Interview. We spoke with Steve Sosebee, founder of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, a humanitarian NGO that supports children in the Middle East. Israel destroyed the organization's Gaza office during its bombing campaign.

‘The bombing of relief organizations like ours should concern every American’

We spoke with Steve Sosebee, founder of the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, a humanitarian NGO that supports children in the Middle East. During the 11-day bombing of Gaza, the Israeli military killed hundreds of civilians and destroyed many soft targets, including the office of the PCRF and the health ministry building across the street. No one was working there at the time, but the organization will have to relocate.

We asked Sosebee about PCRF’s origins, the healthcare conditions in Gaza and the West Bank and his goals for the organization.

How are things? Were you there during the shelling or did you go after?

No, I was not in Gaza. Gaza was closed, and I was out. … But I am trying to get my permit to go to Gaza, hopefully by Monday or Tuesday. Of course, it depends on the Israelis, so I’m just waiting for my permit. But thankfully, nobody was injured in our staff offices.

So where are you now? Are you in Ramallah?

Ramallah, yes.

Let’s start at the beginning. What’s the backstory of the organization?

I’m from Kent, Ohio, and I went to Kent State, and I studied international relations. I was active at Kent on human rights issues, political rights issues, social justice. And the first Palestinian uprising began, the first intifada, and that was just an issue that kind of resonated with me, being from Kent and seeing soldiers shooting unarmed civilians when that happened on May 4, 1970. I may not remember it, but I grew up in that town and it’s our history. So I was more sympathetic or connected to those images of social justice and political dissent than people from other places that may not have that legacy that we have in Kent, or in Portage County or Northeast Ohio. So Palestine resonated with me for some reason, maybe that’s the reason, and I just got active on it and tried to educate people.

I myself read a lot about the history and about the politics of this region and just became super aware of that injustice. The uprooting of the indigenous Palestinian population from their homeland in 1948 was the core factor in the ongoing conflict. And until that was resolved, until there was an end to the occupation, until there was a resolution of rights of the refugee population, people who lost their homes in 1948, there was not going to be peace in the Middle East. And then the role of the American government, and the American taxpayers, on this issue was also something that connected me to this cause simply because we play a very important role, funding the occupation and the weapons which go to supporting the oppression of the Palestinians. The political support that our government gives in vetoing UN resolutions and preventing international law from being applied here puts a certain responsibility on us as Americans to stand up and say something and do something. So those are the main factors for me, that really motivated me on the issue of Palestine.

I was chosen to go on a three-week human rights evaluation delegation in December of 1988. I was a junior at Kent State and got to see firsthand what was happening here on the ground, got to see with my own eyes what occupation looked like, and what resistance on the side of the Palestinians looked like. And I got to meet so many amazing people, on all sides, Israelis and Palestinians. And particularly Palestinians, who were suffering from such great injustice and oppression, had such humanity and courage. And the way that they treated me, and the human connection that developed between us, was really very powerful and left a very strong, lasting impression on me.

When I went back and finished university, I became more active on this issue and finished college and came over to work as a journalist, as a writer, wanting to share the stories of the Palestinians. I met a boy who lost his legs from the bombing in the West Bank, and did a story about him, but then also kind of befriended him and his family. In befriending them, I arranged treatment for them in Akron, for him and his sister, who was injured and who was a triple amputee. They were the first injured Palestinian kids to come over. I was a landscaper — that’s what I did to survive. I would go and landscape three months, and then one month, during the winter, I would go to Palestine and work as a journalist. Well, I came back and brought these kids back. Meanwhile, landscaping in the day, and at night I was on TV doing news stories. There was news coverage about it, and it became a big story. And when they went back home walking again, other people came to me for help. And I started arranging treatment for other kids as well. And slowly, over time, started arranging treatment for lots of children for free in American hospitals. I started slowly to build an organization.

And that’s when I met my first wife, who was Palestinian and a social worker. So together, we built the organization and really made it a strong institution for 17 years and had two children, two daughters. Unfortunately, in 2009, she passed away from cancer. And I continued the legacy of building the organization and honoring her, we built the cancer hospital here in her name, in Bethlehem. We’ve expanded to bring thousands of doctors here from all over the world to treat patients, and really just run a very effective and efficient humanitarian relief organization on the ground. So, that’s the work that we do now.

We’re one of the main relief organizations in the world. And we are working hard to address the humanitarian needs of Palestinians either through providing medical care, getting doctors here, building up institutional support, whatever we can do, we’re doing it on the ground. So with that being said, I’m happy to answer your questions, and obviously, our office was bombed, we have a lot of challenges with working here under occupation, but we’re still able to do a lot and have a big impact. We’re really grateful for the support people give us.

How are you funded primarily? Is it institutional funding or mainly small donors or what?

It’s private donors, so it varies from small to big. But it’s all private donors. We don’t get government support. … We get a little foundation support. So we’re mostly privately funded from individuals. Mainly from the U.S.

So let’s fast forward now to in the last few months or in the last year. What have been some of your main initiatives and goals for the organization?

I mean, we’re trying to balance the urgent needs of the population on the ground and the humanitarian needs of people who are losing their homes or being injured or going without food. I mean, we had a huge Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon, we provide surgery for Syrian and Lebanese children in Jordan and Lebanon. We do a lot of humanitarian work within the borders of Palestine, and also, as I mentioned, in the refugee population on the border. So we’re responding to those needs. But also our goal is to build up long-term infrastructure in the health sector, and to have an impact in the Palestinian health sector by making it more sustainable, training doctors and so on. And that’s really what our focus is about right now, balancing those two areas.

