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John Kreider, left, and Parke Mellinger, volunteers at MCC's Material Resource Center in Ephrata, Pa., fold a blanket that is part of a shipment to the Gaza Strip. Brenda Burkholder

John Kreider, left, and Parke Mellinger, volunteers at MCC's Material Resource Center in Ephrata, Pa., fold a blanket that is part of a shipment to the Gaza Strip. Brenda Burkholder

MCC prepares shipment of blankets and relief supplies for Gaza

Tim Shenk
January 23, 2009

AKRON, Pa. – Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is preparing to ship blankets and other relief supplies to the Gaza Strip despite Israeli restrictions on humanitarian aid to the war-torn region.

Israel is preventing most humanitarian aid from entering Gaza in the aftermath of a 23-day war against Palestinian militants, according to Daryl Byler, an MCC regional representative for Jordan, Iran, Iraq and Palestine.

MCC is joining other relief organizations in calling for Israel to lift restrictions on aid to Gaza, where basic supplies are scarce and about 4,000 homes were destroyed by Israeli bombardments. More than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed in the conflict, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Byler is optimistic that MCC's shipment of 3,910 blankets and 1,260 relief kits will be allowed into Gaza when it arrives in a month.

"I think we're not far away from the doors being opened a little more," Byler said. "But I know that there's a fairly high level of frustration today because we are indeed almost a week into the cease-fire and it's still quite difficult to get things in."

The war exacerbated the economic hardships facing the 1.5 million people of the Gaza Strip. Israel has blockaded the densely populated territory, allowing few supplies in or out, since the Palestinian group Hamas took control in June 2007.

During the war, MCC provided $45,000 U.S., or $56,000 Cdn., to help three Palestinian organizations distribute basic supplies to people in need in the Gaza Strip. MCC workers in Jerusalem maintained regular phone contact with staff members of MCC partner organizations in the Gaza Strip, Byler said.

"As much as the money that MCC sent, those phone calls were really valued," Byler said. "Often the reports were, 'The building next to our office was just shelled,' or 'My neighbor's house was just destroyed,' or 'One of my relatives was killed in the shelling last night.'"

Including shipments, the monetary value of MCC's aid to the Gaza Strip in 2008 and 2009 is about $345,000 U.S. or $436,000 Cdn.

Byler, who lives in Amman, Jordan, fasted for 17 days during the war as a spiritual discipline and a protest against the violence. While he fasted, Byler wrote letters appealing for peace to Prime Minister Olmert of Israel, President Bush and then-President-elect Obama and posted some of them on his blog. Dozens of people in North America and elsewhere contacted Byler to say that they too were fasting for peace, including the leader of an Israeli organization, Rabbis for Human Rights.

Byler also wrote an open letter to the Christian church in which he called for Christians to take responsibility for contributing to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He described both how anti-Semitism has historically led Christians to victimize Jews and how a theology of Christian Zionism has led Christians to be uncritically supportive of the Israeli government.

"It was very difficult in these last three weeks for either Israeli officials or Hamas officials to in any way acknowledge their own responsibility for the ways that they have contributed to the conflict," Byler said. "To find our way through this, somebody's going to have to stand up and start taking responsibility for the contributions we've made to it."