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Palestinian refugees call on Presbyterians to support them

PC(USA) Immigration webinar series shifts focus to Middle East in third episode

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona via Unsplash

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — After two episodes focused on the United States Southern Border, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s immigration webinar series turned its attention this week to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, and the broader Middle East.

The conversation was hosted by Catherine Gordon of the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C. and Bethlehem-based Douglas Dicks of Presbyterian World Mission. It detailed the plight of Palestinian refugees from people who know the situation intimately and continue to hope for a political solution, and it concluded with calls to action for Presbyterians.

Gordon opened with the fact that 750,000 Palestinians were displaced by the 1948 war that led to the founding of Israel, and none of them were ever able to return home. There are now 7 million Palestinian refugees around the world.

“The reality of Palestinian forced displacement is at the core of the Palestinian experience and the Palestinian refugee issue is at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Gordon said, opening the conversation.

Click here to see “Palestinian Refugees: Current Reality and Hopes for the Future.” 

Dr. Bernard Sabella, former executive director of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) and a retired professor of sociology at Bethlehem University in Palestine, opened by saying, “When we talk about being a Palestinian refugee, it’s an issue of identity.”


Dr. Bernard Sabella

He reflected on going to meetings in Amman, Jordan and talking with his drivers. He would ask where they are from. Usually they would give answers like Haifa, a major city in Northwestern Israel that went from a majority Muslim city in the early 20th century to one of Israel’s largest cities today.

That didn’t mean Palestinians had forgotten it.

Sabella described asking a driver, who left Haifa as a child, why he wasn’t content to settle in “beautiful Amman. He says, ‘No, no, no, no, I want to go back, and really any place in Haifa, I would go back.’ ‘Really?’ I say, ‘You would live side by side with the Israelis?’ ‘Why not? Why not? I would live in a cave, in a grotto,’” to return to Haifa, the driver said.

He went on to describe a culture of perpetual displacement, where some Palestinians end up as refugees multiple times due to instability in the nations they end up in, such as Syria and Lebanon. There are bright spots, he says, such as the high-level of education students receive at schools of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). But refugees, which Sabella includes himself among, continue to look for a political solution.

“I am afraid if the American administration, if the current American administration fails in doing this, we will never ever have a solution to the Palestinian problem, never ever,” Sabella said. “And what does this mean? It means basically, that we will continue, in this holiest of lands, in periodic confrontations, and there will be no way out of this conflict.”

Shatha Al Azzeh, Director of the Environment Unit at Lajee Center in Aida Refugee Camp, described an oppressive environment where refugees are packed in and “the only expansion possible is vertical.” The camp is always under surveillance by the Israeli military, she said, and under constant threat of violence. According to some reports, Aida camp has more exposure to tear gas than anywhere else in the world.

She also noted that there are no health clinics in the camp and discussed a growing issue in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Shatha Al Azzeh

“Water is a political issue because Israel controls our water,” Al Azzeh said, and she detailed how people in the camp are allocated less than half the water the World Health Organization says people need, while Israelis receive several times what they need.

Both Al Azzeh and Sabella praised schools run by UNRWA for high levels of education that enabled refugee children to receive education that set them up for college and advanced degrees. Despite that, they also noted high unemployment, 43% at Aida, due in large part to work restrictions imposed on refugees in Israel and other nations.

William Deere, Senior Congressional Advisor to the Washington, D.C. office of UNRWA, supported the Palestinian speakers’ assertions with numerous statistics and noted concerns such as the increasing use of live ammunition by security forces against refugees and the psychological impact of living in a refugee camp on refugee children.

William Deere

Deere also addressed difficulties UNRWA has had the past few years as the administration of President Donald Trump cut off funding for the agency that provides education, health care and direct funding to Palestinian refugees. The organization often comes under fire from the Israeli government and its supporters in the United States with accusations from inefficiency to enabling conflict, even terrorism.

“None of our funding goes to Hamas,” Deere said, referring to a Palestinian militant group that operates in Gaza. He pointed out that with the defunding of UNRWA and any other aid to Palestinians, “for a time, Palestinians were the only group on Earth the United States would not provide aid to.”

Funding has been restored to UNRWA by the administration of President Joe Biden.

All participants in the webinar said that it is important for Presbyterians and others in the United States to support Palestinians and a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

“The first people to come to the aid of Palestinian refugees, back in 1948, and ‘49, were really Christian churches from the USA,” Sabella said. “You have been a great support to us.

“And I couldn’t say how many jackets I wore when I was a child, warm jackets and coats I wore when I was a child, were from American mothers who will empty the closet and send the clothing to Palestinian refugees. I really strongly feel that even as individuals, as churches, as community of faith, you have a great role to play.”

Deere said, “Never underestimate the power of a note or a letter to your elected representative. You really do make a difference, and don’t think that sending an email or a letter or phone call doesn’t make a difference, because it really does.”

“Welcoming the Stranger” is a webinar series from the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness, Office of Immigration Issues and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

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