A storm is no respecter of persons. But those who live on the margins ~ the most vulnerable ~ are often the most affected. For people living under Israeli military occupation in Area C and for those under siege in Gaza, the recent storm is a disaster. (See UNOCHA reports, Dec 14 and Dec 16.)
A severe winter storm arrived in Israel/Palestine while we were on midterm orientation in Haifa last Wednesday and Thursday. We experienced it as torrential downpours, hail, thunder, lightning and high winds. But, as we were to discover, this was mild ~ Returning south down the Mediterranean coast on Friday, we were stopped at the junction with highway 1 which climbs up the mountainous spine to Jerusalem. After a 4 hour wait in the bus and word that the highway would not open that day due to continuing heavy snowfall, we detoured to the “Oasis of Peace” Guesthouse ~ Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom ~ We were back where we had begun this road trip on Wednesday afternoon.
Grateful for a hearty meal and a warm bed, we settled into the hilltop community for what we thought would be one night. But two days later we were still there! As the story unfolds, we hear news of the huge snowfall ~ 40+ cm ~ that had paralyzed Jerusalem, closing all roads into the city. West Bank areas of Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and South Hebron Hills were also under heavy snow. Hundreds of trees were down. Many people were without power. Many others had no power to start with. And it was cold!
The main highway to Jerusalem opened on Sunday, but only 5 of our 8 teams were able to return to their placements. Three teams, including ours, were stuck in Jerusalem for the night as West Bank roads to our homes were not passable. Finally on Monday we were able to access our town. We returned after dark ~ no electricity and 6 degrees inside! With candles and headlamps we managed to hook up our gas heater, and fortunately our power was restored within a short time. We climbed into bed with wool socks and hats, piled on the blankets, and pretended we were camping.
In reading news reports and UNOCHA bulletins over the past several days, we knew that villages in Area C had been particularly impacted by the storm with thousands of homes damaged and an estimated 27,000 livestock owners impacted. Area C villages are particularly vulnerable in that they are comprised mainly of Bedouin and herding communities. The Israeli government does not allow them to build any structures on their land or to repair existing structures. They are not on the electric grid, do not have running water, and their tents and animal shelters are easily susceptible to damage in a fierce winter storm. And the situation in Gaza is dire. Already facing a humanitarian crisis, the strip was flooded ~ 10,000 people had been evacuated and 20,000 chickens had died.
Tuesday is our first opportunity to see firsthand how our neighbors and friends in Area C villages around us weathered the storm. We first visit the village of Susiya as we had received reports of widespread damage in this community of 400 people. We find that many tents sustained substantial damage. Bedding and clothing are laid out on rocks to dry. Animal shelters are destroyed. Many lambs have died as well as some of the older sheep. People have purchased wood for fires to keep warm. We go from family to family assessing the situation. Several invite us for tea. At least the cisterns are full. A small mercy ~ This scenario is repeated over and over in each village we visit over the next few days ~ We realize that the situation is not unique ~ It is the reality in 100s of villages under Israeli military occupation in Area C.
Driving home to our cold house in the evenings, we count our blessings. We light our gas heater and cook our supper with the help of headlamps and candle light in the midst of rolling black outs. But we are dry with a roof over our heads and a source of heat. We think about our friends huddled around fires in their tents ~ We think of the sheep and lambs in their makeshift shelters ~ And we remember that the bulldozers are being used to clear snow so there will likely be no demolitions in the immediate future ~ Small favors ~ For the vulnerable on the margins, this severe winter storm is enough to deal with this week.