of movement of people and goods, and robbing a people that is indigenous to this land and part of this land its right to freedom and statehood.
3- The failure of the Declaration of Principles followed by the Oslo Accords and other steps in the so-called peace process to bring stability and reconciliation. The average Palestinian has not felt the fruits and benefits of what was expected or hoped for, as he continues to live under occupation and oppression.
4- The continuation of settlement building on confiscated Palestinian land encircling Palestinian villages and cities fragmenting the geographical area, and seriously restricting movement. This is further compounded by the permanent roadblocks, and checkpoints, and the isolation of the Gaza Strip from the rest of the West Bank. All this adds to the daily hardships and difficulties of the Palestinians.
5- Key issues that are at the core of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remain unresolved, namely the question of Jerusalem, the issue of refugees, and Israeli settlements.
6- The failure of the United Nations to implement UN Resolutions that address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
7- The inability and failure of the Palestinian National Authority to run Palestinian affairs efficiently to respond to the needs of the Palestinian civic society.
All of the above led to a complete breakdown in peace talks and negotiations, and the start of the second Intifada. But what makes matter worse is that the system did not allow for a healthy Palestinian opposition or a moderate core to have a say or influence decision makers. But rather, there was a creation of a suitable milieu for the extremist camp, which promised results by means other than political and peace negotiations. As the extremist camp grew strong among the Palestinians, so did it among the Israelis, claiming many innocent lives on both sides. Palestinians are no longer safe in their own homes and refugee camps, as much as Israelis are no longer safe on their buses, in their streets and shops.
Israel’s response to curb the activities of the Intifada and to ensure its security is brutal and results in the escalation of the current situation. Israel resorted to war-like measures using disproportioned and excessive force against Palestinians: Indiscriminate killings (1918 deaths of which 19% were under the age of 17), injuries (41,000 injured, while 2,500 are left with permanent disabilities), home demolishing and shelling (720 homes completely destroyed, and 11,553 homes damaged), arbitrary execution of Palestinian activists (185 Palestinians) rather than imprisonment and a fair trial, and detentions and arrests (6,000 are currently imprisoned of whom 1,700 are under administrative detention and 350 are children).
Over 120 permanent roadblocks and checkpoints, in addition to the temporary ones, are used to impose a crippling and strangulating siege dividing and fragmenting the West Bank in 300 separate clusters, and the Gaza Strip in 3 different zones. Continuous reoccupation and incursions by the Israeli army and long curfews left the Palestinian society in shambles, unable to fend for itself or even provide for its basic needs causing a humanitarian crisis not witnessed since the war of 1967.
These measures affect every aspect of Palestinian life and society.
Economically: The backbone of society and development, the economic sector has collapsed. Local and direct foreign investments in several fields, such as tourism, construction, agriculture, telecommunication, utilities and industry, have dried up especially that the return on investments have been in the negative in most sectors. All the above are labor intensive but with little or no growth, many were forced to cut down on the number of employees pushing unemployment rates to unprecedented figures. This is coupled by the closing of the borders between Palestine and Israel and barring in excess of 200,000 Palestinian laborers to seek jobs in Israel.
GNP has dropped by 51%, while unemployment in Gaza has risen to 67% and 48% in the West Bank. 75% of the Palestinian population lives under the poverty line (less than US$2 per day). Daily domestic losses are estimated between US$6 – 8.6 million not including the losses of foreign income from pilgrimages and tourism.
According to the World Bank report in March 2002, it estimates that it will take a minimum of two years for the economy to return to pre-Intifada per capita income when the conflict ends and a solution is reached.
The annual report (October 2002) of UNCTAD’s assistance to the Palestinian people states that the purchasing power of Palestinian families has been depleted, making them dependent on emergency relief and support to meet their basic needs.
Needless to say, the Palestinian National Authority has huge budget deficits and is almost totally dependent on donor countries to cover its expenses. This also means that the Authority does not have the required funds to develop various vital sectors such as health, education and infrastructure. One has to wonder how are we supposed to build a democratic civic society.
