Holy Land. Sister Tighe (Caritas Jerusalem): “We help the poor of all religions in Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Gaza”

Poverty in the Holy Land through the eyes of Sister Bridget Tighe, Director General of Caritas Jerusalem. Less than a year since her appointment the Irish nun shared the difficulties and the hopes in carrying out the mission of Caritas in a land of conflict. “Our commitment – she said – is to promote all chances of dialogue through service and prayer. There is an urgent need to help Israelis and Palestinians work together for justice and peace”

“Our mission is to help the poor and the marginalized persons of all religions present in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Gaza. An estimated 30 thousand people benefit from our Mission, many more if we take into account the positive impact of aids that extends beyond our initial scope of action.

Suor Bridget Tighe, direttrice generale Caritas Jerusalem

Sister Bridget Tighe was appointed Director General of Caritas Jerusalem less than a year ago. In this interview with SIR the Irish-born nun, with five years of missionary service in Gaza, speaks about the commitment of the Catholic organization founded in 1967, after the Six-Day-War, providing a snapshot of the situation in the Holy Land, where, she said with a smile, “we see many pilgrims return. This is a positive sign that contributes to alleviate the suffering of the local populations.” A few days ago Sister Bridget started working on a project for ‘solidarity-pilgrimages’ that will involve Palestinian parishes and Italian dioceses.

Sister Bridget, who are the poor in the Holy Land today?

The poor are mostly Palestinians, as well as marginalized migrants living in Tel Aviv. West Bank Palestinian inhabitants been living under Israeli occupation for the past 50 years, but to these must be added those forcibly displaced from their homes and their lands for over 70 years. An entire generation of young people were born and raised under the occupation, deprived and humiliated in many ways.
Humiliation is yet another form of poverty that adds on to economic poverty, to the lack of access to services and disrespect of human rights. Poverty also involves human rights, an issue that here in the Holy Land takes on a special meaning…
Indeed, and to a certain extent it also involves the Palestinian population as a whole. Two million Palestinians in Gaza live in what can be described as an ‘open-air-prison’. They cannot travel without a special exit permit, they have no right to free movement, employment or access to education. I believe it to be a unique case in the world. In the West Bank we face different challenges. The 1993 Oslo Agreement divided the West Bank in three administrative divisions: areas A, B and C. The Palestinian Authority (PA) administers area A, area B is under joint PA and Israeli control, while area C is under full Israeli control. Thus, also in the West Bank Palestinians are subjected to restriction of movement, owing to the many Israeli checkpoints located throughout the territory. They need a special permit to  cross the separation barrier to visit their relatives, to pray in the Holy Sites or cultivate their lands. If they need to take a plane they are forced to leave from Jordan and not from Tel Aviv, with considerable increase in expenses.

Striscia di Gaza (Foto Sir – Rocchi)

Youths and children make up a large part of the Palestinian population. How is the situation with regard to their rights?
Human rights are denied at various levels. An indefinite number of 12/13-year-olds and 17-18 year-old youths are being detained in Israeli prisons (often on charges of throwing stones and inciting violence, Ed.’s note). As Caritas Jerusalem we try to alleviate this form of suffering in many ways through humanitarian support. But it’s also a cultural and educational problem…

In what way?

In schools “others” are treated as an enemies.

This is what Israeli and Palestinian students learn in schoolbooks. History is rarely taught without focusing only on the Palestinian or Israeli narrative, thus integrating the perspective and the understanding of the other party. Some organizations are involved in this area but they are few, marginalised and silenced by authorities on both sides.

It’s a gloomy picture that leads many Christian – and non-Christian – Palestinians to leave the Holy Land in search of a better future. How can this exodus be stopped?
The problem involves West Bank and East- Jerusalem Christians in particular. The Christian community in Gaza numbers less than a thousand people and it’s very hard for them to obtain the necessary exit permits from Israel. And when they are granted these authorizations, usually for Christmas and Easter, many of them don’t return and prefer to live illegally in the West Bank. In most cases they emigrate for economic reasons, not for religious ones.

There are no forms of Jewish or Islamic pressure or persecution.

The difficulties people face are linked to daily life under occupation, to checkpoints and constant controls that stir feelings of anger and frustration.

Is there a major difficulty that hinders Palestinians’ life?
The lack of permits to build houses even on their property, often expropriated by Israel, is a major problem. Houses regarded as illegal are demolished by Israeli authorities.

It’s impossible to build a home to pass on to the next generation.

The Churches make efforts to restore old houses or build new ones to ensure subsidized housing to young married couples. But many prefer to live in a house with a small piece of land that they can cultivate and live on. But without authorizations everything vanishes. The Church also builds schools, universities, promotes job-opportunity programs, but the process to make these people independent from external aids is a long and difficult road.
US President Donald Trump has decided to cut funding to UN aid programs in support of over 5 million Palestinian refugees (UNWRA). In addition, he cancelled subsidies amounting to 200 million dollars for the redevelopment of Gaza and the West Bank, 25 million to hospitals in East Jerusalem and 10 million for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue programs. What will be the impact of these cuts on the Palestinian people?
It had immediate impact. UNRWA has already cut some of the services it provided in Gaza, such as the free supply of school uniforms to first-year pupils and notebooks. Cuts were also made to coupons for foodstuffs and healthcare service, as we have seen in our medical centres that are registering increased assistance to an ever-growing number of people.

The cuts affect the poor people, not Hamas.

Caritas Jerusalem, along with other humanitarian organizations, will continue carrying out their service and mission in the best possible way.

What motivates Caritas to continue despite the many obstacles and difficulties?

We are guided by a beacon of hope, which must not be confused with optimism. The situation in the Holy Land, involving Israelis and Palestinians, is stalled, and we don’t know if and when it will be unblocked. There are no real talks leading to the resumption of the negotiating process. Trump said that he will soon disclose the details of his plan for peace, but it appears that none of the two involved parties intends to meet the other. Nonetheless, we must never give up our Christian hope, that very hope that keeps thriving even when all hopes seem lost. What we see today are Israeli settlements connected to each other by ever-fragmented Palestinian streets and roads, lacking territorial contiguity. They are separated also inside the West Bank, and not only by the Israeli wall. Gaza is separated both from Israel and from the West Bank. It’s hard to envisage a sustainable future, but a political dialogue is critical to the reduction of tensions.

Do you believe that the ‘Two States for Two Peoples’ solution called for by international community and by Pope Francis is still valid?
If we look at the situation on the ground,  this solution has come to a dead end. On our part we are committed to advancing all chances of dialogue through service and prayer. There is an urgent need to help Israelis and Palestinians work together for justice and peace.