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Letters to the Editor

10 November 2023


International law and Israel’s response to Hamas

From Dr Jonathan Chaplin

Sir, — Two correspondents last week trenchantly exposed the weakness of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s responses to the Israeli government’s retaliatory assault on Gaza (Letters, 3 November). Since they wrote, the House of Bishops has now put its collective name to an equally inadequate statement, issued on 31 October (News, 3 November).

Rightly, the statement begins by emphatically “condemning” Hamas’s horrendous terrorist attack on Israel. Rightly, it “condemns” the surge in anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the UK. But all that it can say about Israel’s counter-attack is that we must “reflect on” it.

The Bishops’ reflection suffers from three grave deficiencies. First, the “huge number of civilians killed in three weeks of bombardment” — by the time this letter appears the number will have exceeded 10,000, including 4000 children — is not a “humanitarian catastrophe”. It is a war crime.

International humanitarian law emphatically excludes the kind of disproportionate and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian populations, including hospitals and schools, that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) are daily engaging in, not to speak of its cutting off of essential supplies to civilians and its attempt to force the removal of half of Gaza’s population to the south while continuing to bombard that area indiscriminately as well. Five hundred and eighty-seven senior British lawyers have asserted as much in a letter to the UK Government on 26 October. Why can’t our Bishops?

Hamas’s barbaric policy of using civilians as human shields is, of course, a war crime. But, as the lawyers’ letter makes clear, “the commission by one party to a conflict — including an armed group — of serious violations of international humanitarian law does not . . . justify their commission by another party.” Compelling evidence of the IDF’s war crimes is now vastly more abundant than that of Hamas’s. The IDF are bound by law to find other ways to take out Hamas’s military and political structures, even as they rightly seek to recover Israeli hostages.

The Bishops’ failure to charge Israel explicitly with breaking international humanitarian law in specific, indictable ways is a chronic failure of truthful moral description. This omission is even more egregious since the IDF’s acts clearly violate fundamental just-war principles to which the Church of England is itself officially committed.

Second, as the UN Secretary General said on 24 October, the assault on Gaza “did not happen in a vacuum”: “The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation.” The Bishops’ statement says not a single word about this, divorcing these events from the longstanding and complex context from which they emerged and which is essential for their larger moral assessment.

Third, the Bishops affirm “absolutely” Israel’s right to defend itself, but are wholly silent on the Palestinians’ right of resistance against illegal occupation, also affirmed in international law (which is not remotely to imply that Hamas’s attack was any part of such legitimate resistance). Do they affirm that principle of international law as well, or not?

I take no pleasure in saying that these failings will be long remembered by Palestinians, especially by Palestinian Christians, many of whom are Anglicans. It is, perhaps, not yet too late to correct them.

19 Coles Lane, Oakington
Cambridge CB24 3AF

From Sue Claydon and Jan Benvie

Sir, — The recent statement from the House of Bishops was titled “An Appeal for Peace”. While it rightly condemns the actions of Hamas, it only “reflects” on the actions of the Israeli government, which have already led to the deaths of more than 10,000 civilians, 4000 of whom are children. Although it calls “for immediate humanitarian pauses . . . holding out hope for a ceasefire in the longer term”, the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship believes that it is now time to call for a ceasefire. Several Anglican Archbishops have done so in the Christian Aid statement of 26 October, which said, “Only a full ceasefire will deliver aid safely and effectively.”

We do welcome the House of Bishops’ calling “for the Israeli Government to protect the population of the Occupied Territories and arrest anyone threatening them, without fear or favour”, as this aspect of the current situation seems to be ignored by the general media.

APF believes that the only way to break the cycle of violence and build a lasting peace is to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, and create conditions of justice, equality, and peace for all Israelis and Palestinians.

If any aspect of the recent conflict is beyond dispute, it is surely that settling current issues by military force leads to the suffering and death of innocent civilians and children — on both sides.

SUE CLAYDON, Chair, Anglican Pacifist Fellowship
JAN BENVIE, Secretary, Anglican Pacifist Fellowship
112 Whittlesey Road
March PE15 0AH

From the Revd Dr Peter Liddell

Sir, — Peter Shambrook’s Policy of Deceit and Bishop Pritchard’s review (Books, 6 October) should be required Advent reading.

For some, the beginning of the present conflict was the horrific slaughter by Hamas on 7 October; for others, it was the preceding decades of oppression. Shambrook confronts Britain’s shameful betrayal of promised sovereignty to Arabs.

But it is before recorded time that we must look for the beginning. “Creation myths breed violence,” wrote Tikna Frymer-Kensky (Bible Review, June 1998). The “full historical sweep of the combat myth from the battles of Ba’al and Yam, of Marduk and Tiamat, through biblical Israel’s declaration that ‘YHWH is king’ demonstrates the power of this paradigm.”

