The General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations (GACEIR) gathered with heavy hearts in Louisville as war continued in Israel/Palestine this week. In a Zoom conference call requested by the committee, Douglas Dicks, Regional Liaison to Israel, Palestine and Jordan, gave an update and some history to the group.

More than 20 years ago, Dicks took a six-member team into the Gaza Strip, where they visited the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, the site of a recent missile or rocket strike that killed hundreds in the escalating war between Israel and Hamas. The visit was the beginning of a new relationship between a Presbyterian church and the hospital.

An Al Ahli Arab Hospital entrance, 2018. Photo by Douglas Dicks.

An Al Ahli Arab Hospital entrance, 2018. Photo by Douglas Dicks.

Dicks told the story of how the small team from Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, California was moved by what they saw at the hospital and wanted to do what they could to help. The hospital was underfunded and needed to upgrade equipment and conditions to meet the needs of Gaza citizens. The California church’s relationship with the hospital has been ongoing since their first meeting.

Dicks, who also serves as an ecumenical associate with St. Andrew's Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem, has been carefully monitoring the latest hostilities between Israel and Hamas since they began on October 7, as well as the tragic strike on the hospital in the north of the Gaza Strip this week.

According to the The Associated Press, Gaza health authorities have reported more than 500 Palestinians were killed and hundreds injured in the Tuesday attack. Both the Israeli military and militants in Gaza have denied responsibility.

“Thousands were taking refuge on the hospital grounds due to the open space and green space. There are claims that the hospital received at least three warnings from the Israelis to evacuate prior to the attack,” said Dicks. “The Palestinian Authority has called for three days of mourning. In addition, everything is closed today, except for pharmacies and bakeries, as the West Bank observes a general strike.”

Gaza, 2018. Photo by Douglas Dicks.

Gaza, 2018. Photo by Douglas Dicks.

Dicks’ update brought strong reactions from GACEIR members.

“Hospitals should be safe havens, especially in times of war,” said Ruling Elder Noushin Framke, committee member. “And Al Ahli Hospital has been a PC(USA) partner for years, so it is even more painful to see the loss of life and destruction from the bombing.”

“It seems a bit hollow when you call for a humanitarian response to Palestinians, yet at the same time provide funding for military aid to Israel in its war on Gaza,” said Teaching Elder Daniel Morales, committee member. “We strongly encourage our local churches and the Presbyterian body to take this opportunity to see the humanitarian side of this, and above all, to see the humanity of both Palestinians and Israeli innocent lives caught up in this conflict.”

GACEIR members said the PC(USA) is working together with a coalition of other faith-based organizations across the U.S. to encourage them to continue to educate the public about what is happening in the region.

“We are asking Presbyterians and our friends in other denominations and networks to join us in prayer and to seek out the complex history of Israeli/Palestinian relationships,” said Teaching Elder Christian Choi, committee member. “We ask that their differences be put aside to see the pains, aches, suffering and humanity of this region.”

“U.S. policy has been very favorable to Israel because we give $3.8 billion annually to Israel for military aid. Institutions like the hospital that receive support from the international community are a counterbalance to that lopsided foreign policy from the U.S. government,” said Framke. “The hospital is one way for Christians to show solidarity with the besieged people of Gaza.”

Dicks said there are growing protests in Ramallah, Amman, Beirut and Morocco, to name a few places.

“The fear is that the longer the bombing goes on in Gaza, the higher the death toll,” he said. “Palestinians there do not have basic necessities such as food, water and medical supplies. There are convoys on the Egyptian side of the border ready to enter Gaza and provide aid, but Egypt is reluctant to open the border for fear of a flood of refugees.”

GACEIR members and PC(USA) staff members, October 2023, Louisville. Photo by Dianna Wright.

GACEIR members and PC(USA) staff members, October 2023, Louisville. Photo by Dianna Wright.

GACEIR sent a letter of support to the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem that administers the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, and joins with the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches of Jerusalem in their call for solidarity. “We urge Presbyterians to pray for peace and, where able, to support the humanitarian response.”

Those interested in supporting the crisis response and recovery efforts in the Middle East can donate to account DR000081.