"What kind of a choice is it, to be killed or to leave their homeland?"

an interview about the Gaza crisis with MCC's Representatives in Jerusalem

MCC Jerusalem Reps Sarah Funkhouser and Seth Malone


Based in Jerusalem, Sarah Funkhouser and Seth Malone serve as MCC’s Representatives for Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. In this interview with MCC UN Office director Chris Rice, they discuss the bravery of MCC’s Palestinian partners in Gaza, the obstacles to providing life-saving assistance, the terrible choices facing civilians in Gaza, and the bold work of MCC’s Israeli partners for peaceful coexistence.   


Chris Rice: Regarding the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, can you describe what MCC and our partners in Gaza are seeing and experiencing on the ground there?  


Seth Malone: I don't know if there are words to describe the level of destruction and bombing that Gaza and its people have experienced. An immense percentage of buildings have been completely destroyed. Everyone is in survival mode. It is unbelievable to think what our partners inside Gaza have done to address immediate needs when they're living in this crisis themselves. They are the superheroes. We have pictures of places where our partners did food distributions in northern Gaza. A few days later, photos of those same places show they are destroyed. Our partners are constantly putting their lives at risk. They are also displaced themselves, multiple times over, pushed all the way south from Gaza City to Rafah. The fact they keep reaching out and showing compassion to others despite all of that is so impressive and moving. The immediate need is an end to the death and destruction so we can start thinking about some kind of future.  


At a February meeting with UN diplomats I attended in New York, the CEO of Oxfam US talked about the high risk of famine in Gaza. But she said the situation could be changed instantly if access was granted. While MCC and our partners have been able to find innovative ways to meet the needs of Gazans, there is still a large percentage of the population that aid has been unable to reach. Why has it been so difficult for MCC and other humanitarian groups to send assistance into Gaza?   


Sarah Funkhouser: For months all access from Israel into Gaza was cut off, including all the crossings we would have used in the past. The Oxfam comment demonstrates that NGOs absolutely have the experience and expertise to deliver aid during humanitarian crises. But the structure blocking this is intentional, and this is well-documented by MCC and other experienced organizations on the ground. There is a narrative that everyone in Gaza is guilty, and they deserve what they get. For example, Gaza is on a coastline, and they should be able to feed themselves from the ocean. But the Israeli military is bombing fishing boats claiming they are a security risk. People are now literally relying on animal feed for food. Even before October 7, Israel has made it harder and harder for humanitarian organizations to operate. In recent years, and even more so now, we have documented the shrinking space within Israel to operate programs like ours. The risk of famine is not a coincidence. It is engineered.  


Gaza is home to 2.2 million Palestinians. If they stay, they and their loved ones risk starving or being killed, and their homes have been destroyed. If they are given the option to leave, is it likely they would be able to return?   


Sarah: Since October 7, about one and a half million Gazans are now displaced in Rafah. This is not a new phenomenon. When Israel was founded in 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes, never to return. So the displacement of Palestinians in Gaza is even greater than 1948. These historical examples are important for Palestinians because they prove that if they leave Gaza to Egypt or elsewhere, they will never be able to come back. What kind of a choice is it, to be killed or to leave, knowing they’ve lost their homeland? International humanitarian law calls this “forced and unlawful displacement.” It’s not just or peaceful.   


Haaretz is the longest-running newspaper in Israel. In a recent article, the Israeli editor in chief said the Netanyahu government’s devastating response to October 7 will never allow Israel to live in peace, that Israel must allow Palestinians to share the land and to strive for coexistence. He admits this is a minority view among Israelis. Since October 7, from where you see things living in Jerusalem, what has changed in how Israelis view the crisis facing their land?   


Seth: There was a big push back in the day for a peaceful two state solution. Now, it’s an all or nothing attitude for most Israelis. Israel has one of the most well-funded militaries in the world. They will always be able to hit back harder. They will always be able to respond with greater violence. October 7 was truly awful. Yet I cannot believe for one second that if you got rid of everyone in Gaza, that the problems will go away. You have to learn to live with the people that are on the land next to you. MCC works with Israeli partners such as Zochrot and New Profile who have always recognized that no good end comes through violence. They believe that even more now. The Israeli director of Zochrot said in a video message to MCC that there is no safety, security, or dignity that way.  


Last month the Palestinian Christian leader and lawyer Jonathan Kuttab told MCC that he was hoping that American peace churches would have the ability to propose an alternative through the methods of nonviolence. What might that look like?  


Seth: Nonviolence can't only be a belief. If you are committed to nonviolence, it means you act in particular ways to oppose violence whenever and wherever you see it. The alternative to violence is true solidarity. Coming from the U.S., that the violence on Palestinians in Gaza is being facilitated in large part by the support of my government means I am not separate from what's happening. Nonviolence is taking that responsibility and translating it into action toward peace and justice. We need to not be timid but to really be bold with what we say and what we do.


Important update: on March 19 MCC was able to make a shipment into Gaza, delivering food to 665 displaced families. See story and photos here.