JERUSALEM — Christians living and working in the Holy Land are waiting to see what impact, if any, Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip will have on them personally.
While no one doubts that the so-called “disengagement,” Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw all Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza and the northern West Bank, will give Palestinian Gazans more independence and freedom of movement, people fear that the redeployment of Israeli troops to just outside the territory will simply enlarge what many call “a prison.” Until now, the densely populated strip of land had been home to 8,000 Jewish settlers and more than 1 million Arabs.
Constantine Dabbagh, the director of the Middle East Council of Churches’ Gaza branch, said that Gaza's 2,500 Christians are guardedly hopeful for the future.
“We always try to be optimistic, and we are happy to see the settlements evacuated, but if it's left to Israel to give us hope, it won't happen,” Dabbagh asserted. “Like all Palestinians, we fear that the pullout will turn Gaza into a larger prison, and that the Israelis withdrew from Gaza in order to expropriate more land in the West Bank.”
Dabbagh insisted that “there is no difference between Christians and Muslims, because we are both confronted by the same terrible conditions resulting from the Israeli occupation.”
As in the West Bank, Dabbagh said, “we are restricted in our movements between areas within Gaza, and it is almost impossible for people to get into or out of Gaza. Unemployment is very high, and when our young people complete their studies at the university they have no jobs, so they move abroad.
People are emigrating, dividing families. My own son, who is 31, has not been in Gaza for six years because he knows that if he comes, he wouldn't be able to get out.”
Father Amjad Sabbara, a pastor in Bethlehem in the West Bank (where Israel is evacuating only about 700 of the estimated 250,000 settlers), said that West Bank residents hope the Gaza withdrawal will set a precedent.
“Our real hope is that all of the land will be freed,” Father Sabbara said, referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War against Egypt, Jordan and Syria. “The closures are difficult for all of us.”
Father Sabbara said that the Israeli “occupation” makes it difficult for Palestinians to move freely within the occupied territories, and often impossible to enter Jerusalem, where many Christians and Muslims have relatives. Although Israel barred most Palestinians in the West Bank from entering Israel during the first years of the intifada (Palestinian uprising), “at feast times we submit a request to the Israeli authorities to go to the churches, and they agree,” Father Sabbara noted.
Said Ibrahim Kandalaft, a retired lawyer from East Jerusalem, “We hope this event will be the first and not the final one.”
Chatting with a shopkeeper in the Old City's Arab market, Kandalaft, a Greek Orthodox Christian whose family has lived in Jerusalem for 500 years, said that Israel must do much more than just vacate Gaza if it wants peace with the Palestinians.
“Israel must allow the refugees to return to their homes, according to United Nations Resolution 338, and the borders must be the 1967 borders, not the borders delineated by Israel's wall,” Kandalaft insisted. “We need a Gaza airport and a seaport, but it seems that Mr. Sharon isn't prepared to make more concessions.”
Christian relief organizations hope that the disengagement will enable them to do their job more effectively in the future.
“The main problem we've had in Gaza is accessing our programs,” said Samuel Martin, communications officer of Caritas, the social-pastoral organization of the Catholic Church.
“We operate a medical clinic in the northern Gaza area, and our local [Palestinian] staffers from the West Bank and Jerusalem are not able to enter Gaza because of Israeli restrictions. Were it not for the assistance of a dear friend, a Catholic priest who regularly goes to Gaza, normal things like paperwork would not get done,” Martin said.
The aid official called the state of health care in Gaza “atrocious,” which is one reason so many seriously ill Gazans need to go abroad for operations like organ transplants.
Referring to the difficulty some patients encounter when applying to Israel for a transit permit, Martin said, “I'm sure Israel wants to facilitate anyone seeking medical care, but when you have security closures, military events, warnings of terrorism, urgent health care often gets delayed.
“We're on new ground here,” Martin said of the weeks and months ahead, which will test not only Israel's resolve to give Palestinians more freedom, but also the Palestinians’ commitment to end terror and rebuild their lives.
“We want to live like human beings side by side with the Israelis,” said Dabbagh. “Christians, Muslims and Jews, we are all the sons and daughters of God.”
Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.