Four members of a larger delegation of 14 American church leaders toured the Jenin Refugee Camp in Israel's West Bank on April 25 and assisted five U.S.-based aid organizations in delivering food, medicine and blankets to the people of Jenin. Earlier in April, the Israeli Army had left much of the camp in ruins in its operations to seek out terrorists.
A convoy of four trucks filled with food and medicine, and 17 other vehicles filled with volunteers from the aid agencies, set out from Jerusalem at 7 a.m. The group was accompanied on the visit by the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah.
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 (67,000 pounds) of food were delivered, along with medical supplies and blankets. Each box of food was designed to feed a family of five or six persons for seven to 10 days. Volunteers and residents of Jenin unloaded the supplies.
However, it was walking through the Jenin Refugee Camp, site of the most fierce fighting, that left the greatest impression on the delegation. Where the damage was worst, everyone exercised caution in their movements, since structures were 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 Jenin's infrastructure, such as water lines and electricity, had been ripped out and destroyed.
As the delegation toured, people milled everywhere. Many persons 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.
"I saw four women sitting in a house that had an eight-foot-wide hole blown in it," said Bishop Arthur Walmsley of Connecticut (retired), representing the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church in the United States. "They were simply talking and having coffee. It would have been a natural sight, I suppose, except that I shouldn't even have 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."
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. The Rev. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, put it simply. "This was our communion with the people of Jenin. I was privileged to sit and to drink coffee with them."
The Rev. James Wetekam is Media Program Director for Churches for Middle East Peace.