Educationally: Not only our education system is underdeveloped and teachers are underpaid, education suffered severely during the last two years. According to the Ministry of Education, 850 schools were temporarily closed, 9 were vandalized, while 8 others were turned into military barracks, 11 were totally destroyed, and 185 more were shelled. In addition, 132 students were killed and 2,500 were injured on their way to or from school, and 1135 school days were lost due to closures and curfews.
Student and teachers alike undergo a lot of hardships to reach their schools or universities. On many days, rain or shine, they are forced to walk between mountains, valleys and dirt roads to avoid checkpoints. What used to take a 20 to 30 minute ride, now takes a two to three hour walk. Aside from exhaustion, students face many psychological problems. They are afraid to be away from home and not be able to return due to an incursion, or they worry how their parents will come up with the tuition before report cards are distributed. Understandably, students’ scholastic achievement has dropped considerably.
Medically: The Palestinian Health System including hospitals is also underdeveloped. Many services and specialization are not available in hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza. Furthermore patients from villages and remote areas are not able to reach city centers to receive health care, causing severe complications and in many cases death (a reported 76 cases). Many pregnant women were denied access through checkpoints to reach maternity hospitals, forcing some to deliver on side roads increasing infant mortality rates. Caritas Jerusalem, which runs two health centers in villages in the Ramallah district had to expand its services to answer to basic medical emergency needs such as minor operations and delivery. These centers not only serve the population of those villages but also the surrounding areas.
Patients who are in need of specialized treatment need to come to Jerusalem. Not only there is the problem of crossing checkpoints with or without permits, they have the additional burden of raising money as no health insurance covers these medical bills.
To further burden the medical system, there have been systematic attacks on hospitals, medical personnel and ambulances. Allow me to share with you some of these disturbing figures: more than seven hospitals were attacked or shelled, some more than once. 15 people including a German doctor, nurses, ambulance drivers were killed while on duty. 180 PRCS (Palestinian Red Crescent Society) emergency medical technicians were injured and 95 Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees aid workers were also injured. 25 PRCS ambulances were completely destroyed, while 197 were attacked by live ammunition, and rubber bullets. Denial of access to PRCS ambulances at road blocks were reported in 432 different incidents, while 70 emergency personnel were arrested during the Israeli invasion of Palestinian cities in March 2002.
Religiously: Palestinian Moslems and Christians are not allowed to visit and pray in Holy shrines around the country. For example Moslems from the West Bank and Gaza can not pray in Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the third holiest shrine in Islam due to the siege and lack of permits to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem or Israel. For the same reason, Palestinian Christians are not allowed to enter Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Nazareth to partake in the religious ceremonies. Who would have imagined that the town of Bethlehem, the town from which the message of peace illuminated the hearts of many, more than to thousand years ago, lies under a military siege and curfew forbidding Palestinian Christians and even pilgrims, to pay homage to the Prince of Peace.
Socially: Social life has practically come to an end. Weddings and other social functions are decided in regards to when curfews are lifted. Unfortunately, funerals can’t be planned as such. Many were laid to rest without the final farewell of family members and friends.
Families stay in touch over the phone and only make an effort to meet during the holiday season. My daughter and her family, who live within the boundaries of Jerusalem, invited the whole family for Christmas Eve. But since two checkpoints separate us and one closes at 9:00pm, our eve started at 2:00pm and ended at 8:00pm, though we live in the same city.
Humanitarian agencies are responding to their best of ability to this humanitarian crisis. Food distribution programs, job creation initiatives, medical care, tuition payment, covering basic living expenses such as utilities and rent, distribution of schoolbags and clothes, hygienic products, blankets and fuel to shield of the cold of winter, reconstruction of damaged homes are but a few the initiatives we are involved in. No matter how big our response is, the crisis will pertain as long as the political problem and conflict persists. This humanitarian crisis is a direct result of the current political situation and instability, due to occupation.
