WASHINGTON — Every day amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, a Palestinian Catholic Relief Services staff member makes his way by donkey to various shops in Gaza to check if they have been bombed, and if not, if they still have supplies.
He uses this information for the vouchers CRS has been providing to more than 100,000 Gaza residents since the most recent fighting began. Recipients receive a text with the voucher credit, the store where it can be used and the specific time to use it, so they don’t have to wait in a long line.
Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for government relations and advocacy for CRS, said the work of this one staffer, one of more than 50 now working in Gaza, shows “an amazing display of courage under fire.”
Almost daily, if phones and internet services allow, CRS officials are in touch with staffers in this war-torn region. O’Keefe said what they hear from them echoes the images people are seeing on the news. Many of these workers have lost loved ones in the ongoing attacks and most have been displaced and are “taking care of elderly family members and children in substandard housing” either in churches, U.N. facilities, or in packed apartments.
The voucher system was already in place before this most recent conflict to help those without resources, O’Keefe told The Tablet. For many years, he said, CRS has had a presence in Gaza and for decades it has been in the Holy Land. Its work in Gaza has involved helping with shelter reconstruction, providing livelihoods for vulnerable families, running youth leadership programs, and offering trauma counseling.
Right now, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency continues its outreach in “an impossible operating environment,” as O’Keefe put it.
“We are continuing every day to keep checking on our supplier networks and shops and also advocating and amplifying the message of the U.S. bishops, calling for an immediate cessation of violence” in order to better provide humanitarian aid in the region. “The violence needs to stop now,” said O’Keefe, emphasizing that relief supplies have been bottlenecked while basic needs multiply, especially with limited water, electricity, and fuel in Gaza, cut off by Israel.
“Assistance needs to be brought in,” he said, adding that CRS is “ready to scale up” and provide more relief but he said the current situation “does not allow for assistance at the level it’s needed.”
Calls for a cease-fire or for a pause in fighting to provide humanitarian aid have been increasing around the world.
This current conflict began when the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched its surprise assault on southern Israel Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking 240 people hostage. In retaliation, Israel’s attacks have killed more than 12,700 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in the West Bank. Two-thirds of the victims have been women and children while at least 2,7000 have been reported missing.
As of Nov. 10, more than 1.6 million people, or over half of Gaza’s population, had been displaced.
O’Keefe said Catholics should know that the Church is responding to the crisis as it unfolds with efforts of Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Jerusalem. The Church’s aid agencies are on the ground working with local partners, the United Nations, and other humanitarian aid organizations, to provide shelter, supplies, household items, hygiene kits, cash assistance, psychological first aid, and caregiver support.
The other Catholic outreach, he said, is Holy Family Parish, the only Catholic parish in the Gaza Strip.
The parish is currently providing temporary housing to more than 500 people, including three CRS workers. Christians and Muslims alike, O’Keefe said, have sought refuge at this “vibrant small Christian community that right now is stuck” in this dire emergency.
To contribute to CRS’ efforts in Gaza visit the website here: https://tinyurl.com/ys3khrau.