Israel-Hamas Conflict Escalates: Catholic Aid Groups Face Daunting Challenge in Gaza

ANALYSIS: The escalation of the conflict between Israel and Islamic militants of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad underscores the growing vulnerability of local civilians and Church institutions.

Nuns comfort a Palestinian woman as she mourns the death of a relative, killed in Israeli airstrikes that hit a church, during a funeral service in Gaza City, Friday, Oct. 20, 2023.
Nuns comfort a Palestinian woman as she mourns the death of a relative, killed in Israeli airstrikes that hit a church, during a funeral service in Gaza City, Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (photo: Abed Khaled / AP )

When an Israeli airstrike hit the Greek Orthodox church compound in Gaza City on Oct. 19, it was the dinner hour. Hundreds of mostly Christian Palestinians who had relocated to the grounds of St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church, as the Israel-Hamas conflict escalated, were receiving their evening meal. 

Sami Tarazi, the project coordinator for the Pontifical Mission-Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), in Jerusalem, which assists with church-building, repairs, pastoral outreach and leadership formation, was among the throng of displaced Palestinians when the Israeli missile hit a building in the church compound.

Men, women and children were buried under the rubble of the collapsed building, and both of Tarazi’s parents were among the 18 Palestinians who died that night, while his sister lost her child.

“The pain of those families, who have already been suffering for a long time, is enormous, and we are with them,” the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, told Italian Catholic television network TV2000.

The Israeli military confirmed that it had ordered the airstrike that damaged the compound and said the actual target was a Hamas command and control center located nearby. Israel has steadily increased its airstrikes on the militant Islamic organization’s positions in Gaza’s urban neighborhoods, after ordering the evacuation of more than 1 million people, some of whom have sought refuge on church properties. 

The loss of life and structural damage sustained at the historic church compound came just two days after a larger explosion rocked another vital Christian institution in Gaza — the Al-Ahli Hospital — which killed hundreds of Palestinians who had sought shelter in the hospital’s inner courtyard. 

In that instance, Israel and Hamas traded blame for the Oct. 17 blast, while President Joe Biden cited U.S. intelligence reports that said an errant missile fired by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another militant group in Gaza, caused the explosion.

As the Israel-Hamas conflict heats up, the two deadly explosions underscore the growing vulnerability of local civilians and church institutions, as Hamas has established its military posts in densely crowded neighborhoods, placing civilians and civil institutions at greater risk. Likewise, the surge in fatalities has revealed the enormous challenges that international aid organizations must face as they press for an unimpeded flow of emergency supplies into Gaza, which is short of drinking water, medicine and fuel.

In an Oct. 19 address to the nation, Biden committed to sending $100 million in humanitarian assistance to provide emergency supplies to Gaza and the West Bank, even as he endorsed Israel’s right to self-defense and pledged to provide additional military aid.

Days later, in an Oct. 22 phone call with Pope Francis, Biden restated his commitment to humanitarian assistance for Palestinians, while both discussed the need to “protect civilians in Gaza” and “prevent escalation [of the conflict] in the region,” according to a White House summary of the 20-minute telephone conversation

More Dangerous

Far from the corridors of power, the situation on the ground in Gaza’s densely packed urban neighborhoods has only become more dangerous over the past three weeks, and Catholic agencies are struggling to operate safely and keep their doors open.

“As of now, our staff in Gaza cannot return to work,” said Nadine Bahbah, a spokeswoman for Caritas Jerusalem, which provides health-care services through a medical center and mobile clinics. “The Israeli shelling is 24/7. The security situation in the West Bank is shaken.” 

“Resistance and demonstrations against the war [are taking place] all over the West Bank,” she told the Register in an email message from Jerusalem, adding that “checkpoints to and from the West Bank are closed.”

Bahbah reported that the explosion at the Greek Orthodox church compound took the life of a Caritas lab technician, Viola Amash. Five members of Amash’s immediate family were also killed when the building collapsed.

