By Kirk Petersen

The two million people of the Gaza Strip have lived through three wars since 2007, when Hamas took control of the government. It’s a place of crowded conditions and devastating poverty, with a history of religious conflict. Any Jewish people who once lived there are long gone, and the Christian population is estimated at about 1,000 people. Nearly all the rest are Sunni Muslim.

Given all that, it’s remarkable that the only Christian hospital in Gaza is also the only hospital that does not station an armed guard at its gate.

Ahli Arab Hospital is owned and operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, which is part of one of the 41 provinces of the Anglican Communion: the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. It’s the oldest hospital in Gaza, founded in 1907 by the British Church Missionary Society, and located in the center of Gaza City.

“I don’t think there is any threat coming from Hamas” because they recognize the hospital’s willingness to treat anyone regardless of background, said Suhaila Tarazi, the director of the hospital. “Ahli Arab Hospital, as a Christian hospital, follows in the steps of our Lord Jesus Christ, where we have to love one another, to love our neighbors.”

Tarazi spoke in July on an online presentation organized by the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem (AFEDJ), a long-time supporter of the hospital.

She said life is difficult in Gaza, with infrastructure damaged by war, 54% unemployment, electrical outages from 10 to 14 hours a day, and shortages of all kinds because Gaza’s border is controlled by Israel (or by Egypt, in the south).

“A child of 14 years has witnessed three wars,” she said. “According to the UN, 365,000 children are suffering from psychosocial problems.”

So far, Gaza has been spared from the ravages of COVID-19, which could be particularly devastating in a poor, crowded society. “Bear in mind that the health system in Gaza is on the verge of collapsing, … suffering from big shortages of medicine and medical supplies,” Tarazi said.

“Thank God, in Gaza, up to today, we have only 72 positive cases,” she said on July 9. “Unfortunately, one died.” Ironically, “one benefit of the [border] closures is that it’s controlled the spread of coronavirus to the Gazans.”

But non-COVID patients already tax the system. One of the shortages of medicine is drugs for chemotherapy, and despite the population of two million, “they don’t have a radiation therapy machine.” Cancer patients needing chemotherapy must go to Tel Aviv or Istanbul – which requires the permission of both the Israeli government and the Palestinians.

“So many patients have lost their lives waiting for this permission to go and have treatment,” she said, adding that the hospital gets more than 2,000 cancer patients every year. “The hospital is thinking to establish a radiation therapy unit at Ahli Arab Hospital,” an initiative she said is strongly supported by Archbishop Suheil Dawani, the head of the Diocese of Jerusalem.

AFEDJ supports the idea as well. “It’s kind of in a quiet phase of fundraising and development,” said John Lent, executive director of the organization, who hosted the webinar. But he promised listeners they will hear more about it soon.

Lent praised Tarazi for her commitment to Gaza, which is where she was born. She received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Egypt and Britain respectively, and after working in Libya, Egypt, the United States and elsewhere, she joined the hospital more than 30 years ago.

“Her service to the needy in Gaza is a genuine sacrifice,” Lent said. “Suhaila does not have to live in Gaza, she has dual citizenship and she could leave if she chose to, but she stays in Gaza because she feels God’s call to serve the poor and the vulnerable.” Tarazi is also a citizen of the United States, and has relatives there.

AFEDJ was founded in 1988 as a volunteer-led organization, to support education and health care in the Holy Land. Today it has a staff of three, and a budget last year of $1.7 million.