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Kevin ClarkeFebruary 01, 2024
Palestinians arrive in the southern Gaza town of Rafah after fleeing an Israeli ground and air offensive in the nearby city of Khan Younis on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Israel has expanded its offensive in Khan Younis, saying the city is a stronghold of the Hamas militant group. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)Palestinians arrive in the southern Gaza town of Rafah after fleeing an Israeli ground and air offensive in the nearby city of Khan Younis on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Israel has expanded its offensive in Khan Younis, saying the city is a stronghold of the Hamas militant group. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The former headquarters of Catholic Relief Services in northern Gaza is still standing, Sean Callahan says, although all its windows have been blown out. Mr. Callahan, C.R.S. president and chief executive, wanted to at least eyeball the site during a short visit to Gaza on Jan. 23, but that was not possible as the siege of Khan Yunis continued, blocking roads north.

Mr. Callahan instead spent a dramatic day and night in Rafah, meeting with a few of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians who have escaped the fighting between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces, crowding into this city by the border with Egypt. For now and the foreseeable future, the C.R.S. “office” in Gaza has been relocated to a former supermarket—the basement set up as a distribution center and the upper floor converted into offices and living spaces for staff members and family who have nowhere else to go as the I.D.F. continues an unforgiving campaign across the length of the strip.

Mr. Callahan traveled to Gaza on the final stop of a regional visit with C.R.S. and Caritas Internationalis colleagues in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt.

C.R.S. President Sean Callahan spent a dramatic day in Rafah, meeting with a few of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have escaped the fighting between Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces.

He describes a people exhausted, hungry and in disbelief at the catastrophe befalling them. He says he was unable to explain to them why the world outside Gaza was standing by while the bombs continue to fall, mostly because he finds it inexplicable himself. Lobbying policymakers in Washington, he has found himself wondering how high the civilian death toll must reach before the Biden administration presses harder for an end to the fighting.

He says the Palestinians he met were not angry at the United States as much as they were deeply disappointed by the U.S. position since the Hamas attack on southern Israel, and what they see as its steadfast support for Israel regardless of I.D.F. actions in Gaza.

“They thought that the Americans would help the innocent civilians; that’s what they expected. And they don’t know why the U.S. is not preventing their children and innocent civilians from being subjected to this.”

On Feb. 1, the death toll in Gaza, after nearly four months of conflict, surpassed 27,000 people, with 150 more deaths added on Jan. 30 alone. About 70 percent of the casualties are women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Israeli forces say that among the dead are thousands of Hamas fighters. More than 1,200 people in Israel, most of them civilians, including 30 U.S. citizens, were killed in the attack on Oct. 7 that provoked the I.D.F. campaign in Gaza. Hamas still holds more than 100 hostages from its devastating assault.

“They thought that the Americans would help the innocent civilians; that’s what they expected. And they don’t know why the U.S. is not preventing their children and innocent civilians from being subjected to this.”

While Mr. Callahan was in Gaza, reports surfaced in Israel that 12 employees for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency participated in the attack. The report led a number of countries, including the United States, to suspend their funding for the agency, which has been the main humanitarian network in Gaza since 1948.

Sean Callahan, CRS chief executive, surveys IDP camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip.
Sean Callahan, CRS chief executive, surveys IDP camp in Rafah, Gaza Strip.

Mr. Callahan supports a full investigation of the matter and acknowledges that more unpleasant revelations could emerge, but he notes that there are 13,000 UNRWA employees in Gaza. He has experienced a number of conflicts in Asia and Africa during his career at C.R.S., and he says, “In any of these war zones, there’s liable to be people in any country you work in that are either on one side or the other of a conflict.”

Do the 12 U.N. employees represent “an aberration or is there a bigger problem there?” That still needs to be determined.

In the meantime, he suspects that policymakers do not understand what a collapse of UNRWA would mean to Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The U.N. humanitarian network is assisting more than 2 million people in camps and at schools and other U.N. sites scattered across Gaza.

During his overnight stay, Mr. Callahan and his sleeping bag were consigned to the “home” of a C.R.S. colleague, his wife and their five children, who are sharing a room above the ad hoc distribution center. The family has been displaced six times by the fighting, he says, but consider themselves lucky to be alive and still together.

His colleague’s sister-in-law and her entire family had been killed in an air strike. “They’re somewhat feeling blessed, but then they’re also feeling a little guilty and hurt [about the loss] of other people in their families, [wondering]: ‘Could we have done anything?’—all of those questions that you have when you’re surviving.”

The only anxious moments came when desperate people arriving suddenly from the fighting at Khan Yunis sought immediate assistance at the C.R.S. distribution site, “imploring us for supplies.”

He says he did not sense anger or hostility from the scores of Palestinians lining up to receive aid from C.R.S.—“I was getting ready for that.” The only anxious moments came when desperate people arriving suddenly from the fighting at Khan Yunis sought immediate assistance at the C.R.S. distribution site, “imploring us for supplies.”

