ONE year after a war with Israel that turned daily life into a nightmare, a Catholic priest in Gaza said the situation in the besieged Palestinian territory had deteriorated further.
“Compared with a year ago, we’re worse off. Although a truce stopped the war, the blockade of Gaza by Israel has grown more intense. This has direct consequences for the population,” Fr Jorge Hernandez, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Parish in Gaza City, said.
The priest said the war also served as a recruiting tool for Hamas, the Islamic party that has controlled Gaza since 2007.
“The war generated new activism throughout Gaza. The number of people willing to fight has multiplied, whether on behalf of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or the Salafists, and now even with the Islamic State. Despite that, the great majority of the people of Gaza is not aligned with one party or another. They just want to live a normal life,” Fr Hernandez, an Argentine missionary of the Institute of the Incarnate Word, said.
The 50-day war cost the lives of more than 2250 Palestinians, 65 per cent of whom were civilians, according to a June report from a UN investigation.
The report said “the scale of the devastation was unprecedented.”
It said the Israeli military launched more than 6000 air strikes, 14,500 tank shells and 45,000 artillery shells into Gaza between July 7 and August 26, 2014.
The report also cites as possible war crimes the conduct of Israeli operations in residential neighborhoods, as well as the killing of 21 suspected collaborators by Hamas’ armed wing.
Fr Hernandez said militants came to his church compound twice looking for alleged spies among some 1400 civilians who took shelter there.
Church buildings were damaged when Israel bombed a neighboring house.
At one point, Fr Hernandez and several members of the Missionaries of Charity shepherded a group of 29 disabled children and nine elderly women into the open.
“We put them in the patio in front of church, a place that’s far from any homes. And then we prayed that Israel wouldn’t bomb the church,” he said.
Gaza’s children continue to be affected by the war, the priest said.
Besides thousands who remain in temporary shelters, he said the overwhelming violence of the conflict has created discipline problems, with normal tensions in the family and on the street more quickly escalating into physical violence. And lingering stress generates health problems.
“Some kids continue to have problems with speech or bed-wetting, and now that there are rumors of another war – some are even talking about specific dates – one child’s hair has started to fall out again,” he said.
Of Gaza’s 1.8 million population, only about 1300 are Christian.
Catholics number fewer than 200.
Relations between this small minority and the Muslim majority have been marred by discrimination.
There are occasional episodes of harassment of Christians on the street, Fr Hernandez said, which is one reason he maintains good relations with Hamas officials.
Church support for Palestinians, which has strengthened under Pope Francis, has helped ease tensions on the ground, Fr Hernandez said.
“We are treated by Israel as Palestinians, but at times other Palestinians don’t want to recognise us as Palestinians. What the pope has done has helped us a lot within our community. We are just as Palestinian as Hamas. And if they forget that, we remind them of what the pope has said and done,” he said.
Fr Hernandez had an opportunity to personally thank Pope Francis for the Holy See’s protagonism when the priest was invited to Vatican City the day after the war ended last year.
Fr Hernandez was embraced by his fellow Argentine – Pope Francis.
“He was a true pastor, hurting for all that had happened to the people here. He was sad about the violence on both sides. When we spoke of the children, he got emotional. We spoke at length about how the chemicals used in the war had affected the health of the people. He knew a lot about what had gone on in Gaza,” Fr Hernandez said.
“I told him how much we appreciated a message he sent us in the middle of the war. I told him we had translated it for all the people, and that it was a big source of hope and courage for us.”
The priest said that at one point during the hour-long meeting he confessed to Pope Francis that he was nervous.
“He told me not to worry, to feel at home. I looked around and thought, ‘The Vatican is now my house’.”