Partner Profile: Constantine Dabbagh
From time to time, the Canadian mainstream media turns its attention to the Gaza Strip, and very little of its reporting carries good news. The western-most part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Gaza is surrounded by an Israeli military blockade that covers the land, sea, and air. One of the most densely populated areas in the world, Gaza was bombed heavily in December 2008 and January 2009, and over 1400 people were killed.
Since that time, militants within the Gaza Strip have continued to fire homemade rockets at nearby Israeli towns and the Israeli government and armed forces have fired their own rockets at targets in the Gaza Strip, while maintaining the blockade and preventing any international groups carrying supplies from entering the Strip or the surrounding area. One ship carrying supplies and supporters was boarded by Israeli commandos in May 2010 and nine civilians were killed.
In the midst of these circumstances we find the Gaza Area Committee of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees, a long-running project with the Middle East Council of Churches. For decades Canadian churches have supported this work with funds and awareness-raising, both through KAIROS and with denominational partnerships.
Director Constantine Dabbagh has been central to this important work for much of this time, and at the end of this year he is set to retire. He currently directs the provision of health care, education and community services which DSPR offers the predominantly Muslim population of Gaza. In particular, the services focus on mothers and babies, vocational education and the provision of psychological and social health services to an increasingly traumatized population.
Constantine Dabbagh was born in Jerusalem in 1938, and in the midst of fierce fighting in Haifa in 1947 fled with his family as a refugee to the Gaza strip. He has worked for the United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Gaza, and for the United Nations in the now-Democratic Republic of Congo. He has consistently advocated non-violence amidst living conditions that clearly have become a humanitarian crisis. His personal and professional dialogue of justice, peace, security, mutual understanding and reconciliation has involved him in critical negotiations between political factions within Palestine, and the Palestinian Authority and the international community.
Everyday life in Gaza is a profound challenge; basic supplies are extremely limited, many buildings are now piles of rubble, and the drinking water is increasingly contaminated with salt water and sewage. Leaving the area is all but impossible for most.
As the holder of a Greek passport, he could choose to leave Gaza. But he has chosen to stay on, involved with the wider community and the continuing work of DSPR.
The Gaza Area Committee of DSPR is an integral part of Palestinian society and operates with the support of the churches, ecumenical and secular organizations. The Committee is formed of committed and dedicated volunteers who are appointed by the heads of the churches of the four family members of the Middle East Council of Churches. It serves the Palestinian people irrespective of religion, faith, political affiliation, geographical locality, gender or creed. Its volunteers note that, “It is part of Christian commitment to our society and a source of strength for the continuation of the indigenous Christian witness and presence in the region.”
During the Israeli Defence Forces’ Operation Cast Lead in January 2009, the Shij’ia health clinic in Gaza was destroyed by an Israeli rocket fired from an F-16. The clinic served approximately 10,000 families in a very poor area of Gaza City. The clinic’s services included tests for malnutrition and anemia, pre and post-natal care, a baby clinic, a pharmacy and a mobile dental clinic. As a result of the continuing blockade it remains in ruins. No building materials are allowed to enter the Gaza Strip, and the reuse of rubble is the only source for reconstruction. The offer of a volunteer Australian work team to rebuild the clinic has been rejected by Israel, and necessary entry visas denied.
KAIROS and Canadian churches were among the many funders of this clinic over a period of ten years. It has been replaced by another clinic run from a rented building and the Greek government has pledged to pay for a new facility once a location and materials are found.
“Luckily, it [the clinic] was empty because it was in the evening. If it had been in the morning, it would have been a disaster,” Costa says.
Efforts are being made by moderate religious leaders to achieve a peaceful resolution of the conflict and to convince the Israeli government to end the current blockade of Gaza, but progress continues to be very slow and halting.
KAIROS invites prayers for DSPR’s work, for the members of the Gaza Area Committee, and above all for the thousands of Gazans dealing with trauma and malnutrition. We invite you to give thanks for Constantine Dabbagh’s years of dedicated work.
Cards of support (and retirement congratulations!) can be sent through KAIROS. Contact Julie Graham at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll pass the notes on. Electronic greetings are preferred.
(these links are offered for information only)
Gaza Area Committee, DSPR website: http://www.neccgaza.org/
Interview with Mr. Dabbagh, Christian World Service New Zealand: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-U2H5WJUFA
Canada Boat to Gaza: Canadian group collecting supplies and advocating for an end to the blockade: http://canadaboatgaza.org
Dashed Hopes: Continuation of the Gaza Blockade report (30 November 2010, by Amnesty International UK, OXFAM International, Christian Aid, and many other European NGOs)
Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege. Israeli journalist Amira Hass lived in Gaza in the 1990’s and this book is a series of reflections.