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Kevin ClarkeOctober 18, 2023
Palestinians walk by the destroyed building of Al Nuseirat Bakery in an Israeli airstrike Nusseirat refugee camp Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)Palestinians walk by the destroyed building of Al Nuseirat Bakery in an Israeli airstrike Nusseirat refugee camp Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

President Joseph Biden’s snap visit to Israel had been intended as an opportunity to meet with political leaders on both sides of the renewed conflict in Gaza, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II of Jordan, President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority and President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt. But just hours before his departure an explosion at a hospital in northern Gaza disrupted Mr. Biden’s plans.

As uproar because of the incident roiled major cities of the Middle East and Europe, Mr. Biden was in the end only able to meet with Mr. Netanyahu in a demonstration of U.S. support for Israel. But Mr. Biden did secure Israel’s agreement to allow some humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip from Egypt as long as the supplies did not reach Hamas.

The measure should partly address a call for action released on Oct. 18 by Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian agency of the United States Catholic Church. C.R.S. urged the end to all violence and immediate humanitarian access to Gaza. In the statement, Sean Callahan, president of C.R.S., said, “The situation of civilians in Gaza is extremely alarming and desperate, and we need to act now to prevent a total humanitarian catastrophe.”

Commenting on Mr. Biden’s visit to Israel, Mr. Callahan added, “We appreciate the president’s call for respect for the human dignity of all and his announcement that humanitarian aid will be allowed into Gaza from Egypt. Civilians in Gaza cannot wait any longer and this plan must be implemented immediately.

America spoke to Mr. Callahan on Oct. 17 just after media reports emerged of the explosion in Gaza and a few hours before Mr. Biden’s departure for Tel Aviv. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We are just seeing reports about a blast at the al-Ahli Hospital in northern Gaza. Can you tell us what you know about the incident?
That was at one of our partner institutions. We have been providing assistance to that hospital since the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a very sad situation there, a terrible situation. [On Oct. 18, a U.S. Defense Department official said that the United States was “fairly confident” the launch did not come from Israel, and the I.D.F. blamed the explosion on a malfunctioning rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But Hamas officials still alleged that an Israeli strike caused the blast.]

I do worry about this conflict expanding, and with the shutdown of water and electricity and other things for these poor people that are remaining in Gaza, we are getting to a situation where the Geneva Conventions and other international laws of war are being violated.

What is the latest situation report from your team in Gaza and your partners at Caritas Jerusalem?
We’ve still got some movement of people out of northern Gaza, just not as aggressive as it was in the first days following the I.D.F.’s order to leave the area, because there continues to be bombing along the exit routes. Some people have even turned back because it is no safer in the south, but about 50 percent of the population in northern Gaza has moved out.

Sean Callahan, C.R.S. president: “With the shutdown of water and electricity for these poor people that are remaining in Gaza, we are getting to a situation where international laws of war are being violated.”

The others are staying in the north and that includes a good portion of Gaza’s Christian population. We’ve got 450 people in the Holy Family compound in the north. There are about 150 people sheltering in the Greek Orthodox compound as well.

The Missionaries of Charity are there at Holy Family. We work with the sisters closely and they can’t move the disabled children they are caring for, so they’re remaining with them.

If an I.D.F. ground assault is to come, they are right there in that area where it will begin. So far, they have been safe, but we just don’t know what might happen now, particularly given what just happened at the hospital.

Catholic Relief Services has made a plea with the Biden administration and the Israelis for the protection of its partners and for the protection of Christian institutions in the north. There’s an estimated 500,000 people that are still staying in the areas the I.D.F. ordered evacuated, so we’re concerned that if the I.D.F. does come in with either a ground invasion or increased bombing that we’re going to have another severe loss of life there.

There’s basically no facilities for them in the north. Conditions are terrible. The sites for Gaza’s internally displaced people are completely overcrowded. Just to give you an idea of how difficult the conditions are, I received a report about one site that housed 22,000 people and had just 12 latrines for them all to use.

You have about 50 C.R.S. team members in Gaza and Caritas Jerusalem has about 100 more: How have your people been holding up?
They are sharing the conditions of the people of Gaza—60 percent of our colleagues have moved to the south and are trying day-to-day to keep their families safe and out of the bombing, which is continually going on. They’re in crowded facilities, some with other family members who have just taken in more and more. Our team members have been rationing water, they’ve stopped showering or using water for other purposes besides drinking, and yesterday one group reported they had about 12 bottles of water left.

There’s basically no facilities for them in the north. Conditions are terrible. The sites for Gaza’s internally displaced people are completely overcrowded.

