Elham at the headquarters of her association in Bethlehem

Holy Land: The law of forgiveness

Israel and Palestine, on either side stories of pain and death chase each other. Yet there are still those who manage to affirm a different logic, which starts with compassion and prayer. "In order not to stop believing that peace is possible."
Maria Acqua Simi

Ylahm Farah is 84 years old and is uncommonly vivacious. The daughter of the famous Palestinian poet Hanna Dahdah Farah, she was born and raised in Gaza's small but ancient Christian community. She is one of the most beloved people in town. Nicknamed 'the smiling Mrs Umm al-Orange' because of her red hair, she raised generations of Gazawis in love for music. She has never left the Strip: she chose to stay there in 2007, when many friends fled because of the ongoing clashes, and she reasserted her choice in October when Hamas fundamentalists began the escalation of a conflict that no one could have imagined. But in Gaza, under crossfire from Israeli snipers, Ylahm was killed.

"She was a special woman, known and loved by all because she spent her entire existence teaching everyone the beauty and power of music. Hers was a passion inherited from her parents: she composed, she played, she taught, she sang. In Gaza, she was almost an institution because she walked the streets with her fiery red hair, wide hat and big glasses. And a bag decorated with Palestinian embroidery. She could play many instruments, including the violin and organ, but her favourite was the accordion. Her death was a very heavy blow.” Speaking is one of her closest friends. "On 12 November, during the ceasefire, she tried to reach her flat in the al-Rimal neighbourhood to retrieve some winter clothes. She could not: she was shot in the legs. She had the clarity of mind to warn some friends on her mobile phone, her niece. Me. But it was impossible for me to go and pick her up. For two days she lay on the ground, wounded, while snipers fired on anyone who came close. I wanted to hold her in my arms, to carry her on my shoulders to the hospital. There was nothing I could do. I knew she had sought refuge from the bombings in the Holy Family Catholic Church, which had opened its doors to thousands of displaced people since the beginning of the conflict. She always said that God would protect her...."

This man of almost seventy years of age, who begs me not to write his name so as not to get into trouble, does not give into anger. "When I think of her last hours, I feel heartbreak: how could anyone die like that? Here we prayed so much that Our Lady might be a comfort to her in those hours. But I do not just want to think about her end: Ylham's whole existence was joy for everyone who met her. So yes, God protected her, blessed her, favoured her."

Fr. Gabriel Romanelli, a parish priest in Gaza, also lost many friends in the conflict. "The people who are dying are not numbers, for me they are dear, familiar faces. We really ask that there be a permanent cease-fire, that the wounded be evacuated to Rafah or to the foreign ships, such as those of the Italian government's, that are ready to receive them for treatment. But what I ask, personally, is to pray. We ask God for the strength to rebuild, to start again. We ask for faith, not to stop believing that peace is possible.”

In fact, the suffering for the dead is the same on both sides of this absurd war. "The uncle of one of my companions was kidnapped and killed by terrorists. He had children, he was a quiet, good person, with his job and his family. We always keep each other informed on social media about the fate of the other hostages who are still in the hands of Hamas, but may already be dead." As she speaks, Sofi does not look up from her smartphone screen. Scrolling through Instagram, she shows me the actors from 'Fauda' - a popular Israeli TV series - who enlisted. In the drama, they played agents of a Mista'arvim anti-terrorist unit (special units of the Israel Defence Forces) operating as infiltrators in Palestinian territories in Gaza and the West Bank. "One of them is dead, another is seriously injured in hospital. They went there to defend us."

She is 16 years old, lives in Jerusalem, and as for all young people her age, October 7 was something of a shock. It is not hard to imagine, since in a city like this everyone eventually gets to know each other and grief immediately becomes collective. She does not like to talk about what is happening in the Strip: “I do not like what I see, I think these bombings should stop. But what I think does not matter, does it? We cannot do anything.” This is not what Rachel Goldberg Polin, the mother of Hersh, one of the civilians kidnapped on October 7 and whose fate is still unknown. She has been issuing statements for more than a hundred days urging people not to give in to the desire for revenge. After also being received by Pope Francis, she launched a social campaign asking people to put duct tape over their hearts to mark the days that have passed since the kidnapping of the Israeli civilians. But in this whole affair her gaze has been different. She testified to this in a short interview with Tv2000, in a report edited by Alessandra Buzzetti. "I suffer terribly for the civilians in Gaza: when I see a child pulled out of the rubble, I think that they are suffering like my son as a hostage. I have no difficulty in feeling empathy for everyone, it is not a competition in pain. What keeps me going is the support we get from all over the world, and prayer. To those who ask me how I still believe in God, I answer that my relationship with Him is even stronger and I would not know how not to believe.”

Another woman with a fighting spirit is Elham, an energetic Palestinian Muslim widow who has been struggling for months to get aid into Gaza. Born and raised in the West Bank, with a background as a social worker with the Palestinian National Authority, she founded the association "On the road to goodness", which offers assistance to divorced women, widows and Palestinian orphans. Since October, all resources have been targeted towards helping those trapped in the Strip.

"I know so many people from Gaza City and also from the surrounding area. The news that reaches us daily is terrible. And they are all verified, first-hand. Children wandering alone in the rubble traumatised, buildings destroyed, elderly people trapped. Diseases and lice are spreading, people are hungry. There is a lack of concrete things: water, food, nappies, medicine. We are trying to get things in through Jordan and Egypt. Last week we managed to distribute about 8,000 ready meals. But it is nothing compared to the need that exists." Elham is supported by the Pro Terra Sancta Association, the Custody's NGO, which has always stood by the Christians in the region.

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She has too. She says this openly, making no distinctions “because the poor are all equal in God's eyes.” She says that what spurs her on above all else is the pain of the little ones. "I started this job many years ago, when I was a social worker I was inundated with requests for help. We brought blankets, offered legal assistance, but above all we took care of the needs of the children: clothes, food, school...". Today, many of those children have become men. "Some of them have come back over the years to thank me. I did not do it all alone, but I know that when I die this will be my legacy". Goodness.