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CRS official in Gaza: 'I know these people. They are not numbers'

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With pressure for a cease-fire increasing, 11 days of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza are taking a toll both mentally and physically on the Gaza population, said Bassam Nasser, head of the Gaza office for Catholic Relief Services.

The father of four teenagers, he said he was thankful his family has not been injured and immediate surroundings have not been damaged. As he spoke by phone May 20, land artillery attacks and missile attacks from the Israeli navy could be heard in the background.

Nasser said one of his children's doctors was killed in the bombings and another senior doctor, one of the few specializing in reading mammograms and CT scans, was killed along with his whole family, except for a 16-year-old son.

"I know these people. They are not numbers," he said. "They were buried under the rubble in their home, while they were watching the news or sleeping in their home, just like we do. There is no difference.

"How will this 16-year-old boy be able to survive? Even with the best psychosocial therapy on earth to help him overcome the trauma, when he hears an ambulance he will be right back to that reality. There is no way for the majority of people to overcome their trauma, but daily life keeps them busy."

Nasser said his own children have been forced to relive their traumas from the previous four wars; only his youngest had not yet been born in the first outbreak of violence in 2008.

"It is really hard. Until 11 days ago, I thought the trauma of the previous war was gone. Unfortunately, I found the trauma is somehow buried in the memories of the children, and they get it back from the point they left it then," he said. "I think all Gaza residents are traumatized, but as parents you can't show the signs of trauma; you have to continue to show strength in order to get your children out of this."

Despite being teenagers, his children are afraid to sleep by themselves, and though his 19-year-old son tries to play brave in front of his sisters, he confides his fears to his mother, Nasser said.

Throughout the renewed hostilities between Hamas and Israel, Nasser said, CRS has been able help some of Gaza's most vulnerable families through a system of e-voucher codes, which allow people to buy supplies at markets close to their homes. In addition to the 7,000 families they normally aid, they are now helping 1,000 more families who have lost their homes, he said.

Nasser said CRS implemented the system after the war in 2014; the agency works with the Palestinian Ministry of Social Development and other local partners.

"People are very frightened" to go out, so they go only for the basic necessities, he said. "They know a stray strike can hit them and they can be at the wrong place at the wrong time."

CRS also has been providing hygiene packets to displaced people who are staying in official U.N. shelters, in an effort to continue the fight against COVID-19. Only about 40,000 of Gaza's 2 million residents have been vaccinated, said Nasser, who noted that the central COVID-19 testing lab was damaged in the bombing.

In this most deadly violence since 2014, at least 230 Palestinians — including 65 children — have been reported killed, and thousands injured. Israel reported 12 Israelis, including two children, killed. The Israeli Defense Forces said more than 4,070 rockets have been launched into Israeli towns along the border with Gaza and all the way up to Israel's largest city, Tel Aviv, in the center of the country.

Israel asserts it has the right to defend itself against Hamas attacks, but there has been widespread condemnation of the disproportionality of the Israeli military response.

The destruction caused by the bombing has left the Gaza population reeling, in a place where the unemployment rate is already 60 percent and the majority of Gazans depend on humanitarian aid, said Nasser.

Israel blames Hamas for not building bomb shelters for its citizens, knowing that there will be confrontations. Nasser said the Israeli bombings are so powerful that even a bomb shelter would not keep them safe. Israel also says it gives fair warning for people to evacuate before they bomb a site and that Hamas knowingly places its munitions and gunmen in the middle of civilian areas.

"I believe that it is God's will that I am still alive," Nasser said. "In our human terms, I am lucky. If I end this with all my family safe, I consider myself super-lucky. So many people have been killed when they did nothing and are not involved ... they were at home either sleeping or watching TV, just like any other family."

In such a situation, it can be easy for people to demonize one side or other, said Bill O'Keefe, CRS executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy. In addition to the team in Gaza, CRS has employees in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem who have had to run to bomb shelters, he said.

"Demonization does not move things forward ... once you get into that, you are part of the problem and not the solution. When people are afraid, they choose to react with hate, and things get worse. We must stop reacting out of fear and find a way to find the humanity of the other and build on that. That is the only way forward," O'Keefe said.

"Humanity is the common denominator," he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021