JERUSALEM — Christians on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border have been affected by the war being fought between Israel and Palestinian militants.

In Israel, Christians who live in the areas hit by more than 350 Palestinian rockets in recent weeks have been forced to seek refuge in bomb shelters. In the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which has sustained Israeli airstrikes aimed at destroying Palestinian rockets and rocket launchers, the strip’s small Christian community is trying to cope with the violence.

Palestinian militants have launched more than 10,000 rockets at Israel since 2003 — 8,000 of them since Israel uprooted settlements and military from Gaza in 2005. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in the latest round of fighting in Gaza, which lacks civilian bomb shelters. In Israel, where every building and many homes have a shelter, there have been injuries and one reported fatality.  

In 2006, Hamas, which the United States and Israel define as a terrorist organization, staged a violent coup against the Fatah faction (formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement) and has ruled the territory ever since.

Tensions between Israel and Hamas have escalated dramatically this summer, following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, who Israel is convinced were killed by Hamas operatives. The day after their July 1 burial, a Palestinian teen was murdered, apparently by Jews seeking to avenge the teens’ deaths.  

Rockets were then launched into Israel, and Israel retaliated. Hostilities have intensified ever since.

At press time, the sides resumed hostilities July 17 after a five-hour truce, when Israel launched a ground incursion into Gaza.

Shared Suffering
Issa Tarazi, executive director of the Near East Council of Churches, told the Register that the airstrikes on Gaza “are affecting all Christians and Muslims; Christians suffer the same as all the other people of Gaza, the same threats and the same stress.”

There are 1,013 Christians living in Gaza, he said, living alongside nearly 2 million Muslims.

Tarazi said that electricity in Gaza “is coming and going. It can be on for one hour and off for several more.”

People “are afraid to walk around” due to the airstrikes. “Shops are closed, governmental offices and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and the private sector are closed.”

Although Gazans stocked up on food before the airstrikes, there could be shortages if the fighting continues, Tarazi said.

The administrator said that Gazans need many things, but first and foremost “prayer and an end to the war on Gaza.” He said many homes have been destroyed and that many people have been forced to flee their homes.

He asked the international community to send or fund medication and medical supplies and to ensure that the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt — which Egypt’s government opened to enable injured Gazans to seek medical care — remains open. Egypt’s government, which opposes Islamic fundamentalism, had kept the border mostly closed in recent months.

The World Health Organization has called on the international community to fund help for Gazans.

“The Palestinian Ministry of Health has reported that they are unable to maintain adequate medicine stocks due to chronic outstanding debts,” the U.N. health organization told donors.
 
Calls for Peace
While there is no humanitarian crisis in Israel, the country is on a war footing.

Father David Neuhaus, patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, emphasized that Christians are suffering along with their neighbors both in Israel and Gaza, “even though they are not targeted for being Christians,” something that is occurring elsewhere in the Middle East.

“We have a parish in Beersheva and many, many other places that have been affected by the rocket fire,” Father Neuhaus said of the hundreds of rockets that have pummeled the south and center of the country.

“We have tens of thousands of Christians living in Tel Aviv,” including indigenous Arab Christians, asylum seekers and foreign workers.

The Justice and Peace Commission of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in the Holy Land criticized leaders on both sides and called for an end to hostilities and peace talks in a July 8 declaration.

“To these we also say: Violence as a response to violence breeds only more violence. A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more,” the statement said, invoking the words of the prophet Jeremiah.

The leaders said that the faces of some of the victims of the conflict “are well known because the media have covered their lives in detail … whereas others — by far more numerous — are mere statistics, nameless and faceless.”

The assembly charged that the “selective coverage, mourning and memory are themselves part of the cycle of violence,” and it prayed that “those who have fallen recently will be the last to die violent deaths in this escalation of hatred and vengeance.”

The leaders said that many in positions of power and political leadership “remain entrenched, not only unwilling to enter into any real and meaningful process of dialogue, but also pouring oil on the fire with words and acts that nurture the conflict.”

The assembly said both Israelis and the Palestinians bear responsibility for their plight.

Israeli leaders, it said, “believe that the occupation can be victorious by crushing the will of the people for freedom and dignity” and that “the violent language of the Palestinian street … calls for vengeance,” fed by “the attitudes and expressions of those who have despaired of any hope to reach a just solution to the conflict through negotiations.”

And in a clear reference to Hamas, the assembly said, “Those who seek to build a totalitarian, monolithic society, in which there is no room for any difference or diversity, gain popular support, exploiting this situation of hopelessness.”

Calling attention to the role of religious leaders in the area, the assembly affirmed that it is their task “to speak a prophetic language that reveals the alternatives beyond the cycle of hatred and violence.”

The declaration concluded by pointing out how this language “opens up the possibility of seeing each one as brother or sister.”
 
Pope Francis
Quoting Pope Francis’ speech at the June 8 Invocation for Peace at the Vatican Gardens, the declaration affirmed, “We have heard a summons, and we must respond. It is the summons to break the spiral of hatred and violence and to break it by one word alone: the word ‘brother.’

“But to be able to utter this word, we have to lift our eyes to heaven and acknowledge one another as children of one Father.”


Michele Chabin
writes from Jerusalem.
Catholic News Agency
contributed to this report.