Catholic aid agencies try to ‘pick up the pieces’ in Gaza

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Catholic News Service

AMMAN, Jordan — A senior Catholic aid official said humanitarian agencies are “trying to pick up the pieces” of Gaza’s badly destroyed infrastructure, desperately hoping that the declared truce between Israel and the militant Hamas will hold.

“It’s difficult to explain the gravity of the situation,” said Sami El-Yousef, regional director of the Jerusalem office of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

A Palestinian man sits amid the ruins of destroyed homes in Gaza City Aug. 6. An Israeli Cabinet minister warned that Israel will respond if Hamas resumes fire after a temporary truce expires in the Gaza Strip. (CNS photo/Finbarr O'Reilly,
A Palestinian man sits amid the ruins of destroyed homes in Gaza City Aug. 6. An Israeli Cabinet minister warned that Israel will respond if Hamas resumes fire after a temporary truce expires in the Gaza Strip. (CNS photo/Finbarr O’Reilly,

El-Yousef told Catholic News Service in a phone interview that the initial cease-fire in early August allowed aid workers to get out for the first time in more than a month to assess the extent of the damage from intensive bombardment and shelling.

“We’re trying to pick up the pieces of the infrastructure, water, sanitation, electricity. Food and water supplies are running low, there is significant damage to the infrastructure, homes and other buildings,” he said. “It’s going to take a very, very long time before Gaza gets back on its own two feet.”

The CNEWA official said he and others are “clinging to the hope” the cease-fire “will hold and eventually we get to the root cause of all this mess. Otherwise, we will enter this cycle again and again.”

As the extent of the devastation wrought on the coastal strip emerges so, too, have some of the stories unfolded of both bittersweet miracles and tragedies.

El-Yousef said that, in March, CNEWA had just completed restoration of the Gaza City residence of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, damaged in an earlier conflict. During the most recent conflict, the bedrooms were struck by shelling.

“But there was actually a miracle in the making,” he said. “Had the sisters been in the house at the time, they were evacuated a bit earlier, something very bad would have happened.”

Still, the nuns, the handicapped children in their care and Father Jorge Hernandez, the lone parish priest in Gaza, are all safe. Father Hernandez travels throughout the strip helping with aid distribution and carrying out pastoral visits, El-Yousef said.

Many others have been less fortunate.

El-Yousef recounted learning about the recent death of a nurse serving at the Anglican Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, the only Christian hospital in Gaza, which serves the entire community.

“She had been working for a long stretch and was released to go for a home rest for two days,” he said. “The day she went home her house was targeted by a missile. She, her mother-in-law and father-in-law were killed in the attack. Only her two young children survived. I felt awful to hear this news.”

El-Yousef said Jeries Ayyad, a Christian injured when a missile struck his house in July, was clinging to life after being transferred to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Jerusalem. Jeries had burns on approximately 90 percent of his body. He has had amputations to both of his legs and has had three strokes.

During the cease-fire, El-Yousef said CNEWA hoped to provide psychosocial support, particularly to children served by Gaza’s Christian institutions. The United Nations reports that some 373,000 Gazans are in need of psychosocial intervention because of the losses of immediate family members, homes, and traumatic events.

Immediately though, CNEWA’s focus will be to provide emergency medicines, medical supplies, and fuel for generators to the Al-Ahli hospital and to Middle East Council of Churches clinics.

“Gaza’s electricity supply is nearly gone so refueling for the generators is needed to ensure near uninterrupted power supply,” El-Yousef explained. CNEWA also is covering costs for medical treatment for conflict-related diseases.

Planning is underway to fix damages sustained by Christian institutions and some homes within Gaza’s Christian community.

Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem said the church was helping provide emergency items as well as some cash to help some families buy basic necessities, such as food.

“We need to inject a bit of hope into the hearts of the people,” Bishop Shomali said in a phone interview from Jerusalem.

“For one month, they haven’t slept because of the shelling and the bombing. They need to heal from their fatigue and stress,” he said.

Both Catholic officials expressed concern that with most of Gaza’s schools sheltering perhaps up to 400,000 people, children will be unable to start classes any time soon.

Some U.N. schools as well as the Holy Family Catholic School in Gaza City have also been partially damaged in the airstrikes. The school has helped host some displaced people who have lost homes.

“It’s been quite a challenge because they don’t have the official structures in place to deal with emergency situations,” El-Yousef explained.

Despite that, these Christian institutions have provided meals, clean water and hygiene kits, opening their doors to thousands, mainly Muslims, who do not have a safe place, he added.

“We are trying to help. But it’s small in a sea of needs,” the CNEWA official explained. “We are doing a lot, but the needs are so incredible. We keep at it.”