A representative of a Catholic aid agency in the Holy Land sent an update this week to partners and supporters, warning that “the whole area is boiling and threatens to explode.”
“If the war on Gaza continues, it will be difficult to control the outcomes,” wrote Joseph A. Hazboun, regional director of Catholic Near East Welfare Association/Pontifical Mission for Palestine on November 8.
In an interview with Aleteia the next day, Hazboun went into detail about the welfare of Christian communities in the Gaza Strip and the Holy Land in general. He is unable to travel into the Gaza Strip, where Israeli forces are trying to root out Hamas, and has had limited communications with people there.
What are you seeing and hearing about the situation, particularly in the Gaza Strip?
Joseph A. Hazboun: Nothing encouraging, to be honest. The situation is getting worse and worse. The loss of human life continues. And there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel as yet. Although both parties have suffered considerable losses, no one seems to care much about the innocents that are paying the price with their lives, especially children and women.
Are you able to communicate with anyone in the Gaza Strip?
Hazboun: Yes, we have our contact people at the [Greek] Orthodox Church [of St. Porphyrius] and the Latin [Catholic] Church [of the Holy Family], where the Christian community is seeking refuge. Some of the families went to the churches as soon as the hostilities began. Others moved there after the Israelis issued their 24-hour ultimatum for the people of Gaza to go south. And also some families remained in their homes until the bombardment became really close and they didn’t feel safe.
So now we have around 370 at the Orthodox Church, which was bombed and one of the buildings collapsed and 17 Christians died. Five continue to be hospitalized. At the Latin Church, there are roughly 460 Christians, in addition to 50 within the Latin Church compound – the Sisters of Charity who care for severely handicapped people with cerebral palsy, they cannot move; they need people to continuously take care of them – and some 20 employees as well.
So who specifically are you speaking to there – the pastors? And how recently have you spoken with them?
Hazboun: Two days ago, I talked to Sr. Nabila, who is staying at the Latin convent – she’s the director of the Rosary Sisters school – to check on her if she heard anything about the school. And she shared with me disturbing photos of the damages at the school where one building collapsed, the main playground demolished, the gates are gone and other damages to the structure. I speak with George Anton, director of the Caritas Medical Center, who is staying at the Latin convent and in charge of organizing the food, the medicine and the water at the Latin church.
Also, I talked with the director of the Arab Orthodox Cultural Center, which was destroyed by the Israelis around two weeks ago. He’s also in charge of coordinating aid, food, and supplies for the Orthodox community. We are also in contact with the head of the Orthodox Church Committee and Medical Director of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital and the Secretary General of the YMCA.
But the contacts are not easy. After a number of towers were destroyed, and for the past two days, we were not able to contact anybody. After I finished my call with Sr. Nabila, we were not able to contact anybody. I sent a question to Sr. Nabila, but she didn’t receive it. And only this afternoon, our project coordinator in Gaza who is staying at the Latin convent was able to get back to us with questions. He was staying at the Orthodox church until Israel bombed the building. And then he had to move to the Catholic church to take care of his sister who lost her six-month-old baby, and his other sister who received minor injuries.
And there was that period there when Israel cut off all the means of communication over the weekend, when they began the ground invasion. Has some of that been restored?
Hazboun: I think there was a campaign online asking Elon Musk to provide internet for Gaza. I saw a tweet of his that he was willing to provide internet for humanitarian agencies working in Gaza, then Israel partially restored communications. But a day and a half ago, another communication tower was destroyed, so communications got cut again. So now they have no internet, but they communicate via phone.
Are parishioners in the Latin Church and the Orthodox Church staying there for the most part, or are any of them trying to get to the south of the Gaza Strip?
Hazboun: No, they took a decision that they will remain in their churches. They have nowhere else to go, and they don’t want to leave Gaza. And so they’re remaining steadfast, although some of the members of the community did go south. And some of them who have double citizenship, they already left.
Well, people there must be having a very difficult time with the lack of water and food and fuel. What do you hear from them about that?
Hazboun: It is really alarming. On Sunday, October 8 [the day after Hamas attacked Israel], people from the two churches called me and asked if the Pontifical Mission would be willing to support them, to purchase supplies for the people that are taking refuge at the church. I immediately gave the okay, although we didn’t have even $1 for emergency support. But I knew that that was the right thing to do, to get as many supplies as they can, for food and water, because I was confident, as they were, that soon enough, all the warehouses and supermarkets would be cleaned out. So far, they are managing; they still have food and water. But during the first two to three weeks, there were still some vegetables available in the market. So they used to get vegetables and cook meals for the communities to reduce dependency on the canned food, which will serve for later. Two days ago, I learned that they started using the canned food. They have one main meal every day. The day before yesterday, their lunch was a piece of bread and a can of tuna fish.
But also in a phone call with the director of Caritas Jerusalem, with whom we were coordinating efforts, as well as the director of the International Orthodox Charitable Committee in Jerusalem, he told me that he has a staff member in the south, where people should be safe and there is food and water. They searched all the supermarkets for over five hours, and came back with five cans of fava beans.
So this is an indication of how severe the situation is, not only in Gaza City itself, where no goods are permitted by the Israelis, but even in the south, where people should be safe and have food and water.
And the water situation is very worrying.
Hazboun: It was terrible even before the war, and now with no fuel, with no electricity, the desalination stations have stopped working. And people are drinking from wells and cisterns that are used to water the fields for agricultural purposes, or any water supply that they can find.
