THREE Palestinian church leaders arrived in Washington, DC, on Monday with a letter that urged the US President, Joe Biden, to push for a permanent ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict.
The letter, signed by representatives of churches in Bethlehem, reads: “God has placed political leaders in a position of power so that they can bring justice, support those who suffer, and be instruments of God’s peace. We want a constant and comprehensive ceasefire. Enough death. Enough destruction. This is a moral obligation.”
“I truly believe that God is in solidarity with those who are victims of injustice and oppression, and thus the church should have the same position,” the Revd Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, in Bethlehem, told the Religion News Service on Monday. “God is under the rubble. . . Killing children like this can never bring peace.”
On Thursday, a “humanitarian pause” in the fighting entered its seventh day. It was described by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, as “a glimpse of hope and humanity in the middle of the darkness of war.”
The deal, facilitated by Egypt, Qatar, and the United States, entailed the release of hostages seized by Hamas during the 7 October attack, in exchange for Palestinian women and children held by Israel. As of Thursday morning, 97 Israeli hostages and 180 Palestinian prisoners had been released.
The hostages released include Emily Hand, a nine-year-old Irish-Israeli girl, whose father, Richard, had made an appeal at the Israeli embassy in London (News, 24 November), and Abigail Edan, a four-year-old who was orphaned in the attacks. On Wednesday, Hamas said that Shiri Bibas and her sons, Kfir, aged ten months, and Ariel, aged four, had been killed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza. Israel said that it was seeking to verify this.
Last week, Noam Saghi, a psychologist living in London whose mother remains a hostage, told The Times that waiting for news was “like a Russian roulette to the heart”. Meirav Leshem Gonen, who has a photo on her phone of her daughter, Romi, hiding from Hamas terrorists at the Supernova music festival on 7 October, has spent four hours on the phone to her daughter during the attack. She said that “getting a call every night to say ‘No’ — it’s a new torture.”
Israel has said that it will extend the ceasefire by one day for every ten additional hostages released. The deal follows relentless campaigning by family members.
Last week, Christian Aid said that the pause “falls far short of the permanent ceasefire necessary to provide desperately needed supplies”. William Bell, its head of Middle East policy and advocacy, said: “Any news that the bombing will stop, albeit temporarily, and hostages released is good news.
“We hope it will be some respite to Palestinian civilians in Gaza surviving through relentless bombardment and allow some much-needed aid into Gaza. However, it’s absolutely wrong that all hostages have not been immediately released.
“Let’s be clear, this is not a ceasefire. This is a pause in fighting. Christian Aid maintains that only a permanent ceasefire can safely deliver the scale of humanitarian aid required for the millions who have been displaced, without medical relief and are dealing with the traumatising effects of this siege.
“A humanitarian pause alone risks a pause, bomb, pause, bomb scenario. That is dehumanising, unacceptable and offers little room for hope or the conditions to achieve a lasting peace.
“All world leaders with influence should press for a full and permanent ceasefire to come into effect immediately. It remains the only serious option to avert further loss of civilian life and deepening this humanitarian catastrophe.”
On Sunday, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said that Israel had three goals for the war: “eliminating Hamas, returning all our hostages, and ensuring that Gaza does not become a threat to the State of Israel again”, The Times reported.
“We will continue until the end, until victory. Nothing will stop us, and we are convinced that we have the power, the strength, the will and the determination to achieve all the war’s goals, and we will.”
Since last Friday, hundreds of trucks have entered Gaza, carrying aid — including food, tents, blankets, and bottled water — to shelters in the north, which had been cut off from humanitarian aid since 7 November. Fuel has also been delivered. In total, more than 2000 trucks have entered since the start of the conflict. The humanitarian situation remains bleak, however: diarrhoea and respiratory infections are among threats to public health. In some UN shelters, 400 people have to share one toilet. The World Health Organization has warned that disease may exceed bombing as a cause of deaths.
On Tuesday, a UNICEF spokesman, James Elder, said that a doctor at Al Shifa Hospital, in the north, was “terrified as a medical professional in terms of the disease outbreak that is lurking here and how that will devastate children whose immune systems and lack of food . . . is making them perilously weak.”
Reflecting on his visit to Gaza, Mr Elder described people “with horrendous wounds of war, [lying] in carparks on makeshift mattresses, in gardens everywhere, doctors having to make horrendous decisions on who they prioritise”.
He had met one boy who had lost a foot and had been trying for four days to reach the south by bus: “The smell [of decomposition] was clear . . . and that boy had shrapnel all over. Potentially, he was blind and had burns to 50 per cent of his body.”
He had also spoken to a little boy, in a camp holding tens of thousands of people, who was not aware that his mother had died (she and his sisters and been killed in an airstrike). “I’ve spoken to so many families, and they haven’t yet told a child still recovering from the wounds of war that someone else that they love is also dead, that their life is actually even bleaker than they thought,” he said.
“We cannot possibly go from getting this aid in within 24 or 72 hours to bombardment again.”
AlamyA bus carrying Palestinian prisoners released by the Israeli authorities arrives in the city of Ramallah, in the West Bank, late on Tuesday evening
It is estimated that 1.8 million people have been displaced so far. Gazan health authorities have reported that more than 15,000 people, mostly women and children, have been killed since 7 October. Children account for 40 per cent of the deaths. On Monday, releasing drone footage of Gaza, Reuters described “an eerie moonscape of crumpled buildings and mounds of rubble stretching for block after block”. The following day, it reported that US officials were “asking Israel to take greater care to protect civilians and limit damage to infrastructure in any offensive in southern Gaza”.
Last month, the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem issued a call concerning the forthcoming season, encouraging congregations to “stand strong” with the victims of the conflict, “foregoing any unnecessarily festive activities”. They encouraged clergy and lay people to “focus more on the spiritual meaning of Christmas”, with “fervent prayers for a just and lasting peace for our beloved Holy Land”.
A student at Bethlehem University, Youstina Safar, has collaborated with a London-based band, Oooberfuse, to record a Christmas song, “Hear Angels Cry”, which has lyrics in both Arabic and English. She described the song, on Monday, as “a testament to the enduring spirit of hope in Bethlehem. While traditional Christmas displays may dim this year in remembrance of the lives lost in the Holy Land, our voices unite to affirm that hope will never succumb to darkness.” Proceeds from the song will be donated to Friends of the Holy Land (listen at soundcloud.com/ooberfuse).
On Tuesday, the Methodist Conference issued a call for the second Advent candle — which represents peace — to remain unlit, to remember those who have been killed in the conflict.
Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment, Paul Vallely’s column, and Letters