Dr. Bernard Sabella talks of conflict, faith and persevering toward hope at the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees in East Jerusalem
We Go On
It is Friday the first of March 2002. It is reported that in a pre-dawn raid the day before, Israeli troops entered Balata and Nur e-shams refugee camps in Nablus and Jenin. By dawn on the third of March local news reported that thirty Palestinians from these camps were dead.
Dr. Bernard Sabella, Executive Secretary of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees for the Middle East Council of Churches sits in his office on Nablus Road talking about the future in light of the violence, past and present. His manner is easy, unruffled and gracious, in contrast to the somber headlines of the day. It is clear that this is a man deserving of his place in leadership in the Palestinian community. Conflict, hardship, and the effects of fifty-three years of occupation rage outside, but inside the work continues.
Dr. Sabella speaks about the ongoing conflict: “I think we are at the stage now where the conflict is continuing. How long it continues depends on internal decision-making on each side. It depends on if something viable emerges to suggest to both sides that there is a way out.” He says “My own assessment is that there is no way out. This is occupation. Occupation is occupation. It has to end, no bones about it. I am as flabbergasted, as shocked, as traumatized as anybody else. I think it is a stage and we have to outrun it. We have to continue.”
As a regional, ecumenical organization with offices in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan, the DSPR has been “continuing” for over forty-four years. Sabella says, “Our mandate is service to Palestinian refugees. Our motivation is service. I am hoping that this message will come through. Whether in meeting with delegations from abroad or talking to people with whom we serve and work. The idea is that we are in a conflict and it should have nothing to do with religion as such.”
Empowerment of body, mind and spirit through educational training, health care and moral support is included in the DSPR programs offered to all Palestinians in the region, Christian and Muslim. For example, the most current project moving forward through the efforts of the Gaza Area Committee is a primary Health Care Center in Rafah. In addition, the Gaza Area Committee has, along with the West Bank Committee, reached seven thousand families with emergency relief.
Gaza is the most densely populated and poorest of the areas serviced by the DSPR. According to its annual report, the Gaza Area Committee operates with the understanding of Diakonia: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Matthew 25:35; “I am among you as he that serves.” Luke, 22:24; “You should do as I have done to you.” John 13:15; “Serve one another with love.” Galations 5:13. The Gaza Committee lists faith, and action as their mandate of service. For the staff and committee, service is more than policy; it is faith. Commenting on the practical aspects of the programs offered in Gaza, Sabella says “Gaza has a good vocational program; they have carpentry, aluminum, metal works, electricity, motor re-winding, secretarial studies and computer training. All these are done, especially the vocational training, in a highly professional manner.” For the women there are also programs in advanced dressmaking.
Students graduate after three years. “Very skilled people come out of the training. That is needed in Gaza,” says Sabella. Work upon graduation is readily available. “All the trainees find employment in Gaza itself or, in the past, in Israel. I am glad that now it is more in Gaza,” says Sabella.
Advocacy and solidarity visits are an important part of the program at the DSPR in Gaza. Sabella states, “Gaza is always receiving delegations. They are making relationships; it is a very effective advocacy. They take you around and you make your own judgement. They don’t brainwash you. They let you to meet anyone in the community, official or non-official, that you would like to see. These are people [the staff in Gaza] who are professional. Professional in the sense that they are saying we are on good relations with everybody. They do a very good job.”
The staff in Gaza is predominately Muslim. Sabella says of the executive secretary in Gaza, Constantine Dabbagh “He is a wonderful guy, highly experienced. His spirit, his soul is in his work.” Sabella talks of the respect earned by Dabbagh through his philosophy of inclusiveness, “Constantine says ‘I’m a Palestinian and I am no different than any other Palestinian.’ So, when we are talking about doing things like starting something like a Christian youth group he says, ‘Well this is not my bag; I’m not opposed to it, but my mandate is service. I will do it in the church, but not in my work because we are for everybody.’ This has earned Mr. Dabbagh and his crew and the MECC the respect of the community.” Sabella says this is the spirit of the DSPR throughout the region, the provision of equal service to all Palestinians.
Other successful projects by the West Bank committee of the DSPR include: a toy library in Am’ari Refugee Camp in El Bireh for handicapped and other children; the reclamation of 130 dunums of land [in danger of expropriation], benefiting directly and indirectly 840 farmers and their families; and providing for some of the needs of emergency appeal such as medicines, and medical supplies, food provisions and rehabilitation resulting from the intifada. With an overall budget of 2 million dollars the DSPR, Sabella says, has to “look at the overall input [of the organization] into the life of the Palestinian community.” He says “It is basically in terms of education; helping people to develop skills, improve their skills so that they can have a future.”
