Jerusalem and Gaza 1947 – 1950
Following the UN vote for a Partition Plan in 1947 to create independent Arab and Jewish states within Palestine, sporadic fighting began in the region, with open war breaking out in 1948. Jews, Palestinian Arabs, and the surrounding states of Egypt, (Trans)Jordan and Syria fought for control of different districts, especially Jerusalem. Palestinian Arabs came off badly, and large numbers became refugees. Many of their deserted homes were then bulldozed.
Quakers’ peacebuilding and relief work was well known, especially after their Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, and they soon became involved, first in Jerusalem, and then in Gaza.
In early 1948, two American Friends, Clarence Pickett and Rufus Jones, met at Quaker House New York to draw up a petition calling for a truce. When this failed, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) began to raise funds for refugee relief. James Vail and Edgar B Castle, both experienced in the area, were sent to assess the situation. They reported that, “Jerusalem is disintegrating before our eyes into physical and moral chaos.”
The UN asked Quaker Harold Evans, a Philadelphia lawyer, to serve as Municipal Commissioner for Jerusalem. Refusing any military escort, he and Vail arrived in June 1948. Despite the Quaker principle of supporting both sides equally (often called 'balanced partiality'), it was clear to both of them that there was a great inequality of need and that they should focus on Arab welfare.
They expected that they would soon be able to help the refugees return home, and offered to liaise between Jewish communities and returning Arab refugees. The offer was not accepted: a small Quaker relief team was allowed into Jerusalem, but that was all. It became clear to Evans that he was not going to be able to work as Commissioner in the way he and AFSC had expected, and he resigned.
A major refugee crisis was developing in Gaza in the south, now under Egyptian control. The UN asked AFSC to take part in a one-year relief programme. Some Quakers, including Mildred White, director of the Friends Girls School Ramallah were worried that taking part in the UN operation would violate the Quaker principle of balanced partiality. In particular, White was concerned that Quakers might be persuaded by the UN to take part in resettling the refugees away from their homes in Palestine. AFSC finally agreed to participate, but under a number of conditions, notably that this was short-term, and that resettling the refugees would be a UN priority.
AFSC workers began arriving in Gaza in 1948. Not all the workers were Quakers, but all were pacifists, some doing Civilian Public Service (CPS) as an alternative to military service.
The conditions that they found in the camps were appalling. Winter had brought heavy rains. As many as a quarter of a million refugees were living in rudimentary shelters, food supplies were limited and the volunteers were working under conditions of heavy shelling, with dead and wounded being brought in every day.
A key priority was the establishment of a Public Health Service. The AFSC worked with the World Health Organisation to set up a malaria control programme, including spraying insecticide on standing water to eliminate mosquitoes. Washing facilities and a laundry were built, which helped reduce the occurrence of skin complaints, which had been endemic.
Donated clothes were soon found to be unsuitable for Palestinian women, so a weaving and sewing programme was established. Tent schools were established for Palestinian children, based on the Egyptian school curriculum. In March 1949, these were catering for 16 thousand children.
AFSC began to realise that resettlement was not being pursued, and came to the view that they should withdraw. In a statement to the UN they said ‘the palliative effects (of the relief) militate against a swift political settlement of the problem’. In 1950, AFSC’s relief work was taken over by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), who have been there ever since.
Quakers were among the first NGOs anywhere to work on behalf of the UN. They did their relief work effectively, and learned much. Al Hotz, a Lutheran volunteer with CPS, wrote of the programme: “There was a worry that nobody had ever proved: could pacifists go into a military zone and survive and do anything? And boy, oh boy, we proved it.”