It’s hard to know where to begin with talking about this summer. I have spent the last year living in occupied East Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, working with the Mennonite Central Committee. It probably comes as no surprise to hear that tensions here in Palestine and Israel are palpable; we’re all accustomed to hearing about unrest in the Middle East. But this unrest boiled over at the beginning of July (or middle of June, or May, depending on which event you choose as a starting point), and we saw Israel engaged in yet another “Operation” against the people of Gaza. For 51 days, Operation Protective Edge raged on, taking the lives of more than 2,100 Palestinians (mostly civilians, almost 600 children) and about 70 Israelis (mostly soldiers, and one child).
It is profoundly different to watch a war unfold when you know the people and places—have friends and colleagues on the ground—than to observe from the “neutrality” of the outside. MCC works through partnership with local organizations, and we have several partners based in Gaza, whom I was fortunate enough to visit in May of this year. As the bombs began falling, civilians began dying, and my colleagues began working on getting food, materials, and other assistance to the people in Gaza.
We talked on the phone with our partners almost daily, hearing about the nights that got worse and worse, the lack of sleep, the absence of food and produce in the markets. “This is worse than Operation Pillar of Defense (2012) or Operation Cast Lead (2008-9) or the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982,” people exclaimed. “If this doesn’t end in the next day or two, we won’t know what to do.”
If I am being honest, it felt like God had abandoned the people of Gaza. And if I am being completely honest, I’m not yet convinced God didn’t abandon them. But throughout this time, my MCC colleagues and I received a profound witness of faith from our partners on the ground, most of whom are practicing Muslims. As the nights dragged on with incessant shelling, these amazing people worked by candlelight to put together emergency food rations for hungry families. As more than a quarter of the population of Gaza was displaced and their homes destroyed, the staff and volunteers at our partner organizations gave dozens of people shelter in their own homes. As several of us sat in the MCC office, asking out loud—“Where is God in Gaza?”—our partners continuously said, “It is worse than ever before, but God gives us the strength to keep going. It is through God that we can work to help those who need help.”
In America, we like to quote Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (vv. 35-36). But these beautiful, faithful, inspiring people (all Muslims) in Gaza were actually doing it.
It’s been a little more than a month since the ceasefire agreement took effect; the brutal violence of war has ended, but the systems of oppression and the slow violence of military occupation continue. I sometimes struggle to keep ahold of hope and must remember the witness of Palestinians and Israelis across this land who continue fighting for justice, even in the face of enormous, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).