Since 2014, the Christian community in Gaza — primarily Greek Orthodox — has declined from 13,000 to just 1,100, or 0.05% of the Muslim-majority enclave of 2.3 million. But Christian medical, social and educational institutions, serving people of all faiths, continue to play an outsized role nonetheless. 

Now, as Israel continues its campaign of airstrikes designed to neutralize Hamas militants and destroy their military infrastructure, the collateral damage to these vital Christian institutions has hampered their ability to serve the needy.Seventeen Christian institutions in Gaza have closed their doors, Joseph Hazboun, regional director of CNEWA-Jerusalem, told the Register. The Al-Ahli Arab Hospital was the exception, he said.

“In addition to providing medical services to the patients and to the victims of the war, the hospital hosted over 5,000 refugees. This is the reason why the blast killed close to 500 people instantly and injured over a thousand more,” Hazboun said. The Israeli military has ordered more than 1 million Palestinians to evacuate their neighborhoods and move to the southern half of the territory, but many say they can’t or won’t leave the area. Vulnerable Palestinians are unable to travel, and others fear that if they leave now, they won’t be able to return. 

Indeed, the majority of the Gaza Strip’s residents know well the stories of family members who left their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War for what they thought would be a temporary exile. But later, they could not return home because the land was part of the state of Israel. And now they fear the same trauma could be repeated, with Israel preventing their return after its ground invasion is completed.

Hazboun reported that an estimated 3,000 Gazans have relocated to the Arab Orthodox Cultural Center, and hundreds more have found shelter at the Latin and Orthodox schools and the YMCA. 

Holy Family Catholic Church

After the explosion at the St. Porphyrius Church compound, some Christians shifted to the neighboring Holy Family Catholic Church, where more than 500 people were already sheltering. 

Tents have been set up at Holy Family Church to accommodate the overflow. Cardinal Pizzaballa, for his part, has said that the Christians in Gaza could remain on the grounds of Holy Family Church, “because they don’t know where [else] to go and then because they say that no place in the Gaza Strip is safe.” 

And as Church officials hunker down for the long haul, Catholic organizations, such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), have begun to adapt to a new normal. For now, at least, they are prioritizing emergency services over long-term investments in the local Catholic community. “We had committed to supporting the Holy Rosary Sisters in repairing their school in Gaza, which had already been damaged” in the Israel-Hamas conflict, ACN spokeswoman Maria Lozano told Catholic News Agency, but that critical project has been put “on hold.” 

The sisters’ school, Lozano noted, “is located in a neighborhood that has been heavily bombarded. They need medicine and food.”

Likewise, the complex security situation has hamstrung the work of international aid organizations, and Sean Callahan, the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, told the Register that the U.S. bishops’ agency had advocated for a cease-fire and a continuous flow of emergency assistance to the enclave. However, the first convoy of trucks transporting food, water and medicines did not receive permission to pass through the Egypt-Gaza border at Rafah until Oct. 21, and since then, only a trickle of supplies has reached Gaza.

The delay was the result of protracted negotiations over security concerns that involved representatives of Israel, Egypt, the United Nations and the U.S.

Additional Hurdles

Going forward, the global effort to relieve the suffering in Gaza will face additional hurdles. The U.N. and other relief agencies must comply with strict regulations designed to screen aid shipments and track the transport of emergency supplies to the intended recipient. To ensure accountability and prevent corruption, similar requirements are generally applied to the movement of humanitarian supplies across the globe. However, these rules are especially tough to enforce in Gaza. Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, has governed the territory since 2007, when it seized control from the Palestinian Authority. 

Hamas also runs the health ministry in Gaza, and in that capacity it has issued a stream of reports on Palestinian fatalities caused by Israeli airstrikes that have been challenged by Tel Aviv.

Biden has publicly acknowledged U.S. concerns regarding Hamas’ oversight of emergency relief. “The United States remains committed to ensuring that civilians in Gaza will continue to have access to food, water, medical care, and other assistance, without diversion by Hamas,” Biden posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Israel raised similar concerns as it challenged efforts to include fuel in emergency shipments to Gaza. 

