Local Christians Discuss Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: ‘It Is Deeply Sad’
While Holy Land Christians differ regarding which side is more to blame for the latest eruption of violence, they agree the actions of both sides are bringing misery to millions of civilians.
JERUSALEM — Christians in the Holy Land have taken sides in the most recent escalation between Israelis and Palestinians — but not necessarily the same sides.
The churches who serve mostly local Palestinian Christians have publicly blamed Israel for what they consider to be ongoing Israeli aggression against Palestinians.
In contrast, a Jerusalem-based international evangelical Christian organization believes that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are the instigators and are donating bomb shelters to Israeli towns under attack. And some, like Hebrew-speaking Christians and Christian foreign workers in Israel, view the conflict in broader terms.
In a May 12 statement, the Middle East Council of Churches said that Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights is the root cause of the conflict, which escalated this month from local Jerusalem protests to a war between Hamas and Israel that has resulted in casualties on both sides.
“Lifting the occupation of the Palestinian people [so they can enjoy] their freedom, dignity and full rights” is the only way to achieve lasting stability and peace in the region, the MECC said.
“Violence only generates violence, and hatred only leads to more hatred, racial discrimination only makes revolution, and extremism only breeds extremism, and deprivation only engenders uprising,” the MECC continued.
In a May 9 statement issued before Hamas launched rockets into Israel, the patriarchs and heads of churches of Jerusalem likewise blamed Israel for the tensions in Jerusalem.
The “concerning developments” at the al-Aqsa mosque and in Sheikh Jarrah “violate the sanctity of the people of Jerusalem and of Jerusalem as the City of Peace.” The actions “undermine” the safety of worshippers and the dignity of the Palestinians who are subject to eviction,” the statement said.
“The growing tension, backed mainly by [Jewish] right-wing radical groups, endangers the already fragile reality in and around Jerusalem,” the leaders said.
Roots of the Conflict
The most recent violence is just the latest in decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians and other Arabs actively lobbied against the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and waged unsuccessful wars against Israel in 1948 and 1967.
The latest unrest has been building up for months.
Young Palestinians in East Jerusalem assaulted religious Jews and posted the attacks on social media. Right-wing Jewish extremists marched in Jerusalem, yelling, “Death to Arabs.”
Tensions quickly escalated in May, after Israeli police tried to evict Palestinians living in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Based on a law that allows displaced Jews, but not displaced Palestinians, to reclaim the homes they lost during war, an Israeli court ruled that the Sheikh Jarrah properties be returned to Jewish Israelis.
The Palestinian residents, who have lived in the homes for decades, refused to leave, and their determination sparked widespread Palestinian demonstrations and international solidarity.
During Ramadan, when tensions in the Holy Land were especially high, Israeli police entered the al-Aqsa mosque and fought stone-throwing Palestinians with stun grenades and rubber bullets. Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, retaliated by launching missiles at Jerusalem.
Israel struck back at Hamas, which the U.S. and European Union consider a terrorist organization. By Wednesday, Hamas had launched nearly 3,700 rockets and missiles at Israel, resulting in at least 13 civilian deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Israeli airstrikes, aimed at Hamas military targets located inside Palestinian neighborhoods, resulted in the deaths of more than 200 people, many of them civilians, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health.
As the intense fighting raged, thousands of Arabs and Jews in Israel attacked each other and their property. Some are calling it the start of a civil war.
Effect on Local Christians
While noting the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, where unemployment is 50% and electricity is spotty, Sami El-Yousef, CEO of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, said both Hamas and Israel are bringing misery to millions of civilians.
“There is a clear competition between both sides as to who can inflict more damage and score more points within their constituencies irrespective of the suffering to ordinary citizens,” El-Yousef wrote on the Latin Patriarchate’s website.
El-Yousef said Gaza’s tiny Christian community has been deeply affected by the fighting.
“The Rosary Sisters convent and kindergarten have sustained damages, as there was repeated bombing on the street outside their property. The sisters have not slept in … days and have refused to leave their dangerous premises in order to protect the school. They are tired and traumatized and resolved that they will accept any fate that awaits them.”
Apartments belonging to the Christian community have sustained damage, El-Yousef said.
The parish priest of Gaza, Father Gabriel Romanelli, along with Father Yousef Saad, “have been doing a heroic effort being in constant touch with all his parishioners trying to assess damages, visiting the elderly and sick, holding Masses, and putting his own life at risk to perform his pastoral duties and comfort people,” El-Yousef said.
“These are the heroes of Gaza whom we have an obligation to support and offer every help possible as soon as the situation stabilizes,” El-Yousef said.
Catholics in Israel have also been deeply affected by the conflict. In addition to Israel’s small Hebrew-speaking Catholic community, the country is home to tens of thousands of Catholic foreign workers and migrants. Hamas rockets have killed three foreign workers in the past week.
“We have congregations in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tiveria, Beersheva and Tel-Aviv/Jaffa,” said Father Rafic Nahra, patriarchal vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics and the coordinator of pastoral care of migrants in Israel.
While Jerusalem has been hit with nightly riots, Hamas has launched hundreds of rockets at Beersheva and Tel Aviv/Jaffa. Most were destroyed by Israel’s anti-rocket system, but some landed on homes and schools.
“People are afraid to leave their homes, to travel in buses near [Arab] villages,” he noted.
Father Nahra said that in addition to safety concerns, the war has been “catastrophic” economically for Israel’s migrants.
“We run daycare centers for migrant parents with babies because they need to work all the time so they can live and send money home to their families” in Asia or Africa. “For several days, people weren’t able to work, and we had to close our daycare centers to ensure the children’s safety,” Father Nahra said.
Perhaps most difficult of all has been the violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, Father Nahra said.
“All the work done to build relations between the communities over the years has been burned in two or three days. There have been so many provocations on both sides.”
Father Nahra said, “It is deeply sad.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent. She writes from Jerusalem.