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Crisis in Middle East evokes horror and contention

12 October 2023


An Israeli mobile artillery unit in southern Israel fires towards the Gaza Strip on Wednesday

An Israeli mobile artillery unit in southern Israel fires towards the Gaza Strip on Wednesday

THE siege of Gaza will not end until all the hostages held by Hamas are freed, the Israeli government said on Thursday.

“Humanitarian aid to Gaza? No electrical switch will be lifted, no water hydrant will be opened and no fuel truck will enter until the Israeli hostages are returned home. Humanitarian for humanitarian. And nobody should preach us morals,” the energy minister, Israel Katz, wrote online.

On Thursday, Fabrizio Carboni, the Regional Director for the Near and Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross, pleaded for restraint on both sides.

“The human misery caused by this escalation is abhorrent, and I implore the sides to reduce the suffering of civilians,” he said. “As Gaza loses power, hospitals lose power, putting newborns in incubators and elderly patients on oxygen at risk. Kidney dialysis stops, and X-rays can’t be taken. Without electricity, hospitals risk turning into morgues.

“Families in Gaza are already having trouble accessing clean water. No parent wants to be forced to give a thirsty child dirty water.

“At the same time Israeli families are worried sick about loved ones taken hostage. The taking of hostages is prohibited under international humanitarian law, and anyone being held should be immediately released.

“We are now in contact with Hamas and Israeli officials as part of efforts on this issue. As a neutral intermediary we stand ready to conduct humanitarian visits; facilitate communication between hostages and family members; and to facilitate any eventual release.”

More than 1200 people have been killed in Israel since Hamas launched the biggest attack in decades at dawn on Saturday, the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah. A barrage of thousands of rockets was followed by the movement of gunmen across the border. More than 2700 people have been wounded. The Israeli rescue service Zaka reported that it had retrieved at least 260 bodies from the site of a music festival held near the border with Gaza. The Israel Defence Forces has described it as “the worst massacre of innocent civilians in Israel’s history”.

A survivor of the festival, Shea Golin, aged 22, told the BBC that she had survived by pretending to be dead by lying on other bodies: “I was surprised when that woke one girl up. I was so happy that there’s someone alive with me, because I thought I’m the only one alive.”

On Tuesday, members of the foreign press were taken by the Israeli army into Kfar Aza, a kibbutz liberated from Hamas gunmen. Major General Itai Veruv described it as a “massacre”, with “mothers, fathers, babies, young families killed in their beds, in the protection room, in the dining room, in their garden”. Some had been decapitated, he said.

Ilan Troen, a professor with dual US-Israeli citizenship, described to the BBC how his daughter and her husband, Deborah and Shlomi Matias, were killed in their safe room in another kibbutz, Holit. Their bodies protected their 16-year-old son, who survived with a bullet wound.

The Israeli government has reported that up to 150 people have been taken hostage by Hamas; footage has been circulating on social media, including film apparently showing Shani Nicole Louk, a German citizen, being paraded through the streets in the back of a pick-up truck after being stripped half naked. A photograph shows a kindergarten teacher, Shiri Bibas, and her two young children aged nine months and three being taken away by Hamas militants.

AlamySmoke rises after Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on Wednesday

Since Saturday, Israeli forces have bombed Gaza, leaving neighbourhoods with the appearance of having been struck by earthquakes. Hamas has threatened to execute one captive for every home hit without warning.

Mark Regev, a former Israeli Ambassador to the UK, told BBC2’s Newsnight on Tuesday: “If Israel doesn’t respond with force, I’m afraid the lesson will be learnt across this region — you can hit Israel with impunity — that’s not acceptable.”

The Israeli government has cut the supply of electricity, food, and fuel to the enclave, 141 square miles that are home to two million Palestinians, almost half of whom are children. It has been controlled by Hamas since 2007, the same year that Israel put in place a blockade (News, 25 January 2008). A ground invasion is now a possibility; a record 300,000 reservists have been drafted.

The US government has said that it is discussing with both Israeli and Egyptian officials the possibility of safe passage out of Gaza for civilians.