We have a lot of staff members who didn’t move south because some of them had older family members who couldn’t travel, some had people who had medical conditions that precluded them from traveling. We’ve got a couple of our staff members who have children that are between one and three months old and they did not move because they’re afraid of bringing their child into a dangerous situation on the roads.

Some had family members that had already been injured and were in the hospitals and they didn’t want to abandon them. And we have some, like those at Holy Family, who just said, “We’re going to stay together; we’re going to pray together; and if God wills it, we will die together.”

Many are sending messages of farewell to other C.R.S. colleagues that they don’t think they’ll see again. It’s that type of worry, which is just completely heartbreaking. They’re trying to do the best they can in a situation that’s become more and more desperate.

What are the chances of relief getting through?
We are pressing for the creation of a humanitarian corridor. Every day, the hope is raised that we will be able to open the Rafah crossing into Egypt and then every day that hope has been dashed. We haven’t been able to get people in or out. We can’t get supplies in.

We hope to get basic needs in—food, water, medicine—and C.R.S. team members have been approached by people in Gaza asking if we had insulin and other daily medications. Many people had to run out of their homes with just a few minutes’ notice before they were demolished by a missile strike, and they don’t have the medicines they need for their daily lives.

President Joseph Biden is going to Israel on Oct. 18. Our big hope is that he’ll get some type of agreement that will allow us to get humanitarian assistance in and that would allow us to give our team members—many of whom are U.S. citizens and international staff from other countries—a respite and bring other humanitarian workers in.

So you are prepared to extract some staff and send new people in?
Our emergency response team is in the region and they’re getting teams ready to go if we get a humanitarian corridor. We also have our regional director for the Middle East in Egypt, trying to help any of our team members that come out there and to get supplies in. We also have teams ready through Caritas Jordan and Caritas Lebanon to see if there’s any assistance they can provide.

“We’re going to stay together; we’re going to pray together; and if God wills it, we will die together.”

Our team on the ground in Gaza, despite the fact that they’re trying to protect their own family members from bombing, assisted 1,000 households on Sunday, and last Friday, they helped 900 households. But now everyone is running short of the supplies that they had stocked up.

People need mattresses and cushions as they have been constantly relocating with other family members or temporary sites and need to be able to sleep. Bottled water, of course, is another key commodity that needs to get in, as well as food and medicine. Getting fuel in is crucial. In Gaza a lot of the generators run on diesel, and we also need diesel to run the water pumps.

Even if Israel turns on the water, if they don’t turn on the electrical grid or allow enough diesel to come in, we can’t pump the water to distribution points.

We are also concerned about the condition of many newborns in Gaza. There is no clean water for formula and many new mothers have been unable to nurse their babies because when you’re in high-stress situations, breastfeeding doesn’t go well. Obviously in this situation, it’s going terribly, and many nursing mothers are not getting adequate water as well.

If you could speak to the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government, what would be your biggest “asks” at this moment?
Number one: Agree to an end to all violence, to stop the bombing at this time, so we can take a look at how badly people have been affected. Number two: Allow movement, so people can get to safe places or to other family members in different locations, and allow movement across the border, so we can have fresh staff and humanitarian supplies get in.

There are trucks lined up at the Rafah border, ready to go. Please do all the checks that you want, go over them with a fine-tooth comb, but let’s allow the humanitarian assistance to get in and give Palestinians who want to get out the opportunity to do so. Many are worried that if they leave, they will never be allowed back in, that they will be separated from their families and they’ll be without a country in yet another refugee camp. So if we’re going to evacuate them, there would have to be some agreement about how they could be reunited at some time in the future.

Looking at the past day’s events, it really seems like the conflict is just getting more brutal. Are you finding any cause for hope?
As a Catholic, I think we’re people of hope, and we never run out of that. So we are hopeful that the Biden administration has heard us, that our prayers for peace are being answered, and that the president will realize that it’s important for him, for his legacy, to make sure that the least number of civilians are affected by this violence.

We understand the show of solidarity with Israelis after the brutal attack on innocent civilians, but we want to make sure that people remember that from the Catholic Church’s perspective, all human life is sacred, and that we need to protect the lives of our sisters and brothers in Palestine.

If we’re going to have a just peace, we need to listen to both sides. Despite the tragedy that was inflicted upon Israel, we’re hopeful that they will see that we need to address these issues in different ways and provide dignity to the people in Gaza.

I have heard a lot of Israelis speak of “clearing out Gaza.” I think if it goes in that direction, then you’re just going to create more dispossessed people, people who have lost husbands, wives, daughters and children, people who have become only more desperate. We’re hopeful that calmer heads will prevail, and both sides will see the benefit of peace.

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