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from issue no. 12 - 2008


The Christmas war

A witness from Hamas territory. Father Manuel Musallam, the only Catholic priest of Latin rite in the Gaza Strip talks to us

Interview with Manuel Musallam by Giovanni Cubeddu

A Palestinian family fleeing from the Rafah refugee camp destroyed by Israeli bombing, on 27 and 28 December 2008<BR> [© Associated press/LaPresse]

A Palestinian family fleeing from the Rafah refugee camp destroyed by Israeli bombing, on 27 and 28 December 2008
[© Associated press/LaPresse]

Father Manuel, the parish priest of The Holy Family in Gaza, believes that the flight into Egypt was much more human. Joseph managed to escape at night, to bring the little Jesus to safety. Not now, the crossing into Egypt is closed, say the authorities in Cairo, untilHamas commands the Gaza Strip. And night in Gaza is hell: the threatening blades of Israeli helicopters, the streaks of light and the explosions of missiles launched from planes, the drones that spy from above on every movement, and finally the army, which has entered Gaza and is searching from house to house. And no help for the innocent.

Father Manuel, Gaza is under siege.
MANUEL MUSALLAM: It’s another war, and we were already under an embargo, on the cross.
And now?
MUSALLAM: Gaza has already suffered too much. We don’t have enough food, or water or electricity. We spend the night under heavy bombardment. One and a half million people survive only thanks to aid from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency), and those who don’t receive it, or don’t have jobs, live on charity: this must be said clearly. Only the police, soldiers and teachers receive a small salary, because they are public officials, divided into two groups, those paid by Hamas and those paid by the government in Ramallah. But it happens that for two or three months the money doesn’t arrive, and one can only wait.
It’s not the only division operating.
MUSALLAM: The people are divided among themselves, because they force us not to talk to one another, it’s forbidden... The people of Hamas don’t talk to Al-Fatah, and vice versa. We’ve been ordered not to have any contact with Hamas, and so day by day we’ve become more distant among ourselves, forced into silence. It’s the time of hatred, we’re asked to hate each other, keep apart, consider each other enemies. So the people in Gaza are split, as if there were two nations, two races, two entities.
The war has made the blockade total.
MUSALLAM: We need seven hundred trucks every day to bring the necessities of life into Gaza, but lately less than twenty were allowed. The Palestinians had opened the tunnels to reach Rafah, in Egypt ... And then everything became inaccessible, and what cost a few pennies now costs ten dollars. The children, and here in Gaza there are a great many, are no longer getting the food they need at their age. They can no longer buy even a piece of chocolate at the school canteen. They are living for most of the time with a feeling of nausea, they fall down at school, they’re sick, you see them sobbing and if you ask why they answer: “I’m tired, I’m hungry, I can’t manage to stay in class”. They have to go to the bathroom every minute. They live in stress, at home they should study but they can’t, because there’s no electricity, it comes on for a couple of hours a day, at night or during school hours. They are traumatized, at night they’re afraid of everything, they are getting weak. And then there’s no water for cooking, cleaning, drinking water doesn’t exist in Gaza, we must buy it from Israel or from Egypt...
Why is Hamas still launching missiles at Israel? They surely can’t imagine they’re improving the situation.
MUSALLAM: But this is a great torture for our people! The want of electricity, water, food, work. We live under permanent pressure, we consider ourselves subjected to a siege and to war crimes, to acts against humanity, because most people here are innocent! If Hamas attacks Israel and if Israel intends to deal with Hamas, well, Hamas doesn’t number one and a half million people, it’s a minority! Yet today we are witnessing collective punishment, against a people. It’s a war crime.
Let’s speak of the responsibility.
MUSALLAM: We know that the Palestinians have launched rockets against Israel, it’s true, and we know that Israel has responded by attacking in brutal fashion... But this is not the answer to the Palestine question! And if we judge the facts... If we saw the Palestinians launching rockets we’d tell them no!, we’d tell them to stop. But... this is not the only page of the book, instead it’s full of chapters for and against each of the two duelists. And if on one page is written the error of one, on the next we find the faults of the other, in a spiral of mistakes and overreaction that is leading us nowhere, certainly not to peace. On the contrary, it attracts and prompts more violence, quarrels, hatred, rejection of the other. War.
Below, Beit Lahiya, north of the Gaza Strip, under Israeli shelling [© Associated press/LaPresse]

Below, Beit Lahiya, north of the Gaza Strip, under Israeli shelling [© Associated press/LaPresse]