At its impromptu headquarters in Rafah, C.R.S. and its local partners have been distributing aid, including food, water, cash assistance and rudimentary shelters, and have turned the process into an orderly thread through the supermarket’s basement. Those seeking assistance come in on one side of the floor and make their way in a line from processing to distribution of supplies until they come out on the other side.

​​”We’re actually serving about 1,000 people a day out of a new office and warehouse in Rafah,” Mr. Callahan says. “When I got there, there was a long line and some people crowded outside, but order was kept very well. We haven’t had any problems.” Mr. Callahan calculates that C.R.S. has assisted more than 100,000 people so far, but the need is great and it keeps growing.

U.N. officials say that only a fraction of the aid necessary to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is getting through. The World Food Program reports that about 577,000 people—26 percent of the Gaza population—are starving.

Mr. Callahan did not see signs of outright famine during his brief visit, but food insecurity in Gaza is, of course, widespread. According to Mr. Callahan, most of Gaza’s displaced people are skipping meals and living off of whatever canned goods they can locate.

Many are suffering gastrointestinal issues because of inadequate or fouled water supplies, and many people, he says, are suffering from respiratory issues, whether from quickly spreading viruses in the tightly packed camps or because of constantly breathing “stone dust” thrown into the air from collapsing structures and Israeli bombardments and artillery rounds.

Gaza’s Christians remain isolated from the humanitarian distributions in the south at the parish compounds of the Latin Holy Family church and the Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius.

More displaced people arrive in Rafah each day as the fighting reaches deeper into southern Gaza, where virtually the entire population has by now concentrated. Two million of the strip’s 2.3 million inhabitants have been displaced and more than 1.5 million are crowded into Rafah, hard up against the Sinai desert in Egypt. Many people, Mr. Callahan says, reach C.R.S. with just the clothes on their backs.

In midwinter that can be especially perilous. He found out how much when, spying a rainbow, he suggested it could be a sign of good fortune. His colleagues pointed out that, no, it meant impending rainfall and more dismal conditions in the camps. Sure enough, that night a torrential rain fell. Newcomers without shelter of any sort were soaked to the bone in the cold night.

Gaza’s Christians remain isolated from the humanitarian distributions in the south at the parish compounds of the Latin Holy Family church and the Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius. “Most of them have stayed in that area to be together,” Mr. Callahan said. “The bottom line, some of them have told us, is: ‘We want to be together. We’re going to die together or we’re going to live together.’ We’ve got several of our colleagues that are in that area as well.”

Getting humanitarian assistance through battle lines and to the communities near what’s left of Gaza City will be a significant challenge, Mr. Callahan says. “The little bit that was able to get in there is sustaining them right now. No one’s eating regularly or eating what they want, but at least they’re getting some food in there.” The Christians, like other Gazans, are largely subsisting on supplies that had been stockpiled at the beginning of the conflict.

A bigger problem is access to medicine and medical supplies and getting the wounded or ailing out of the camps. In addition to injuries sustained because of the conflict, some of Gaza’s trapped Christians are becoming seriously ill because of the scarcity of medicine and an inability to respond to otherwise treatable illnesses. One Christian Palestinian died after suffering appendicitis that could not be treated, Mr. Callahan says.

More displaced people arrive in Rafah each day as the fighting reaches deeper into southern Gaza, where virtually the entire population has by now concentrated.

A pharmacist aide, Mr. Callahan says, has taken on the role of caring for all the sick and wounded, including one young mother, a C.R.S. staff member, who had “her leg shattered” by a grenade. She had been among a group of people who rushed out to assist an elderly woman and her daughter struck down by sniper fire, only to be driven away by more gunfire and explosions.

“They did do an initial operation to stabilize her leg, but we’re trying to get her out for another operation so that she’ll have use of that leg again,” Mr. Callahan says.

But getting that victim to the treatment she needs means getting her through the fighting to the Rafah crossing and then to Jordan for surgery—a uniquely perilous logistical challenge. Beyond that, the young mother, Mr. Callahan says, despite the urgency of treating her injuries, she is refusing to leave the compound without her 2- and 5-year-old daughters.

“She’s not inclined to leave her children behind in a war zone, you might imagine,” Mr. Callahan says, “so we’re trying to negotiate how to get the family out as opposed to just her, which hasn’t worked yet.”

The Palestinians in Gaza he spoke with show remarkable resilience, according to Mr. Callahan. Most hope only to return home and restart the lives they left behind on Oct. 7, but with more than 60 percent of Gaza’s housing stock demolished or severely damaged, he worries that will prove a vain expectation.

A U.N. analysis concludes that if the war were to end tomorrow, it would take three years just to clear the rubble. Mr. Callahan estimates it will take more than a decade to restore Gaza to what it was the day before the Hamas attack.

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