Describe the health infrastructure in Gaza and the West Bank. Maybe they’re different. Maybe they’re similar. What’s the current situation? What are the challenges?

Well, they’re different in the sense that we have a very dysfunctional Palestinian political system here in the sense that we have the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which has international support, which gets funding from governments and donors all over the world, a health sector for all of their infrastructure. And then you have, in Gaza, the Ministry of Health run by Hamas, and they are isolated. The U.S. government brands them as a terrorist organization. Basically persona non grata on the world stage. They are very much unable to provide the resources and the development in the health sector or any other sector for that matter. So obviously, that’s reflected in the level and quality of care in the public health center.

However, the Ministery of Health in Ramallah does try to provide some services to the Ministry of Health, and it’s very dysfunctional. It’s very complicated, as to what extent the Ministry of Health in the West Bank is able to provide salary and material aid to the health sector in Gaza and what support the Ministry of Health in Gaza provides.

So, it’s complicated. But nonetheless, you can see there’s a very different level of quality as a result of the political circumstances on the ground. But that being said, the overall health and health sector is pretty undeveloped. It’s very challenging for them to develop a health sector when they are under occupation, when they don’t control the borders, when there is difficulty getting access to care, for patients to travel, for permission to move, for supplies to come in or, you know, even in Gaza the most basic things like electricity and clean water is cut off and difficult to find. So that makes things all very challenging and very difficult for the development of the health sector, particularly in the Gaza Strip, which has been under siege since 2006.

With the latest round of attacks, what have been the consequences of that from a health perspective?

Well, you have a huge number of casualties, civilians who are suffering traumatic injuries. So that obviously puts a huge burden on the health system. Then you have, let’s not forget, a global pandemic taking place, which already was stressing the Palestinian health sector significantly, trying to deal with Covid and people who are infected with Covid. And then you have normal everyday challenges of just providing health services to a very poor, overcrowded and underfunded population, underfunded health sector. And you combine all those factors together and you have a near collapse of health care. And the 11-day bombing campaign resulted in only further stress on what is already under stress.

Is PCRF treating any of the victims of that bombing campaign?

Most of the victims were transferred to Egypt and Jordan immediately. But when they come back, which they always do after these experiences, they usually come back, the amputees come back with amputations, we provide the prosthesis. Kids come back with surgery needing long-term medical treatment — reconstructive surgery or whatever — our surgery teams provide them care and we send them outside for treatment.

I think there were, you know, over 250 victims. Something like 60 of them were children.

They’re not injured. Those were killed. Thousands of injuries.

That’s what I was gonna ask, yeah. What’s the scale of this among children? Do you know?

We don’t have exact numbers yet. But we’re talking hundreds of children.

Are you the only show in town when it comes to prosthesis and long-term care for them?

For providing surgical intervention for these kids, we are the only game in town, if that’s what you want to call it, with bringing in small volunteer surgery teams and bringing kids out for treatment, yeah we are.

I think what was reported was that they were they were gunning for the health ministry across the street, which is already insane.

Yeah, it’s definitely a soft target.

Israel talks about their precision capabilities. So, did they miss and hit you? Or were they were they aiming at you?

No they hit the Ministry of Health as well.

And your office was collateral damage, do you suppose? Or do you have any thoughts on that?

Yeah. I don’t think we were targeted, but, I mean, does it matter?

What happens next? Will you rebuild there, relocate?

No, the office is destroyed, the building is destroyed. So I don’t think they’re going to be able to fix that, and probably have to tear it down or break off the top floors. We’re going to relocate.

What was your office there used for? Was it a medical facility? Or was it an administrative office?

No. It was an administrative office.

And how did you find out about it? What was the news that you learned?

People called the head of our office, our program manager, and I mean, it’s small, Gaza itself. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows what’s going on. So it wasn’t difficult to know, to find out.

Was it an off day? Or had they evacuated because of the bombings?

Yeah, we had evacuated. We had asked our team to stay at home.

What is the protocol when this sort of thing happens? Do people go to work? Or is it everyone basically sheltering in place? What is it like during a bombing campaign like that?

So yeah, people are sheltering in place. Obviously, there’s no place that’s safe, simply because, you’re talking about bombs coming on civilian targets, the city of Gaza. People don’t know what’s going to be hit. They’re just hoping it’s not going to be their home. But, you know, they’re staying out of harm’s way as much as they can. You know, being at home and so on.

So let’s talk about next steps. What are some your immediate goals and long-range goals for PCRF?

Well, I mean, our immediate goal is obviously to get back on the ground. We’re going to be able to continue our projects and programs. The long term is to be able to identify every child’s needs and medical care, not just in Gaza, but in the Middle East in general and arrange treatment for them, and humanitarian aid as well. So to continue to grow and be able to respond to the crisis throughout the region is our immediate goal. Our long-term goal is to continue to build up sustainable infrastructure projects that address deficiencies in the public health sector to enable a more independent and sustainable health system

Well, I wish you luck. Is there anything that you want to talk about that I didn’t bring up?

I think it’s just important for Americans to know that what’s happening here is being done with our support, with our tax money. And not only can that money we used to better improve the lives of Americans. But, you know, there are significant human rights and political issues that are being done in our name, which we should be aware of, and the killing of civilians, the bombing of relief organizations like ours should concern every American who is looking for our values as a democracy to be translated in our foreign policy. In addition to that, I hope people realize that we have a responsibility to stand with the Palestinians, not against Israel, but with the Palestinians for the sake of peace and justice in the Middle East.

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