You are the only Catholic priest of Latin rite in Gaza.
MUSALLAM: Forgiveness and reconciliation are words that belong in heaven and which are now spoken only by priests in the church, and not by anyone else. They seem trapped in churches and the sermons of priests. And yet they’re nothing less than the very substance of life for Christians and Muslims... All day long all we hear are calls to war from Israel and Palestinians, who speaks of resistance and who of murder...
MUSALLAM: Whereas the Palestinians reject this situation, as they refuse to submit to Israel. We need to stop the rockets and to solve the Palestinian question, even if during the six-month ceasefire the Israelis have killed more than twenty people and wounded forty... Let it be clear that our purpose is not “rockets and hatred against Israel”, no! We’re just looking for our freedom and our dignity, not the continuous humiliation and treatment reserved for inhabitants of the zoo, that you can visit whenever you want, since you just give them a bit to eat once a day. We demand our freedom. The world should have understood by now: we have the choice between slavery and death, and people are willing to put up with anything, but not slavery.
The life of the Church in Gaza...
MUSALLAM: The Christians here are part of the Palestinian people, they can’t be divided from their people, whom they want to defend, are obliged to do so... On the other hand, Christians are being prevented by the Israelis from speaking freely to their own people, Israel treats the priests as if they were terrorists, including the Latin Patriarch and the apostolic delegate.
MUSALLAM: Last Christmas we asked for more than seven hundred permits so as to go to Bethlehem and we got less than two hundred, and most of our applications related to children with their parents... I had a visa for only three months thanks to the efforts of an ambassador friend, and so I was able to visit my family at Birzeit. During that period, Monsignor Antonio Franco, the apostolic delegate, and the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate tried to come to agreement with the Israelis, but in the end they were not allowed to enter Gaza and the Christians were left without anyone to say Mass for them. On the Sunday before Christmas His Excellency Fouad Twal, the new Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, was to come to visit the church in Gaza, but he was stopped at the Erez checkpoint, and one of his cars was prevented from going through: in the car there was just a present for the parish priest of Gaza, to celebrate after Mass: a bit of chocolate. The Patriarch was kept waiting there an hour, and so were the people waiting on the other side of the checkpoint. Not only that. He was asked to leave Gaza at three in the afternoon instead of between six and seven in the evening, as usual, so that the festivities were de facto cancelled, and despite that, on his return the Patriarch was again detained at the checkpoint for more than two hours before being readmitted to Israel, and able to return to Jerusalem. That’s the reality. Here even the Patriarch and the apostolic delegate have no freedom of movement, not to mention the priests. In my parish we had two sisters of the Rosary, but this year they were not allowed to enter Gaza to carry out their work. They are obliged to remain in the West Bank because of refusal of a visa.
And this Christmas, the war.
MUSALLAM: In Advent and at Christmas we used to celebrate, march, play drums, sing, put lights on the tree, with help from the municipality and the governor of Gaza... This year, however, everything had already been cancelled. We didn’t even have notes to send greetings to friends, the children weren’t able to decorate their schools because there were no trees, lights, bunting, and it was a sad Christmas for them. In the past we’ve always shared food amongst us, everyone inviting others home or even to a restaurant, we decorated Christmas trees – a custom shared by Christians and Muslims that has traditionally united all the families here. This year there was nothing of that. There was no joy, and without joy how can we conceive of peace? Preach it, teach it, practice it? Joy has been stifled in tears and fear.
Too many years and hopes dashed, awaiting Palestine.
MUSALLAM: And it seems to us that the entire world looks on us as if we were enemies, because it considers us enemies of Israel, and that is why no aid can come into Gaza, not even that brought by Caritas, because Gaza is an “enemy zone”. So what does “love our enemies” mean? The world could at least give us a witness, an example of such love: you could, for once, love us, the Palestinians, before wanting to teach us how to loves one’s enemies? Try to consider us, please, your brothers, even if we’re not what you would like us to be.
Palestinian children in a United Nations aid center set up in a school in Rafah (The photo was taken on 30 December)<BR> [© Associated press/LaPresse]

Palestinian children in a United Nations aid center set up in a school in Rafah (The photo was taken on 30 December)
[© Associated press/LaPresse]

The Israeli army is starting land operations. What is happening?
MUSALLAM: It’s war, which wants its victims. Hundreds of people... for the most part they’re police, public employees working to bring order to the clashes in Gaza. Many children are also dead, a great many injured. The first Christian girl is also dead, aged sixteen, who attended my Holy Family school, she died of fear and cold. Her name was Cristina Wadi’Turk. The hospitals are overcrowded, full of people treated like animals, packed in the corridors without even receiving first aid. That’s how things are. Respect for people’s rights is a sign that there is a real commitment to seeking peace. I would like to say it to the Israelis. Many innocent people have been sacrificed simply because their houses were close to the offices of Hamas.
Father Manuel, no one now knows when all this will end.
MUSALLAM: At night we don’t sleep because of the bombing. We pray a lot. I have written many times to all the Christians in my parish and I’ve sent text messages asking them to pray at the start of every hour of the day. It is time to say this prayer. Please listen to it, too, it’s just the time to sing it, I’ll let you hear it, with the fellow sisters who are here with me, so that the Lord God may give peace to our hearts and our lands.

[Father Manuel and the sisters began singing in Arabic, ed.]:
“Lord of peace, rain down on us peace.
Lord of peace, grant peace to our country, peace.
Have mercy, O Lord, on your people.
We beg you, ensure that your legacy not be mocked”.

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