02/22/2022, 14.12
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Gaza parish priest: 'Optimistically' rebuilding from the rubble of war

by Dario Salvi

The Strip is experiencing a phase of relative calm, even the tensions in Jerusalem are (for now) a distant echo. A bookshop, the restoration of a Byzantine church and the discovery of a Roman cemetery are signs of rebirth and hope. Exit visas are essential not only to visit the holy sites, but to avert the danger of endogamy. 


Gaza (AsiaNews) - The Strip is experiencing a phase of "relative calm" after two hard years of "total closure" first because of the Covid-19, then because of the war last May that effectively sealed the borders.

Gabriel Romanelli, an Argentinean priest of the Incarnate Word, speaks to AsiaNews of a "calmer climate, at night one no longer hears - at least for the moment - the military actions". Sometimes, he adds, "you don't even hear the buzzing of the drones that continually fly over the area. And this is a good sign, which induces serenity and helps with respect to the closures, violence and conflict.

The recovery also includes an "economic recovery" in a situation that depends "on external aid" and the (partial) unblocking of the borders with Israel and Egypt. For a real recovery, the priest explains, we need more permits and the consolidation of a truce that is truly effective and lasting.

"We must continue to work on the traumas - he stresses - that we see every day not only in parishes, but also in schools. We see situations of discomfort and the mere economic improvement" does not mean that the situation is resolved; "we need time to heal" at the cultural, social and health levels. In the meantime, the population pays less and less attention to news of clashes and tensions and "lives day to day", ceasing "to believe the promises" of politicians and leaders, amidst wounds that "have never healed" and a peace that remains "all too fragile".  

The rubble of war

The tension between Israel and Palestine, which turned into open conflict in the Strip in May, was fuelled by Palestinian protests against the Israeli Supreme Court's decision to evict some houses in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. The demonstrations degenerated into violent clashes, with incidents and violations on both sides.

On 7th May, the escalation also involved the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, degenerating into scuffles with hundreds of people injured; meanwhile, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decided to postpone the ruling on the disputed neighbourhood by 30 days, but this was not enough to restore calm. On the 10th, attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad (JI) triggered the Israeli army's response with clashes and military operations on both sides, which continued until the 21st of the month.

The toll of the lightning war stands at 13 Israeli civilians killed by Hamas and JI rockets, including two children; at least 114 people were wounded.  According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, the number of dead in the Strip is at least 256 (civilians and militiamen), including 66 minors. In addition to the trail of bloodshed, the conflict has left behind a pile of rubble and devastation that has added to an already precarious situation in what many describe as an open-air prison.

The UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs reports the destruction of 258 buildings and damage to 53 schools, 11 clinics and six hospitals. Mediation by Egypt and Qatar helped bring about a ceasefire after 11 days of fighting, while the two warring sides extolled a victory that has propaganda value, with no evidence on the ground. 

Signs of rebirth

From the library to the Byzantine church, via the Roman cemetery dating back to the first century AD - and its 20 tombs with ornaments and decorations - the inhabitants of Gaza are rediscovering the past to look to the future with renewed hope. After lengthy restoration work, a 5th century church was inaugurated in the middle of the month, which Hamas militiamen wanted to celebrate as a sign to their 'Christian brothers'. The remains were discovered in 1997 during work in Jabalia, north of Gaza, and, according to Fr Romanelli, testify to the fact that "at the beginning, different rites were able to coexist" and this "is a sign of hope for today".

The archaeological area is about 800 square metres and the most precious part is a mosaic depicting scenes of hunting and palm trees, now visible through a raised wooden walkway. The walls were originally frescoed with passages from religious texts in ancient Greek from the period of Emperor Theodosius, between 408 and 450 AD; the total cost of the restoration is 250 thousand euro. 

In Gaza, there is also "the most important" archaeological discovery of the last 10 years: a Roman cemetery from the first century, with 20 tombs still preserved inside, containing ornaments and decorations. Initial investigations suggest that they belong to people of high rank and date back to the Roman Empire due to their east-west orientation, unlike Muslim cemeteries where the orientation is north-south. At the moment, the site - located in the northern part of the Strip - is still off-limits to visitors, but the aim is to make it accessible in the near future with guided tours. 

Finally, nine months after the destruction caused by the conflict, Gaza's historic and most important bookshop reopened in mid-February, benefiting from books and volumes donated by a group of British donors through a fundraising drive. The five-storey building that housed Samir Mansour's bookshop (on the ground floor) was reduced to a pile of rubble and debris by bombs, which incinerated the approximately 100,000 volumes inside.

Opened in the 2000s near three universities, the bookshop was frequented by students and reading enthusiasts and what made it unique was the possibility of retrieving all kinds of volumes online, even those not immediately available for sale. Today, the bookshop has been given a new lease of life with even more space and a larger catalogue to satisfy the tastes of a growing number of people, from children to adults, in Arabic and English for a total of 400,000 volumes. At the inauguration ceremony, Mansour himself emphasised that "the destruction has not broken us, on the contrary it has made us even stronger". 

Looking to the future

Since 2007, when Hamas came to power in the Strip, the number of Christians has dropped from 7,000 to just over a thousand today (134 Catholics), a tiny percentage of the total of 2.3 million people. A small flock, to which Fr Romanelli looks with optimism "because after 27 years of missionary work in the Middle East I am convinced that a solution can be reached".

He explains, "the Palestinian and Israeli people, are tired of the many conflicts on either side of the wall and would like to live in peace. But to build peace, justice is needed, and for justice to be done, as John Paul II stressed, reconciliation is needed, especially in the case of such complicated conflicts with such a high number of deaths. We need dialogue, deep down, to reach a solution and give life to an independent state for the Palestinians too, as it is today for the Israelis, so that both can coexist".

The parish priest underlines the importance of the permits issued this year by Israel on the occasion of Christmas, which have allowed hundreds of faithful to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and reunite with family and friends "thanks also to the valuable work carried out by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem". These visits, notes Fr Romanelli, "are a human and social necessity to maintain the Christian presence".

If the community is not nourished from outside, "the short-term risk is that of endogamy, of marrying among blood relatives. Exit permits are not just for visiting the holy places, but for starting new unions". Of course, the Strip "is still an open-air prison", but "the first signs of relaxation can be seen. We must not stop at these results, we must continue to pray and work to nurture the desire for peace and justice as well as greater collaboration between Churches". 

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