'Our house shook like an earthquake'

By Simon Hart

The Christian community in the Gaza Strip was not spared the effects of the latest outbreak of conflict between Israel and Hamas – as Sister Nabila Saleh from the bomb-damaged Rosary Sisters School explains.

It is six days since the bombs stopped falling and Sister Nabila Saleh, like so many in Gaza, is counting the cost. ‘We have big damage in the school – to windows and doors and walls,’ begins Sr Nabila, principal of the Rosary Sisters School. ‘We must remove and rebuild the solar panels too. We have a project with the Italian Bishops’ Conference for solar panels – we have 275 panels and 170 were damaged by the bombing. The cost of the damage is over 300,000 dollars. We have also five teachers who lost their houses. Now they have nothing.’

The trauma is searingly fresh for the school community – Sr Nabila recounts phone calls made to children who have lost parents – yet its educational mission has resumed already. Electricity is only available around four hours a day (compared with the usual eight) but this is a place long used to making do. ‘We have a Google Meet programme and we work from this with them,’ Sr Nabila tells the Catholic Pic over Zoom from Gaza. ‘Now we’re preparing a project on psychological activity for all of us – not just for students but for teachers and me and the other Sisters because we lived the most difficult 11 days.’

The conflict last month left a Palestinian death toll of 248, including 66 children, with more than 1,900 wounded. In Israel, 12 civilians were killed, including two children. At the school, a bomb exploded outside the gate, just past the playground where, in ordinary times, children play basketball. Sr Nabila’s smile vanishes as she relives the moment. ‘We prayed to thank God because we lived because of a miracle. Our house shook like an earthquake. I cried for 30 minutes. We thought the bomb would come and we prepared our souls for death.’ With a sob, she adds: ‘We lived difficult days. Day and night, Hamas and the Israelis bombarded [each other]. We didn’t sleep. We left the house and went to spend nights in the school hall. We didn’t hear the bombardment there like in our house. Behind our school we have a post for military for Hamas and under the street the people said [there were] tunnels. I don’t know.’

Established in 2000, the Rosary Sisters School is 10 minutes away from Holy Family, the only Catholic parish in Gaza. The school has 1,150 pupils, ranging from nursery age to 16. Seventy-eight of the children are Christian. Overall there are 1,077 Christians – 133 of them Catholic – among the two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. And yet the five Christian schools play a significant role. Sr Nabila explains: ‘In Gaza we have a small community but our work is very important, especially in education. We educate the students and they grow up and don’t have the mentality of fanaticism.

‘We sow the hope in the soul of our students. It’s very small because we work only in the school. In the family, with the conflict between Israel and Palestinians, this hate grows. But we work in the Christian schools towards this [hope]. Every time, we speak of fraternity and love between all religions and especially those who are different: Christian, Muslim or Jew. Everybody.’

That said, Sister Nabila, an Egyptian who has been in Gaza for 11 years, acknowledges the size of the challenge when children grow up knowing little other than conflict and hardship. ‘Our children, the ones born before 2008, have lived through four wars. I feel sad for them because we’re like a big prison in Gaza. They don’t have the possibility to go out, for example, to Jerusalem, Jordan or Egypt. Only the families who have money can go out. But the other people, no. We have big poverty in Gaza, with 50 per cent of the youth out of work.

‘The situation is very difficult for the Christian community in Gaza,’ she adds. ‘Our youth don’t have work in the government. They don’t have anything in society. It’s a disaster and this war means more disaster.’ Palestinian officials have put the reconstruction costs at tens of millions of dollars according to media reports. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch, made an appeal on 25 May for aid for the Christian community in Gaza, asking parishes in his diocese to make donations at Masses on Sunday 30 May.
The Patriarch said: ‘In the aftermath of the tension and conflict we have recently experienced, let us turn our hearts and gaze to the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ especially in Gaza and in places severely affected by the recent exchange of rocket-firing for eleven days. Their sufferings have worsened with the deadly clashes and bombings as they continue to struggle with Covid-19 that continues to spread in their area. I ask you to share some of your resources to alleviate the sufferings of our Christian faithful in Gaza.’

In the case of the Rosary Sisters School, Sr Nabila explains: ‘We need help for the rebuilding of the school as we have only two months until the new year. I’ve sent all of this to our Patriarch. They said they’ll try to help us. We’ll ask the Palestinian Authority but I don’t have hope as it’s very difficult.’

And the future beyond that? ‘I hope we have peace in Gaza because it’s very important we have peace in Gaza for all the people, and in Israel too,’ she reflects. ‘I say every day that in a war, nobody wins. We damage our souls and our psychological wellbeing. Imagine that every person in Gaza now has hate for the people of Israel, especially the families that lost their parents, their houses, who lost everything they have.’ Which is why the work of Sr Nabila and her colleagues, sowing those seeds of hope in young souls, is more crucial than ever.

To make a donation to Rosary Sisters School, please send a cheque payable to 'Friends of the Holy Land' and mark your envelope 'Rosary Sisters School'. The postal address is: Friends of the Holy Land, Farmer Ward Road, Kenilworth CV8 2DH. You may also donate online at www.friendsoftheholyland.org.uk/donate and put 'Rosary Sisters School' in the comments box. Otherwise call 01926 512980 and make your donation over the phone.

‘Jerusalem is the heart of the problem’
Violence flared in Jerusalem last month after Israeli police raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Israeli authorities' attempted eviction of several Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to make way for Israeli settlers.

Pope Francis said: ‘I pray that the city might be a place of encounter and not of violent clashes, a place of prayer and peace. I invite everyone to seek shared solutions, so that the multi-religious and multi-cultural identity of the Holy City might be respected and that fraternity might prevail. Violence generates only violence. Enough with the clashes.’

The Latin Patriarch, Pierbattista Pizzaballa, said: ‘Jerusalem is the heart of the problem and this time it was the spark that ignited the country. It all started with the well-known question of Sheikh Jarrah, which has been presented as a legal question. However [this] is also evidently a political decision of further expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. It is a decision which changes the already many times broken balance between the two parts of the city and this creates tensions and suffering … The solution can only be the result of the dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, who will both have to make their own the open, multi-religious and multicultural vocation of the city. What has been said about Jerusalem can be extended to the whole Israeli-Palestinian question. The Palestinian people have been waiting for years for a dignified solution, a serene and peaceful future, in their land, in their country.

‘This crisis must bring the Israeli-Palestinian question back to the centre of the international agenda, which lately seems to have been forgotten, but which nevertheless has always continued to be a painful wound. The wound was only covered, hidden, but never healed.’