The most important part of the work at the DSPR, Sabella says is developing a vision and maintaining that vision for the department. “Maintaining contact with the various groups of my department, whether in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Gaza West Bank is highly important. Also maintaining contact with partners, I really find it uplifting when they write me messages.” One supporter from New Zealand wrote to Sabella “with tears in her eyes.” It is encouraging. Sabella feels that this type of solidarity and contact is most important; it establishes a relationship between the DSPR, the Palestinian people and those supporters abroad who may never set foot in Gaza or the West Bank. “You cannot put any money value on it,” Sabella says. “This is the kind of partnership that makes my work important. We are trying to develop partnerships with many other countries.” Current partners of the DSPR include Sweden, Canada, Wales, the United Kingdom, the Scandinavian countries, and New Zealand.
When asked about the adverse effects of the current intifada on the work of the DSPR Sabella sites a problem most Palestinians are familiar with; the restriction of movement. While moving from village to village before the intifada could sometimes be difficult, currently, with closures, curfews and the addition of new checkpoints, it is sometimes impossible. Sabella says, “It has interrupted our work in one sense; it is so difficult to get to places. What used to take one hour now is almost impossible. What used to take ten minutes now takes two hours. Northern West Bank work is quite difficult.”
During earlier days of the MECC Sabella says “Christians from Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank were always meeting together.” Now, he says “Our meetings have become a nightmare since Sept. 2000 [the beginning of the intifada]. For example, the last time staff was permitted to come out of Gaza for a meeting in Jerusalem, they were obligated to go back everyday. “They said ‘We can not do it. We will come for one day and we will finish our work in one day,’ and so that’s what they did.” says Sabella.
“In reality, we and our central committee have adopted a good plan that says, “We go on,” says Sabella. “This is one way of confronting the situation; rather than saying, ‘Ah, because we cannot do this or do that we will close down, stop.’ No. We keep going on. Because we keep going on then we try as much as possible to continue our activities as if there are no obstacles.”
Sabella says reality means they are going to be slowed in their progress, “You are going to be slowed down in the pace of your activities. For example, if you have a project in the northern West Bank or the Southern West Bank with refugee children which you are supposed to do within a three month period, now you should expect it should take you 6 months or 8 months Why? Because it may be difficult to get there; people involved may not be able to get there. Or you may have an emergency situation, you may have shooting, all kinds of things.”
Sabella re-emphasizes the importance of solidarity visits by visitors from abroad, “We are keen on a new initiative by the World Council of Churches on accompaniment in the West Bank and Gaza; ecumenical observers, ecumenical monitors if you will. The idea of them is that they will visit with us in solidarity with the Palestinian people. One of the aims of this program is to advocate the end of occupation, for the establishment of a just and lasting peace and for asking to an end to this cycle of violence. An emergency situation puts more stress on individuals so that it becomes more difficult to really come out and say yes, we are going to put our energies into developing a well thought out advocacy program for all the church related organizations. Yet each church related organization is doing their own advocacy programs, meeting with visiting delegations “
When asked about the left in Israel, those such as Gush Shalom and Peace Now who have initiated a peace advocacy campaign entitled “Get Out of the Territories,” Sabella says it is important to be aware of such groups through networking. However, Sabella plainly states, “I’m not a peacenik. I’m a pacifist. I don’t believe that violence or military occupation will end the situation we are in. I do not approve of acts of military aggression I do not approve of suicide bombers, as simple as that.”
Sabella speaks poignantly on the importance of the Christian presence within the region and the important “third element” it provides, “I think that the MECC, specifically this department would be no different than other organizations if it hadn’t been for the commitment of Christian churches in the Holy Land to the idea of being a part of their society. If you are committed to being part of your society then you have to serve. And therefore, whether in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, or Palestine, our service is really motivated by the fact that we are Christians, indigenous Christians, proud of our culture, proud of our society and in tune with the goals and objectives of our people. I think I am not over exaggerating this point but I think the work of Christian organizations provide an important presence in the holy land.” Although their numbers are small, under 2% of the population, Christians can provide a bridge of sorts. Sabella points out similarities: Christians and Jews have the Old Testament in common. Muslims and Christians have peacefully lived, worked and suffered together as a Palestinian people for many years. “It is an important third dimension not in terms of numbers, but in terms of saying that the conflict here and the situation in which we are stuck is not a religious situation. It is a national political situation, therefore the presence of the third dimension, the Christian dimension is important.”
