THE picture has looked more shocking each day. Several layers of repressed, raw hatred — felt for decades by Palestinians and Israelis — have been painfully exposed in one of the worst weeks of violence that the Holy Land has endured in recent years.
A deadly chain-reaction of anger saw extensive clashes in Jerusalem sparking hundreds of volleys of rockets fired into Israel, intense Israeli retaliation against the Gaza Strip, and then ugly and alarming inter-communal violence where Arab and Jewish Israelis have shared urban space since the state’s creation in 1948.
By Friday, with the Palestinian death toll at more than 100 and that of Israelis approaching double figures, confrontations on the various fronts looked set to continue. Hamas fighters were sending more rockets into Israel, while the Israeli assault on Gaza, from land, sea, and air, was being escalated.
An Israeli military invasion was still on the cards. Such a move, the head the Christian Aid Middle East desk, William Bell, warned, would see casualty figures soar “and take us into the depths of hell”.
For Israel, one of the most disturbing elements is the way in which Palestinians living inside the country (about 20 per cent of the total population) rioted in solidarity with those in the West Bank. Groups of Jewish Israelis were not slow to confront the protesters, leading to scenes of street violence in towns like Lod, Jaffa, and Acre that would have been unimaginable a few days ago.
As the Jerusalem Post observed: “The delicate and vastly imperfect coexistence that has existed between Jewish and Arab Israelis for the last 73 years now risks fraying beyond recognition.”
Efforts to repair that fabric can begin only when the violence ends. Appeals from the United Nations, the United States, leading European powers, and countries further afield have had no effect. This looks like a conflict that will continue until each side feels able to claim victory, no matter how high the civilian cost.
The cycle of violence began last weekend with drawn-out clashes at al-Aqsa Mosque, as ultra-nationalist Israelis sought to enter the area. Meanwhile, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, there was more violence as Israeli security forces encountered resistance as they tried to evict Palestinian families. These events unfolded as the end of the Islamic sacred month of Ramadan approached. The atmosphere was charged on both sides.
While Palestinian leaders insist that innocent civilians praying at al-Aqsa or trying to go about their lives in Sheikh Jarrah were targeted, the Israeli authorities said the violence was the work of Palestinian agitators.
On Monday evening, the 14 Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in the Holy Land, including the Anglican Archbishop, issued a joint statement saying: “These concerning developments, whether at al-Aqsa Mosque or Sheikh Jarrah, violate the sanctity of the people of Jerusalem and Jerusalem as the City of Peace. The actions undermining the safety of worshippers and the dignity of the Palestinians who are subject to eviction are unacceptable.” (News, 12 May)
The church leaders called on the international community and “all people of good will to intervene in order to put an end to these provocative actions”.
On Thursday, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC), the Most Revd Michael Curry, said: “Enough is enough. . . The expansion of Israeli settlements at the expense of Palestinian families must end.”
Bishop Curry said that TEC encouraged the US government and others “who have influence, who are of goodwill and who genuinely seek peace to be partners in peacemaking”, to bring about a negotiated settlement to the long-standing conflict consuming both Israelis and Palestinians.
Among international church bodies calling for an end to the violence are the World Council of Churches and the World Methodist Council. Pope Francis said last weekend: “I invite everyone to seek shared solutions, so that the multi-religious and multi-cultural identity of the Holy City might be respected and that fraternity might prevail. . . Violence generates only violence.”