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 CNS Story:

GAZA-VIOLENCE May-16-2007 (810 words) With photos. xxxi

Church officials: Explosive Gaza violence leaves many scared, trapped

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

JERUSALEM (CNS) -- Exploding violence in the Gaza Strip has left the people weeping and trapped in a war zone, said a local parish priest.

"We are very anxious about our students. This has touched us through our students," said Msgr. Manuel Musallam of Holy Family Parish in Gaza. The priest added that anyone who could get out of Gaza had left.

In a May 16 telephone interview, he told Catholic News Service that after days of intensive infighting between gunmen of the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah factions, he had offered to protect local children at the church, but there was no safe way to get them to the building.

Msgr. Musallam said he closed the parish elementary and high schools May 16 although students were in the middle of exams, because there was a "feeling of deep anxiety" among the students and their parents.

Still, Anas Farah,16, walked to school, passing 18 checkpoints manned by gunmen because he wanted to complete his exams. Msgr. Musallam said he intended to keep the boy at the school until the area was safe, but after a few hours the boy, eager to go home, left the school on his own.

Two prominent pro-Fatah families, who were attacked and had members killed by militant Hamas forces May 15, have children in the parish school, said Msgr. Musallam. The children were in the house while the battles raged inside and outside, he said.

Many of the students live in high-rise buildings that have been taken over by gunmen, and the fighting is taking place on the streets in front of their homes, he said.

"It is a war," he added.

Hospitals were running out of blood to treat the wounded and had no means of receiving blood donations, Msgr. Musallam told CNS.

Dr. Bandali el Sayegh, Caritas Jerusalem clinic director in Gaza, said he could not open the clinic May 16 because many of the workers could not get there. Caritas Jerusalem is the local agency of Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella organization of national Catholic charitable agencies.

El Sayegh said that by midday he had treated three wounded people near his home.

"I help to stop the bleeding and then try to get them to hospital," El Sayegh told CNS in a telephone interview.

The recent violence, which killed at least 40 Palestinians in six days and left dozens wounded, has shattered hopes that the unity government formed in March between the Hamas and Fatah political factions could bring about a resolution to the deadly struggle that has kept the Palestinian government in an ineffectual deadlock for six months.

Omar Shaban, Catholic Relief Services' Gaza project manager, told CNS that Gaza's streets have become a shooting range. CRS is the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency.

All the main roads are controlled by gunmen from one faction or another, he said, adding that "Gaza is a very small area. ... If those (main roads) are closed, you have no option of how to travel."

"Why do they keep fighting each other when all of us are under occupation?" he asked. "There is no reason to fight except that everyone is looking out for his own interests. People are very angry and don't understand what is happening. Everyone is losing."

Shaban asked, "How many Palestinians need to be killed before we reach the conclusion that Hamas is not good at politics?"

Shaban, who stayed home from work to make sure his family was safe, said he had never before considered leaving Gaza but this time he was ready. But, like many in the area, he still faces the challenge of getting a visa to another country.

Most people who remain in the Gaza Strip are there simply because they cannot leave, he said. They must get a visa just to visit nearby Egypt or a travel permit to visit family members in Israel or the West Bank, he said.

"It has become a nightmare. This time I want to take care of my children. They have no future here, but where will I go, Norway, Holland, Israel?" Shaban asked.

He said young people and those not involved in the fighting are eager to leave but that the exodus would leave only extremist elements, which would make Gaza a powder keg of violence.

"At the end of the day Gaza will be left with people who do not believe in peace and the extremists will be fighting each other and Israel," he said. "If people like me leave the country, who will teach our children about peace, about stability, about talking to the other?

"What kind of education will they have? It is very depressing," said Shaban. "This is not only about the present, it is also about the future. This will end our future."


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