In his Christmas Message of 2002, HB Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, makes an appeal: “to put an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, which is the source of all evils and all obstacles accumulated in the hearts of the leaders and the peoples in front of peace”. He says that what is not possible is: “to ask for security on one side, while the other is being oppressed, to have one people occupying when the other is under occupation. This is really impossible. But with equal justice for both sides, when the Israeli lives on his land and state, and the Palestinian also has his land and state, then living together will be possible”.
Condemnations and appeals and calls for justice and peace have been forthcoming. The UN General Assembly, the UN Human Rights Commission, the UN Security Council, and 114 signatories to the Fourth Geneva Convention among others, all issued declarations, and resolutions to condemn Israel for excessive and disproportionate use of force, and to demand Israel to cease all obstacles to the work of humanitarian organizations, as well as to appeal to Israel to withdraw its troops.
Palestinians were also condemned for the bombings in Israel that claimed the lives of innocent people, and the international community appealed to them for self-restraint.
But the circle of violence continues leaving physical, emotional, economic, and spiritual scars that will take long to heal.
We, as Palestinians, have to invest in peace and work towards it, hoping that there are enough people committed to change. We hope to find a similar counterpart among the Israelis. This will help strengthen the voice of the moderate camp on both sides, the only camp that can become true partners in peace.
As Palestinian Christians, we are also concerned with the emigration of our communities. If we are really going to turn the tide of emigration from the Holy Land, we need to do more than provide social justice programming. It is essential for the Church be involved in schooling programming promoting the Christian heritage and the sense of belonging in the Holy Land, job creation, housing projects, and other such “safety net programming’. But if truly want to live up to the aspiration of the Gospel, we need to find the appropriate mechanism to link our programming efforts to policy action that address the structures that causes injustice.
Thus, the advocacy campaign of Caritas Internationalis hopes to bring a new awareness to an age-old problem. It is the pro-active policies of occupation that represents the principal threat to the dignity and livelihood of average Palestinians. It is for this reason, that Caritas’ social justice programs aims to compliment the efforts of our advocacy campaign which calls for the end of the occupation, stop of violence, and lifting of the closure and siege.
But alone we can’t achieve the required results. We appeal to the international community and Churches around the world, and we appeal to governments to take a bold stand beyond condemning and take firm action to help both the Palestinians and Israelis. We ask to be treated and respected like others when it comes to the implementation of resolutions and that our cause be taken seriously as it is a just one. The deafening silence and inaction of the international community in 1948 and again 1967 left a people without their legitimate right to live and prosper in their own homeland. Our dignity, as Palestinians, does not allow us to continue living under oppression and humiliation, and as Christians, our values do not allow us to be bystanders to the senseless violence and killings.
This is the Holy Land to Jews, Christians and Moslems. For the sake of its holiness and for the sake of its people who in their own way and prayer try to keep the words of God alive, we beseech you to intervene.
HB Michel Sabbah, Christmas Message 2002, Latin Patriarchate, Jerusalem, 18 January 2002.
Sabella, Bernard, Dr., Situation in The Palestinian Territories, DSPR/MECC, Jerusalem, 3 January 2003.
Conference Of Major Superiors of Men, Leadership conference of Women Religious, Conference of Religious in England and Wales, Reflection of The Inter-Conference Delegation to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Advent 2002.
The Palestine Monitor, The Voice of Civil Society, Palestinian Intifada, September 28, 2000 – December 24, 2002.
B’Tselem, Illusions of Restraint: Human Rights Violations During the Events in the Occupied Territories, 20 September –2 December 2002.
UNECO, The Impact on the Palestinian Economy of Confrontation, Border Closures and Mobility Restrictions, October 200 – 30 September 2001.
Several Reports and Statistical Data from the following sources:
Health, Development, Information, and Policy Institute (HDIP)
Ministry of Health
Ministry of Education, 17 January 2002
Palestinian Red Crescent Society, 27 October 2001, 10 July 2002
Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committee
Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 28 June 2002, 3 June
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics
World Bank Report, March 2002