THE killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza by Israeli troops must be “condemned unequivocally”, Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops said on Tuesday.
“Israel has a right to defend itself but also has the moral and legal responsibility not to use disproportionate force and not to prevent the injured from receiving medical treatment,” the RC Bishop of Clifton, the Rt Revd Declan Lang, who chairs the Holy Land Co-ordination, and the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, said. “The terrible loss of life in Gaza caused by the Israeli army's use of live fire against civilians is to be condemned unequivocally.”
Health agencies report that 62 people were killed and 2771 wounded in the bloodiest day to date of the “Great March of Return” demonstrations, which began six weeks ago and have gathered thousands of Palestinians, including women, children, and the elderly.
The Israeli army fired live ammunition and tear gas, prompting condemnation from charities and the United Nations. The youngest to die was an eight-month-old baby, who died after inhaling tear gas, her family said, an account disputed by the Israeli army. On Wednesday, Hamas said that 50 of the dead had been its members.
“The rules on the use of force under international law have been repeated many times, but appear to have been ignored again and again,” a spokesman, Rupert Colville, said on behalf the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “It seems anyone is liable to be shot dead or injured: women, children, press personnel, first responders, bystanders, and at almost any point up to 700 metres from the fence.”
The protest on Monday coincided with the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, but the March began in protest against the eleven-year blockade of Gaza and the displacement of Palestinians from their homes.
Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians, in 1948, recalled as the nakba (“catastrophe”). Israel has accused Hamas, and other militant groups, of using the protests as a pretext to infiltrate Israel and carry out terrorist attacks.
“Every country has an obligation to defend its borders,” the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said on Twitter on Monday. “The Hamas terrorist organisation declares it intends to destroy Israel and sends thousands to breach the border fence in order to achieve this goal. We will continue to act with determination to protect our sovereignty and citizens.”
At a press briefing on Monday, a White House spokesman said that “the responsibility for these tragic deaths rests squarely with Hamas. Hamas is intentionally and cynically provoking this response. . . Israel has the right to defend itself.”
Mr Colville noted that demonstrators had approached the border fence, thrown stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli security forces, and flown kites laden with petrol-soaked material. Some had tried to damage the separation fence or burnt tires.
This did not justify the Israeli response, he said, which had been to unleash “tear gas, plastic bullets and various types of live ammunition, some causing horrific wounds and lifelong disability. We stress, again, that lethal force may only be used as a measure of last — not first — resort, and only when there is an immediate threat to life or serious injury.”
Christian Aid’s head of Middle East Policy, William Bell, said that the “vast majority” of those protesting were doing so “because they refuse to live any longer in despair and without dignity. . . The people who are now dying are paying the price for an apparent international indifference and disregard by Israel for the basic rights of Palestinians.”
He went on: “Each struggle has its own unique history, but many have pivotal moments when ordinary people pay an extraordinary price in their pursuit of peace and justice. Sharpeville in 1960, Bloody Sunday in 1972, Tahrir Square 2011 — these names and dates have become synonymous with attacks on people exercising their right to protest, on their quest for freedom and equality.
“Will Gaza in 2018 become that moment in history when the world finally woke up and recognised the legitimate rights of Palestinians — not to displace Israelis or deny them their rights, but to live alongside them as equals with dignity and respect?”
Of those injured, 1360 were wounded by live fire, 400 from shrapnel, and 980 from gas inhalation. Mr Colville was among those highlighting the impact on the already crumbling health-care system in Gaza (News, 16 February).
A statement from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which is treating the wounded, said that it was “unbearable to witness such a massive number of unarmed people being shot in such a short time”. It said that 91 per cent of trauma patients were shot in the legs, many at close range, and that several would be disabled for life.
“Most of our wounded patients say they have nothing to lose, no hope, no jobs, nothing,” MSF’s executive director in the United States, Jason Cone, said. “They tell our staff that they just want to go back and die at protest sites.” Hamas leaders in Gaza must “cease encouraging any kind of violence and glorifying ‘martyrdom’”, he said. The divide between the group and the Palestinian Authority was “more painful today for the population than ever”.
On Wednesday, Hazem Qasem, a spokesman for Hamas confirmed that it had refused medical supplies from Israel: “The occupation is trying to show that it has a human face, which is wrong. These trucks carrying these medical supplies are covered with Palestinian blood,”
Among the centres treating the wounded is the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, Gaza, part of the Episcopal diocese in Jerusalem, noted by the Archbishop of Canterbury on Twitter on Tuesday. “Grieving the tragic loss of life in Gaza and praying for the peacemakers. The Anglican Church is committed to serve the people of Gaza through the extraordinary work of the hospitals I was able to visit there last year.”
The Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, the Most Revd Suheil Dawani, said on Friday that the hospital had been “working around the clock” to serve the injured. “The wounded coming to our hospital have no money, but no one is ever turned away,” he said. Most had been injured from live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas intoxication. “I appeal to all our friends around the world to give generously to this humanitarian crisis, as we, the Church, the hands of Jesus in this place, respond to this tragedy in love and compassion to the wounded.”
On Tuesday, Stephen Tunstall, Programmes and Partnerships Manager for Palestine and Israel at Embrace the Middle East, which helps to fund the hospital, said that, since the beginning of the March, it had received 35 referrals of the injured. The hospital had added another 30 inpatient beds and opened another operating theatre in response.
Christians in Gaza were “absolutely” sympathetic to those involved in the march, he said, given that their suffering was the same as that of their Muslim neighbours. The protest was being driven, he said, by the failure to fulfil UN resolution 194. This states that Palestinian refugees wishing to return home “should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return”.
The humanitarian situation was “continually in decline”, he said. On his latest visit, he had noticed a significant increase in begging on the streets, “one of the most obvious signs that levels of poverty and desperation are unprecedented”.
A statement from Embrace issued on Tuesday evening said that “no amount of pointing the finger at Hamas can explain how and why innocent children have been shot hundreds of yards from the heavily fortified fence dividing Israel from Gaza. The responsibility for that lies squarely with the government of Israel, and it must be held to account for any breaches of international law.”
It called on the UK to insist on a thorough investigation “by an appropriate independent authority, under the auspices of the UN”.
The events of Monday marked “a new low in a long and profoundly dispiriting cycle of violence and contempt for human life that is becoming the shameful hallmark of Israel’s treatment of the people of Gaza, supported implicitly by some in the international community.”
Among those in need of prayer were “those whose judgement or conscience is troubled by actions they might rather not carry out.”
The Chair and Chief Executive of Embrace are among 27 Jewish and Christian signatories to a letter sent by the Council of Christians and Jews on Tuesday to the Hand in Hand schools, which bring together thousands of Jews and Arabs in six schools in Israel. It hails them as “a powerful example of a shared society in action” and “evidence that hope for peace can still become a reality”.
The National Young Women’s Christian Institute of Palestine said that the Great March of Return was about the “right to a future with dignity and freedom”. It called on partners to support “the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, which include their right to self-determination and right of return”.
On Wednesday, Kairos Palestine, a Christian Palestinian movement (Interviews, 9 September, 2016), issued a statement calling on churches to “be the conscience of humanity and hear the cry of the oppressed in the Holy Land. . . to condemn the Christian Zionists whom we saw in these days, contradicting the Gospel of love and peace, by supporting oppression and injustice, under the pretext of prophecies, and standing with the powerful of this world in their injustices.”
Last year, the National Coalition of Christian Organizations in Palestine condemned Israel’s “systemic assault on Palestinian creative resistance” and urged churches to offer “costly solidarity”. It warned: “We are on the verge of a catastrophic collapse.”
CAFOD’s Middle Eastern country representative, Mary Lucas, said on Tuesday that it was “unacceptable” that 4.7 million Palestinians, including almost two million in Gaza, were living under occupation, and that the blockade had resulted in “siege-like conditions, with food, medicines, and fuel running critically low”.
In the House of Lords on Tuesday, the Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said that the defence of Israel’s interests “must offer tangible hope to those with whom it hopes to engage in dialogue”. He asked: “What real substantial hope can be given to those who live in what is effectively a vast open prison?”
The UK Government continues to advocate a two-state solution, a position echoed in the Bishops’ statement. But it was described by Christian Aid on Monday as having “all but failed”.
Writing in The New York Times on Monday, Ahmed Abu Ratima, who helped organised the Great Return March, said that he did not regret it. “Our struggle previously was between armed Palestinian fighters and Israeli snipers, tanks and F-16s,” he wrote. “Now, it is a struggle between the occupation and peaceful protesters — men and women, young and old.”
They had tried to discourage protesters from attempting to cross into Israel, he said. “However, we can’t stop them. It is the action of an imprisoned people yearning for freedom, one of the strongest motivations in human nature.”
Read our Leader Comment this week on the erupting violence
PLUS, Paul Vallely on President Trump’s unhelpful relationship with Israel