Christians added their own layer in seeing themselves as more chosen than the chosen. To the paradigm of brother set against brother, younger against elder, Christians perpetrated anti-Semitism through medieval centuries. What from one perspective is visionary conviction from another is crowned-sibling rivalry. “Violence is cyclical, creating resentment and revenge fantasies in those it defeats.” “To create a new peaceful order we must break the pattern of violence.”

In regard to Shambrook’s truths, Pritchard calls for repentance and apology from Britain. The responsibility rests with Britain to go back and unravel its contribution to the conflict thread. In regard to anti-Semitism, the Church needs to do a Shambrook on itself in a way that is widely understood. We are not bystanders in the 2023 conflict, innocent and apart, but brothers and sisters. We need to own our responsibility and see aspects of ourselves in the estranged combatants, brothers caught up in a pre-historical myth.

In eight weeks’ time, “Away in a manger”, “Silent night”, and “O little town of Bethlehem” will be sung in schools and churches throughout the land. The words already turn to ashes in my mouth. We are watching Good Friday. Christmas and Good Friday are not seasonal events, but everyday occurrences. They make their own urgent and unforeseen timing.

Chronology is occurring in reverse: flight into Egypt, preceded by massacre of the innocents, preceded by births in the rubble, preceded by shattered tower blocks and kibbutzim. In the ruins, there has to lie a betrothed couple, who were looking ahead with promise and in the divinity of their love to the miracle of a child.

25 St Marys Court, Ottway Walk
Welwyn AL6 9AU

From Mr Nigel Wildish

Sir, — I live among many Jewish people, as I am a resident of Finchley. I am, therefore, more painfully aware than many of the suffering of our British Jews as a result of the rise of anti-Semitism. I am sure we all condemn that anti-Semitism. I would like to see our religious leaders publicly reaching out to the leaders of other faiths in this country in order to share platforms calling for an end to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

Our bishops have a difficult job in knowing what to say. They are right, in my view, to call for a pause of the bombing of Gaza for humanitarian purposes. Perhaps they should also call for an end to the attacks on non-Jewish Israelis by settlers who have occupied lands previously occupied by others. Your report on 3 November highlighted the plight of the victims of those attacks.

In my view, there is more that our Bishops can say. They should be calling on Hamas to return the hostages (being held against all the rules of war, and in return for which the Israeli government has said it will agree to the pause) and to protect their own people: if they want to have a secure electricity supply into Gaza, they should cease bombing the supply lines; they should move their civilians south, and stay away from hospitals. They should not abuse the small success of the corridor into Egypt by smuggling across injured Hamas terrorists.

Leaders and those who conduct war have a duty, which the Bishops can remind them of, of caring for the innocent on their own side as well as the other. They should also call out the “child murder” denial, in relation to those people in this country who deny the pictures of Israeli children who were cruelly murdured.

25B Ravensdale Avenue
London N12 9HP

From Mr Richard W. Symonds

Sir, — On 9 February, the present Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, spoke about his wartime predecessor Bishop George Bell and his controversial House of Lords speech 79 years earlier, on 9 February 1944: “Bell asserted that the rule of law was emblazoned on the banner beneath which the forces of the Crown were engaged in 1944. The symbol of the sceptre entrusted to the Sovereign in the Coronation is the acknowledgement of a higher authority and law, to which all are accountable.”

This accountability includes every country and its government — not just our own.

The Bell Society
2 Lychgate Cottages
Ifield Street, Ifield Village
Crawley, West Sussex RH11 0NN

From the Revd Dr Ian K. Duffield

Sir, — The inability to distinguish between terrorist atrocities and a military response directed at a terrorist organisation embedded within a civilian population is a matter of concern. Just because it is a messy and distressing situation, with many casualties on both sides, moral discernment is vital. To equate one with the other is to make a profound moral misjudgement.

On Saturday in The Times, the Chief Rabbi called for “moral clarity” and spoke of the “moral chasm” between Hamas and Israel. Why is it that so many of our citizens (even Christians), especially those marching on our streets, apparently lack moral discernment on this issue? Perhaps it is partly because of the diminishment of the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition within our society and its replacement by other norms, such as a utilitarian calculus that arithmetically determines morality by totalling casualties.

On this basis, almost all victors in war would find themselves on the wrong side of the calculation, including Britain in the Second World War. Such crude calculations obviate the need for moral discernment, as they, at the same time, can be cynically used to lend legitimacy to terrorist entities such as Hamas — an unfortunate and morally hazardous result.

