Doing time in the world's largest open-air prison

Amidst the horror of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict groups of Palestinians and Israelis are working together for peace.

By Nils von Kalm

An Israeli rocket destroys a cultural centre in Gaza.

I am writing this from my hotel room in Gaza. Two days ago my colleague and I sat here as rockets fired from Israel exploded around us.

This is life in Gaza, the third most densely populated region on the planet and the world’s largest open-air prison. We are here to support the Ahli Arab Hospital as part of our work with Anglican Overseas Aid.

Gaza is about 45km long and 12 km wide at its widest point. It is home to 1.8 million people, the vast majority of whom are not allowed to leave. The Israeli blockade of Gaza is seen in its control of the airspace, the sea from three kilometres out, and the fact that electricity is available for about four to six hours per day, 95% of the water is undrinkable, and unemployment is more than 40%. Leaving Gaza, even temporarily, requires a special permit, which is often denied by the Israeli authorities for no given reason.

On top of that are the regular rocket exchanges between Hamas and Israel. Although, to use the word “exchanges” makes it sound like it is an equal fight. The reality is that Hamas are armed with small rockets, while Israel is armed with drones, F16 fighter jets, tanks, a navy and an army. It is one of the most powerful military machines in the world, mostly supplied by the US.

The people of Gaza, like all Palestinians, want the world to hear their stories. Ignorant platitudes equating Palestinians with terrorism just won’t do. We need to be serious and listen to the people themselves.

Of the rockets fired by Israel two days ago, eight of them hit the Said al-Mishal Cultural Centre, about half a kilometre from us. (See photo right.) It was taken by my colleague from his room at our hotel.

What is it going to take to bring peace to the land where the Prince of Peace came to us? Most people don’t hold much confidence in the current political leadership. What they do hold confidence in is the power of relationships.

Two months ago I visited the West Bank. Part of our trip included meeting both Palestinians and Jews who are working together for peace. These are people who are building relationships because they realise that their blood is the same colour, that we are all made in the image of God.

One such group is the Parents Circle Family Forum (PCFF). They are a group of 600 people, Palestinians and Jews, who have all lost loved ones in the conflict. As a result, they promote themselves as the only group in the world that does not want any more members.

We met two members of the group, Rami and Aarab. Rami is a 68 year old Jewish man whose father survived Auschwitz. Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was blown up by two Palestinian suicide bombers in 1997. She was 14.

Aarab is a young Palestinian man, one of six children. His sister was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in 2007.

As Rami shares his story, he sits next to Aarab and tells us he sees Aarab as his own son. This Jew and this Palestinian put their arms around each other as Rami continues to share.

These are two people who are walking the talk of loving their enemies, or, more accurately, people who used to be their enemies but who now recognise that they have always been blood brothers. Rami made the point that “it is not our destiny to kill each other in this holy land of ours. The only way to peace is to talk to each other.”

PCFF is one of hundreds of groups of Palestinians and Jews working together to promote peace and justice in their land. Demonising and dehumanising the “other” just makes the problem worse. What I saw from the people we met was a more excellent way.

The physical walls that divide Palestinians from Israelis also build up psychological walls. As a doctor at the hospital in Gaza told us, blockading Gaza just creates more of the “us and them” mentality. It keeps us trapped in fear.

The Palestinian/Israeli conflict will ultimately be solved through relationship, through mutual understanding, compromise, humility, acceptance, forgiveness, and trust. All the things that make for healthy relationship. Keeping the blockade of Gaza and the separation wall between the West Bank and Israel just exacerbates the problem and increases anger, fear and frustration until, eventually, something has to give. And that something will not be pleasant.

When we get to know people, our fears dissolve in a flood of reality. They are cast out by love, and we see each other as people; we humanise each other.

One day Palestinians will be free. One day the sounds of children playing in Gaza will not be tempered by fear of when the next rocket attack will hit, mothers will not scream in pain at the loss of another family member. And the people in power will not prepare for war any more.

That means that one day Israel will also be free. Hatred and fear diminish our humanity. Love transforms and makes us more human.

This is the hope that Gazans and all Palestinians live with. It is a hope they want us to be part of. They want us to tell their stories, to let the world know what is happening for these trapped people.

Nils Von Kalm is the Church and Community Engagement Coordinator with Anglican Overseas Aid.