In normal times, what is your role with CNEWA? What does it entail, and how has the war affected that?
Hazboun: In general, we support a network of civil and Church-related institutions that are active in the fields of health, education, and social service. So basically, what we do is we help the institutions by doing renovation projects, upgrade equipment, so that they are able to continue to provide the quality service that they do to the community at large, because almost all of these institutions, they never collect the actual cost of the services that they provide. So they are able to pay salaries and cover the running costs but they are not able to save any money for upgrading rehabilitation of equipment or of premises.
We have some programs that serve the youth: [training for] leadership, through the scouts and other youth centers. We have an extracurricular activities program that provides psychosocial support, awareness and an opportunity for the children to express themselves and to channel their voices with the schools through local institutions, in addition to some other programs.
The pastoral program is also part of our work, where we support the Church to continue to provide catechism and youth pastoral ministry and support the Churches with rehabilitation and the like.
In Gaza, we have supported the al-Ahli Arab Hospital since 2009, by doing rehabilitation work. We helped them with consecutive three-year programs to provide on-the-job training and employment for unemployed youth, for 100 youth every year. We also supported a number of times medical programs for children with anemia. They provide iron supplements and guidance for the mothers, how to feed their children and the like. We also installed over a period of five years, three programs of green energy solar panels for the hospital, including batteries, because the electricity in Gaza is not stable. So the hospital became dependent on solar panels for over 90% of its needs. And that’s why it was able to continue to provide services even though there was no electricity and no fuel.
Another long standing partner is the Near East Council of Churches. They run three mother and child clinics in three areas in Gaza, along with three vocational training centers. We provide an annual subsidy to them and we support malnutrition programs for children, psychosocial support for children and their mothers and the like.
YMCA is another partner. We help provide 100% of their electricity needs through green energy solar panels. We rehabilitated a soccer playground, so that they can generate more income and become more sustainable. We did some employment projects with them and other various programs for the youth.
The Arab Orthodox Cultural Center, which was inaugurated in 2019, we supported the construction with small grants, to be honest, but our major contribution was to build employment for the employees of the center so that it is able to stand on its feet, start providing services and generating income. It was really doing great in a short period of time, and now it’s destroyed by the Israelis.
The parishes, the scout troops, these are our interventions in Gaza, in addition to a women’s non-governmental society called Aisha, which is currently the only non-Christian partner. They implemented a psychosocial program whereby they were supposed to help three civil society institutions, train them and provide them with the required equipment to run psychosocial programs for children in three areas in Gaza. So that program now is on hold. And the premises of Aisha – the old premises which were rented and the new premises which they almost completed – were both hit by the bombardment.
What are your immediate plans for Gaza and for the area?
Hazboun: For Gaza, our major intervention was providing almost half a million shekels – maybe $125,000 – in food supply, water and medicines and medical beds for the people who continue to receive medical aid. Now there is nothing that we can do, because there are no supplies. We are waiting for this madness of a war to end, so that we are able to begin an assessment of the situation of the homes of the Christian community, the buildings, and see what’s left and what can be rebuilt or rehabilitated. But for now, our hands are tied.
In the West Bank, we are aware of the growing crisis, especially with the hundreds of thousands of people that lost job placement within Israel, because the day after the October 7 event, Israel imposed a tight closure on the West Bank. But in addition to that, they also sealed off all the roads that lead to the main checkpoints out of the West Bank. This means that people are unable even to travel within the various cities of the West Bank, but also that they are all of a sudden unemployed. So in addition to the people who are working in Israel and lost their job opportunities, the tourism sector came to a sudden halt. You know that the tourism sector received a big blow during COVID, and only last year they started to recover. And they were building hopes for the new season that would start in October to really recover from the effects of COVID. All of a sudden there is this war, and the tourism sector has stopped. So this means that 4,800-plus employees lost their income. These are employees at the hotels, these are employees at the various tourist agencies, restaurants, workshops, mother of pearl and olive wood factories: no work. Even printing presses stopped. My nephew has a printing press. I went to see him last week and asked him how things are. He said as soon as the war started, all requests were canceled: hotels, businesses, you know, people are afraid. So if they have a little bit of money, they’re going to keep it for the dark days and not spend it in development or in advancing that work.
So now we’re looking at the possibility of doing some job creation projects, to employ the youth and unemployed so that they can live with dignity, instead of receiving charity. We’re still in the planning mode. But we provided a small grant to the Chamber of Commerce in Bethlehem to employ some of the unemployed in the olive harvest, because this is the season. It’s almost over. So they will employ some 50 to 100 youth to collect olives.
What’s your own background? Are you from the area? Are you Palestinian?
Hazboun: I am Palestinian. I was born in Bethlehem. And when I got married in 1994, we moved to Jerusalem. And I am currently the regional director of the CNEWA Pontifical Mission office in Jerusalem. I started working with the mission in 1993, but became director in 2017. My family is from Jerusalem. Having been born in Bethlehem, I had a first time Palestinian ID. And it took me only 22 years to receive a Jerusalem ID, which is like a permanent residency, but that can be revoked by the Israelis for any reason at any time. So I’m not safe, but I’m much better than thousands of families that still wait to receive the Jerusalem ID.
Any other thoughts on the current crisis that you might wish to offer?
Hazboun: Only that really what we wish for is an immediate ceasefire and an end to the loss of life, because every life matters. This is a major concern, seeing how the international community, not the people – because the people are aware of that – but the governments, the leaders of the world, have to really reawaken their consciences and realize that every life matters.