On November 21 and 22, Fr. Peter and Sr. Mary Ellen of the Michigan Peace Team visited the homes in Jabalya and Beit Lahia, Gaza, that have been surrounded with Palestinian men, women, and children, in order to prevent the IOF from destroying them. Peter and Mary Ellen were the first internationals to join the group of about 75 Palestinians at the family home of Mohammed Wael Baroud, a leader in the Popular Resistance Committees. Villagers have been gathered at the house since the evening of Saturday, November 18th, when the family received a phone call from the IOF that they had 30 minutes to evacuate. Over 200 neighbors and friends converged at the home to protect it from destruction.
While the media has been reporting that Hamas is using people as human shields, which is a violation of international law, Fr. Peter and Sr. Mary Ellen have found that this was not the case. The people in Gaza have voluntarily decided to use their presence as a form of non-violent resistance against Israel’s overwhelming military power. Men and women alike are keeping a continual presence at the house, which is home to four families - 22 people, 10 of whom are children – and have stated that they will not move until the demolition is completely called off and the soldiers apologize.
It is a violation of international law for Israel to collectively punish the people of Gaza. Since June, the military has demolished 73 homes of suspected militants, causing hundreds of civilians to become homeless. Peter and Mary Ellen’s message to the media remained consistent: “We do not believe in any use of violence by any side. The occupation of Palestinian land by the Israeli military is the fundamental violence. The use of collective punishment such as the destruction of homes is a violation of international law. It is never legitimate to destroy the homes of women, children, and elderly for the crimes of one person.”
Palestinians expressed great gratitude to the priest and nun for their willingness to be there in solidarity and to share in their risk. They handed Peter and Mary Ellen their infant children to hold as a sign of trust. Palestinian mothers had a message for the mothers in the U.S.: “Come to Gaza. Visit our home. You will see we have no Apache helicopters, we have no bombs. Come to Gaza. You are welcome.”
While in Gaza, Fr. Peter and Sr. Mary Ellen also met with a Palestinian Catholic priest and the Director General of Emergency Services for Gaza for the Palestinian Authority. Both leaders described the absolutely dire situation in Gaza. With the recent attacks by the IOF in Beit Hanoun and Jabaliya, hundreds of civilians were killed and injured. There has been a lack of consistent electricity and running water since Israeli forces destroyed much of the civilian infrastructure this summer. Much of the agricultural land has been bombarded and is now covered in a white ash and no longer able to sustain crops. The priest told them that over 150,000 fruit trees have been destroyed in Beit Hanoun in the last two years alone. Malnutrition is on the rise, and children often eat little more than pepper sandwiches.
Children in Gaza have been traumatized. The priest told them that at times, the F16s fly so low children are thrown from their beds. He spoke of the increase in stunted growth, failure to thrive and signs of trauma, including an increase in bed wetting among 12-15 year-old children.
Since Israel froze tax money and the international community halted aid shortly after the election of Hamas, government employees have not been paid and there is no Palestinian army, police, or judicial system. Peter and Mary Ellen were told that since June 25th when the Israeli soldier was captured, there have been over 400 Palestinians killed - mostly women and children.
The priest and nun had the chance to visit the Central Palestinian Government Hospital in Beit Lahia. They saw how it used to hold 70 beds, but in the past 2-3 months it has needed to add another 70. The director general of Emergency Services spoke of the weapons being used against Palestinian children - missiles from Apache Helicopters and F-16 Fighter Jets. He has seen tiny missile fragments cut through skin, and a white phosphoric powder burn the wound. This type of injury does not seem to be responding to treatment.
The Michigan Peace Team members will return from Gaza within a few days.