Hamas “has raised tens of millions of dollars by skimming off humanitarian assistance,” stated an Oct. 19 report in The Wall Street Journal

“The flow of money illustrates the conundrum Israel and the West have faced since” Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip: “How to support Palestinian civilians in Gaza without empowering a group promoting violence against Israel,” stated the Journal's report. 

Previously, the U.N., Israel and the Palestinian Authority developed an oversight program that carefully tracked “dual-use” materials, such as cement or steel, which could be tapped for the construction of tunnels into Israel. 

Accountability and Transparency

CRS’ Sean Callahan emphasized the need for accountability and transparency in the provision of aid in Gaza during an Oct. 24 interview with the Register. 

Callahan confirmed that CRS diligently complied with rules designed to prevent aid from getting into the wrong hands, even as the agency scrambled to maintain assistance to the most vulnerable: the disabled, women-led households and the elderly.

CRS has worked for years with local Church partners in Gaza, he said, and will continue to do so under the difficult conditions of this present moment. While CRS does not contest the need for accountability in the provision of emergency assistance, the U.N., Doctors Without Borders and other aid groups have pushed back hard against Israel’s efforts to restrict certain supplies, particularly fuel.

On Oct. 23, the U.N. warned that fuel reserves in Gaza would run out within days if they were not replenished. The international body emphasized that desalination plants, local hospitals that depend on generators, and the distribution of humanitarian aid would all be severely affected.

Yet aid groups are well aware that the humanitarian situation could dramatically worsen, if and when Israel launches a ground invasion into Gaza to eradicate Hamas. Hamas is understood to have built an extensive network of tunnels and bunkers below Gaza City, where Hamas gunmen are waiting and preparing for battle.There are also fears that other Islamic militias could step up attacks on Israel, and the conflict could spread from Gaza to the West Bank and Lebanon, where Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group backed by Iran and Hamas’ ally, can marshal its large supply of precision-guided missiles and ground forces. 

Throughout much of October, Israeli and Hezbollah forces exchanged fire, while civil unrest has been steadily building in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War and which is governed by the Palestinian Authority. 

With its brutal Oct. 7 attack, Hamas sought to “engulf Israel in a two- or three-front war,” including the Lebanese border, as well as the West Bank, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told Reuters on Oct. 20.

Widening Foreign-Policy Crisis

The U.S. and its allies have pressed Israel to put a possible ground invasion of Gaza on hold as negotiations continue for the release of Israeli hostages abducted by Hamas on Oct. 7 and to give time for more aid shipment to enter Gaza and for Washington to shore up Israel’s defenses.

But by the close of October, Biden and U.S. military officials were also forced to address a widening foreign-policy crisis, as a slew of Iran-backed regional militias launched drone and rocket attacks on U.S. personnel and military resources in the Middle East.

“The United States does not seek conflict with Iran; we do not want this war to widen,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated during an Oct. 24 U.N. meeting. And on the same day that Blinken vowed the U.S. would “swiftly and decisively” respond to attacks on U.S. personnel, Cardinal Pizzaballa issued a letter to his stricken flock in the Holy Land that condemned the atrocities committed by Hamas and the carnage wrought by Israel’s campaign of retaliatory airstrikes. 

The Latin patriarch urged both sides to agree to a cease-fire and begin to tackle the “root” causes of the conflict.

Further, the cardinal’s letter offered solace to Sami Tarazi and other Palestinian Christians sheltering on Church property, quoting Christ’s words during his passion: 

“I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have tribulations, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

“Even in the turmoil to come, the disciples will be able to have peace,” said the cardinal. “This is not a matter of theoretical irenic peace, nor of resignation to the fact that the world is evil, and we can do nothing to change it.” 

Rather, he concluded, “it is about having the assurance that precisely within all this evil, Jesus has already won.”