The strong bond between Muslims and Christians is a product of their shared refugee status, the shared hardships of occupation. Plainly stated, they have crossed checkpoints, dodged bullets, watched their homes being destroyed and even died together. Says Sabella “When we talk to one another, live next to one another, work with one another, we don’t work as Muslims and Christians, but we work as Palestinians. We live it out as Palestinians. So when the 1948 war took place and there were 50-60000 Christian Palestinian refugees my mother was not telling me we became refugees because we were Christians. She was telling me we became refugees because we are Palestinians,” says Sabella. “What happened to us happened to our Muslim neighbors, not because they were Muslims but because they are Palestinians. I think this dimension is very important. It is very important to say that the struggle is not really a religious one but rather a political, national one – therefore we should find ways, even religious ways, to get out of the conflict.”
When asked about the role his personal faith plays in his work at the DSPR, Sabella states, “On a personal level I would say my faith gives me courage. It gives me courage to continue on a daily basis. Faith as a mainstay, some people say as a rock. It is there. It gives me the courage to continue. It helps me to deal with difficult issues and stresses. I think faith can be healing.” Sabella says that someone once told him Palestinians are amazing In their adaptability. “If we encounter a roadblock then we bypass the roadblock. If the bypass is blocked itself, then we find another, longer bypass to go to. But in effect, while this adaptability is fantastic in terms of functionality, day after day eventually you are going to be stressed and traumatized and exhausted.” The price of constant shifting from one extreme to another may be healed somewhat, re-constituted he believes, by ones faith. Sabella says, “You will come home and say ‘I am tired. I am extremely tired.’ I hear this often even from young people. I think faith can be used to re-energize oneself in dealing with these stresses. Basically, I am a person of faith. I wish we could have people who can tell us how we can use faith especially in these times, these days; how we can find the strength inherent in faith to really overcome what is taking place.”
The last question of the interview is about hope. When asked what gives him hope Dr. Sabella answers with now familiar frankness maintained throughout the interview, “I really don’t know if I have hope.” He laughs heartily. “Let me say why I have a problem with hope at this stage. First of all I don’t think that both sides are going to be able to make it by themselves. Secondly, I think we are so far apart from one another that it is difficult to talk of hope. If you look at it, the Israelis are on their guard; they are nervous. They are worried that anyone, anytime of the day will kill them, will shoot at them. Now if you talk about the Palestinians, their daily lives are disrupted to the extent that it is hitting them on an individual personal level. They are aware of this that everyday when they have to travel from village to village, from town to town. And we see no common ground with the Israelis. Likewise on the Israeli side. Most see no common ground with the Palestinians. So these two factors give me no hope.”
Sabella continues, “Now what gives hope? Well, when you reach the bottom you have nowhere to go except up. I am critical of the US administration, but my hope is that the they will wake up and discover that they have to play a more assertive role in not only caring about living conditions, but about encouraging the two sides to accept a common framework, a common ground and then help them to develop that common ground.”
Sabella’s voice takes on a distinct tone of earnestness hard to miss, as he says, “I am talking not in terms of national interests, or international politics, or regional priorities. I am talking as the father of a family. And my concern is to live normally, to enable my family to live normally, without the added risk of possible injury, death or other things related to violence. At the same time, as a Palestinian, I want to see a solution that gives me, and my people our legitimate rights. As a human being I want to see the Israelis living in peace with no fear and no threat. At the same time I want to see my people realize their own aspirations and hopes. If this starts happening, then I have hope. It is an international, national, family, personal, all put together. That is why it is very difficult to speak of hope. Now faith gives you hope. But you have to learn how to use faith in order to re-energize you, to give you strength, to give you courage, in order to say yes, faith meets hope. But it is difficult. It is not going to be easy.”
Sabella’s look toward the future is a realistic one. He says “I expect these days and months and years to be very, very difficult. I refer to them in Biblical tradition as the seven lean years.” He adds, “I hope it is less than seven.” However long it continues, however hard the way, the work of the DSPR and the MECC will continue.
A statement from the DSPR annual report seems to best state the spirit of the organization, its staff, and the Palestinian people they serve, “The struggle is not easy but, at this juncture, we cannot let go and we need to persevere.”