Updated: Oct 25, 2021
Is there any defining moments in your life? Some perhaps would answer the birth of a baby, others a momentous decision made which has led to changing a life forever. For me it was a trip I made to the Middle East, or as we began to call it the Muddle East.
I particularly remember my trip to Gaza as if it were yesterday. As we approached the check-point from Israel we were wondering if we would be allowed to pass, considering all that had recently been happening there. After a lot of hanging about and exhaustive searches on the internet by the IDF (the Israel Defence Force, we were allowed to continue. I guess they couldn’t find any links with terrorists, little did they know. One of the soldiers was a British Jew, from Swansea. He seemed almost uncomfortable, even apologetic, for the civil war that had been raging between Israel and Palestine for ever or so it seemed. After registering our passports we went through the final security barrier. I saw barbed wire and gun emplacements, as if we had crossed from Check point Charlie, called gun ally. We entered the Palestinian controlled area. Compared to the Israeli control station, the Palestinian control centre looked like a hastily put together garden shed. Unexpectedly we were called back, ‘’what now’’, I thought, only to be told by the soldier who was on his own and didn’t look more than 19years to “Have a nice Day”. So began our nice day in Gaza. We were greeted by the hospital mini-bus driver who was to drive us to Ali Arab Hospital, which was our reason to visit the Gaza Strip.
I looked out of the window. What I saw was a picture of desolation. It was quite noticeable that the industrial centre that we drove through was heavily guarded. We were told that in the past the Jews employed as many as 25,000 Arabs but the current conflict had reduced the workforce now to a mere trickle. It seemed everyone was losing out in the present government’s campaign of attack and counter-reprisals. As we drove from Israel into Gaza itself, we went past donkeys transporting lots of different items. One had a television on its back. Donkeys are now more expensive to buy than trucks because of the restriction of petrol and other building supplies by the Israeli Government. Going and coming over the border, there were lots of people coming back from the industrial areas. They were being herded like cattle by Israeli soldiers, which is part of the ritual of humiliating workers. We tried to take some pictures of this but were told in no uncertain terms to stop by the Israelis at gun point. What did they have to hide?
Coming into Gaza City we were told that the last raid by Israeli fighters had finished at 1.30 that morning. The streets of Gaza City were colourless and grey with dust, the people also dressed to match their surroundings as they shuffled along the broken streets and pavements. The Director of the hospital, Sehila Tirazi, greeted us warmly. She was such an impressive person, full of welcome smiles and hope. We were appalled to discover that because of the security situation, all medical samples such as blood and test results had to be individually cleared by Israel’s security. This held up vital treatment. Whole wards had been closed because of the conflict. This hospital was open for anyone’s injuries, both Palestinian and Israeli alike. No one had been able to visit the hospital for quite a while. This Hospital was founded by Christians and no one had been allowed to conduct a service of communion for months. They were glad to hear I was a Priest and could give them Communion. In fact there were 3 priests in the group, a bit like buses. We went over to the only ward that they could safely keep open; ironically it was built by a major in the Welsh regiment in the 1960s. The group eventually arrived at the Chapel of St Philip located in the hospital grounds. The Chapel filled with staff and a few recovering. As we were just preparing for communion when we heard the planes circling overhead. It was an eerie ominous sound you could sense they were locking onto their target. Common sense would have demanded that we should have headed for the bomb shelters. Ironically, the bombs fell as we were in the part of the service where we shake one another’s hands and say “the peace of God be always with you.” The ground shook; like an earthquake and the chapel was plunged into darkness. Where was God? One Doctor from the Hospital had just read from the Resurrection narrative from St Matthew’s Gospel. This is the account in the Bible where everyone thinks that Jesus is dead. Jesus surprises everyone by coming back in an ordinary way. As if he had just popped out to the desert to pray for a couple of days. Sadly there is no resurrection for Palestine or Israel. They are still on the Cross torturing one another in this fatal dance of death. In the darkness of the chapel I could feel Jesus’ presence, experiencing the pain as he did on the Cross for us all. Since this visit a rocket has landed on the Hospital chapel where we conducted the service. After the service had concluded I rushed up to the roof to see if I could see where the bomb had landed. I was taking two steps at a time my heart in my mouth, with a little voice inside me shouting “what are you doing you must be out of your mind!” I eventually climbed to the roof, and about a mile away I saw an ominous dark grey cloud ascending into the heavens. Where any killed who how many injured I asked myself anxiously.
There was no doubt we were in danger but not any more than any of the locals in Gaza itself. For them it was a daily occurrence. We were amazed that within an hour after the bombs had dropped, life in the city returned to normal. The drivers of the mini-buses were mindful of our safety but they were keen to show us the devastation so they drove us to the bomb-sites. We had to negotiate with the Palestinian police but eventually we were allowed to see the carnage. There is no such thing as a
bomb hitting its target precisely - there is always collateral damage. There were many casualties but mercifully only one death. Today the damage was to a UN building – this was extremely unfortunate for all concerned. Like other domestic houses the exploded building was deemed by the IDF as a legitimate Palestinian military target. So what did Hamas do they met in each other’s homes, where there is a will there is a way. Up until then the UN had tried to be balanced between the two sides of the conflict – but because of the damage to their building and to their personnel, the balance was no more.
So what was it that changed me and moved me so? I think it was because we were not spectators anymore we were a part of the struggles that the local Palestinian population. Life there was lived right on the edge, with no margin of safety. Strangely I felt fully alive even exhilarated, each second now seemed like a precious gift from God. The only trouble was I and the group could go home to the UK the citizens of Gaza where trapped nowhere to go but this 20mile by 40mile prison called the Gaza strip. I felt mumbled to be there with the people of Gaza to share with them, how they managed to go through this each day I could not imagine. During the week we had spent as much time as we could with peace activists on both sides of the conflict. There are a small number of Israelis and Palestinians working for peace, the Christian’s living in the Gaza strip were no exception. To my mind they were the glimmers of hope in this increasingly hopeless conflict. Although Since this incident I returned to Wales I resolved that I would take any opportunity afforded to me to talk about what I had experienced there. I have published articles in all sorts of magazines and although my influence is minimal a vowed to God to return and try and do more.
For many in the Christian delegation the trip to the Middle East and especially Gaza was to be a defining moment in our lives. Certainly it was for me. That day when the F16’s dropped their bombs, a process began that was to shape the person I am today. On our return, at the checkpoint was a sign ‘Better the pains of peace, than the agony of war’ and I remembered what the Israeli soldier said to our party as we entered Gaza, “Have a nice day”!!
Extract from the Chapter Who’s Promise Land?
By RevKVC web site