Director of Research
Urban Theology Union
Victoria Methodist Hall
Norfolk Street, Sheffield S1 2JB

From Canon M. R. Ainsworth

Sir, — There are various ways of reading the psalms and scriptures at morning and evening prayer, some of them painful. May I suggest that, for the time being, we attempt to read them as through the eyes of Palestinian Christians (who are largely forgotten in the media)?

4 Beech Court, 4 Willow Bank
Fallowfield, Manchester M14 6XN

Jail: Royal Commission?

From the Revd Andrew McLuskey

Sir, — The new TV series Time, on women in jail, could hardly be more relevant (Television, 3 November). New statistics support the campaign to stop sending pregnant women to jail. They show that one in three expectant mothers in prison is still awaiting trial. We have, of course, also concerns about men’s prisons.

I would suggest that church people (and others) should now be calling for a Royal Commission on Prisons to address the many issues for concern in the prison estate.

70 Stanley Road, Ashford
Middlesex TW15 2LQ

Acrimony and threat over churchyard regulations

From the Revd Christine French

Sir, — Tears came to my eyes as I read the article “Bones of contention” (Wills and Legacies, 27 October), as I have just had two extremely stressful months because of putting up a poster asking people to remove unauthorised items from their loved ones’ graves in the churchyard at Kirk Hallam, Derbyshire, where I am the Priest-in-Charge. This was planned by the PCC, churchwardens, and me, after conversations with our volunteer gardeners, plus the increase of trips and falls in the churchyard, often over items that should not be there. I was aware of the increasing anti-social behaviour and thefts of items off graves, too.

Within 24 hours of the displaying of the poster, it had been shared around the Facebook Spotted page, and I had received a threat of violence, which was then expanded on in an email to say, “it’s not a threat, it’s a promise”. Although the local police said that there was nothing that they could do about it, I have been made aware of this individual’s convictions for drugs and violence, and more recent (alleged) violent incidents.

Over the next week, the situation got worse, and many horrible comments were made about me on social media. Still my churchwardens and I had not actually moved a single item off any grave.

Just when I thought that things were settling down, the local MP sent out a press release that she was going to be contacting the Bishop of Derby about these “new rules”. They are not new rules: they have been on our church’s website for more than seven years, and for the past five years I have been giving out a funeral booklet, explaining some of the common misunderstandings in respect of burials and the interment of ashes.

Despite having the support of my amazing churchwardens, a lovely PCC, and a caring congregation, and some wonderful clergy colleagues — and, added to this, the insight from the Director of Communications, the wisdom of my Archdeacon, and the kindness from my Bishop — this episode has left its scars on me, and those who care for me.

It really seems that we are in a no-win situation. We have to keep our churchyards safe for everyone who visits them, but who will keep us safe?

The Vicarage
71 Ladywood Road
Kirk Hallam
Ilkeston DE7 4NF

Blessed are these two Christian peacemakers

From Mr Ken Petrie

Sir, — It was a pleasure to read two excellent articles in the Church Times (3 November). The first was Rory Stewart’s expression of concern (Features) about the rise of Machiavellianism in modern politics.

It is precisely this trend that has rendered large swaths of the population politically homeless and led me to join a newer party based on principles that look like fairness and common sense. Sadly, I have recently become aware of an emerging Machiavellian tendency in the party associated with a media controversialist struggling against those who would want the party to stick to its core principles; so it isn’t immune from this modern trend.

Then there was the Revd Jude Padfield’s analysis (Comment) of the controversy surrounding same-sex relationships, and the need to stop posturing and try to find a peaceful accommodation of all consciences.

This could also be viewed as an appeal to move away from politicking into something addressing the real everyday needs of the Church and its gospel.

Both these articles illustrate that, contrary to the beliefs of Machiavelli, decent peacemakers exist and are happy to contend for the way of peace in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace. Let us never lose sight of that.

87 Longway Avenue
Whitchurch Park
Bristol BS14 0DW

Mission depends on what you think about hell

From the Revd Richard Martin

Sir, — Whatever managerial structures that it uses, and whatever models of ministry are used, the question whether the Church of England should be a “mission machine” (Feature, 27 October; Letters, 3 November) is surely theological.

If you believe that anyone who is not a Christian (however you define it) is “lost”, or even goes to hell (however you envisage that), then the Church must be about mission: “saving” them from a terrible fate.

If I believed that, I would have been overworking and beset by guilt for many years. Thankfully, I don’t believe it, and I don’t think that the theology of the C of E teaches it, either.

If, instead, we can dare to believe that God intended and celebrates diversity in humans as much as he does in the rest of creation, we can be content to offer ministry to them all in Christ’s name, and receive wisdom from them. Not, then, a mission machine, but a servant people.

Church House, Cornfield Drive
Hardwicke GL2 4QJ

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