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Members of NCC-Led
Delegation Visit Jenin Refugee Camp,
By Jim Wetekam*
April 26, 2002, JERUSALEM - Four members of a larger delegation of 14 American church leaders toured the Jenin Refugee Camp yesterday (April 25) and assisted five U.S.-based aid organizations in the delivery of food, medicine, and blankets to the people of Jenin.
Today (April 26) a part of the delegation accompanied humanitarian aid to Bethlehem District. Delegation members also met today with Gadi Golan, Director of Religious Affairs in Israels Foreign Ministry; Rabbi David Rosen, Director of Interfaith Relations for the American Jewish Committee; U.S. Consul General Ron Schlicher, and with staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The delegation, organized by the (U.S.) National Council of Churches, has been in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. Their 12-day peace and pastoral mission began April 16 and ends tomorrow (April 27) with their return to the United States.
As the four delegation members left Jerusalem for Jenin early Thursday morning, Dr. Bob Edgar, NCC General Secretary, remarked, "We thought it important that some of us be able to see for ourselves the level of destruction and make our own assessment. And as people try to recover and rebuild from the rubble, but also still mourn their dead and the missing, we wanted to join in the assistance efforts."
A convoy of four trucks filled with food and medicine, and seventeen other vehicles filled with volunteers from the aid agencies, set out from Jerusalem at 7:00 a.m. The group was privileged to be accompanied on the visit by the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah. The aid convoy was greeted in many places in the West Bank, particularly as the group neared Jenin, by persons pausing where they were and waving in support and thanks.
Sponsoring organizations for the aid delivery were Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, the Mennonite Central Committee, Caritas International, and the Pontifical Institute. In all, 1,500 boxes of food were delivered (a total of 67,000 pounds), in addition to medical supplies and blankets. Each box of food was designed to feed a family of five or six persons for a period of seven to ten days. Volunteers mixed with residents of Jenin to unload the supplies in human-chain style over the course of more than two hours.
However, it was walking through the Jenin Refugee Camp, site of the most fierce fighting, that left the greatest impression on the delegation. In recent days, other international delegations and diplomats have toured the camp and eloquently expressed their accounts of the massive level of destruction and loss of human life there. Where the damage is worst, everyone continues to exercise caution in their movements, as did the delegation, since structures are still shifting; live, unexploded ordnance still is being discovered; and people vigilantly continue their digging to find bodies still buried in the rubble.
Though it will be some time before an accurate and reliable number of dead is determined, clearly a cataclysmic event took place. The site itself looks very much as if it were the epicenter of a powerful earthquake. An April 22 report by a group including the World Health Organization and the U.S. government aid agency, USAID, estimated that 600 homes were destroyed and another 200 made uninhabitable. Other parts of Jenins infrastructure, such as water lines and electricity, had been ripped out and destroyed.
As the delegation toured, people milled everywhere. Many were seated or standing at what used to be their homes, willing to tell their stories and to show pictures of lost loved ones. Some women stood precariously on mounds of rubble as backhoes attempted to dig and presumably find the remains of missing loved ones. Others just sat by themselves or with their children or spoke eagerly with neighbors and friends.
Bishop Arthur Walmsley of Connecticut (retired), representing the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church in the U.S., reported, "I saw four women sitting in a house that had an eight-foot-wide hole blown in it; they were simply talking and having coffee. It would have been a natural sight, I suppose, except that I shouldn't have even seen them. But now they were seated completely open to the street." Asked how he felt after seeing the camp, Bishop Walmsley responded, "Appalled. This action was against a whole community, not just terrorists."
In the camp, much antipathy was expressed to the delegation about United States policy, which some residents identified as allowing a massacre to happen. Jim Winkler, General Secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, said, "As we waited at a checkpoint today, a food shipment from the UN was permitted to go around us and right in. I was told later that the residents refused to accept the shipment because the people saw food packages on which were written 'gift from the United States' and that there were children's toys that read, 'Made in Israel.''' Winkler continued, "I am happy when my tax dollars are used for food, but that food was rejected because a greater portion of my taxes were used to provide weapons that destroyed this camp and so many of these people. It is not a proud day for me."
Near the end of the walk through the camp, delegates and residents alike were permitted to make use of a temporary house of mourning, where all sipped bitter coffee shared in common cups. They sat, reflecting on what had been experienced, and they prayed. Bob Edgar of the NCC said simply, "This was our communion with the people of Jenin. I was privileged to sit and to drink coffee with them."
*Jim Wetekam, Media Program Director for Churches for Middle East Peace, is a member of the NCC delegation.
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