Palestinian officials have reported that strikes have killed 1055 people, including hundreds of children, and wounded 5184. The UN reports that over a tenth of the population in Gaza, more than 260,000 people, have been internally displaced.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said on Wednesday: “Crucial life-saving supplies — including fuel, food and water — must be allowed into Gaza. We need rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access now.”

On Monday, the Ambassador of the Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, Dr Riyad Mansour, wrote that Israel’s war was being carried out “indiscriminately and wantonly, in grave breach of international law, with the explicit purpose of inflicting enormous human loss, suffering and destruction, compounding its massive collective punishment of the Palestinian civilian population it has held captive in Gaza under an inhumane 16-year blockade.” He quoted Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who announced a “complete siege” on the area on Monday. “No electricity, no food, no water, no gas — it’s all closed . . . We are fighting animals and are acting accordingly.” Mr Gallant has also said that he has “released all restraints” on his troops.

On Wednesday, the Palestinian Energy Authority said that Gaza’s only power plant would run out of fuel in “ten to 12 hours”.

President Biden told reporters on Tuesday: “There are moments in this life, and I mean this literally, when the pure unadulterated evil is unleashed on this world. The people of Israel lived through one such moment this weekend.” He has announced more military assistance for Israel, which receives $3.8bn a year in military aid from the US.

The BBC has been told by an official UK source that 17 British nationals, including children, are feared dead or missing.

Since Saturday, the Metropolitan Police have increased patrols “to reassure and protect the public with an enhanced visible presence particularly in London’s Jewish communities”.

The Board of Deputies has shared online a letter sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury on Monday. He writes: “The attacks by Hamas are utterly abhorrent and to witness the unfolding of such violence particularly against innocent civilians, children and elderly, strikes at the heart of all that is good and holy. . . I want to convey my deepest sense of solidarity with you at this time.”

On Wednesday, the Archbishop wrote on social media: “There is no excuse for attacks, intimidation or abuse aimed at Jewish communities in the UK. At this time of great crisis in Israel, Gaza and the wider region, we must be united as people of faith in the face of prejudice and harassment.”

AlamyAbout 5000 people joined a march in Milan on Tuesday in support of the Palestinians after the attack by the Hamas

Manchester is home to a large Jewish population. The Bishop, Dr David Walker, said that the “horrific scenes” after the Hamas attacks were “particularly heart-rending” in the wake of the terrorist atrocity in Manchester in 2018 (News, 25 May 2018). Many of the victims, including those taken hostage, would be known to people in Manchester, he said.

The Embassy of Israel to the Holy See has described the attacks by Hamas as “a catastrophe of biblical dimensions”. On Saturday, it said on social media that “using linguistic ambiguity and terms that hint towards false symmetry should be deplored”. Israel’s response “cannot be described as anything but its right to self defence”.

On Monday, the Embassy described the response of the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem (News, 9 October) as “disappointing and frustrating. . . From reading it, there is no way to understand who were the aggressors and who were the victims. It is especially unbelievable that such a sterile document was signed by people of faith.”

Pope Francis has appealed for the immediate release of hostages. On Wednesday, he said that he was praying “for those families who have seen a day of celebration turned into a day of mourning”. It was the “right of those who are attacked to defend themselves”, he said. But he was concerned by the “total siege facing the Palestinians in Gaza, where there have also been many innocent victims. . .

“Terrorism and extremism do not help to reach a solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but fuel hatred, violence, and revenge, causing suffering to both sides.”

A statement issued by Sabeel-Kairos, a Christian charity that advocates for Palestinian rights, said: “The atrocities committed by Hamas militants inside Israel — the killing, maiming, and kidnapping of civilians — is a crime against humanity and rightly invokes outrage and condemnation. Israel’s military violence against civilians in Gaza, including the destruction of residential buildings that has wiped out whole families, and now the cutting off of water, food, electricity and fuel which constitutes collective punishment are also war crimes and require the same response.”

AlamyJewish mourners line the streets in Jerusalem on Wednesday for the funeral of Sgt Adi Tzur, killed during the incursion by Hamas militants at the weekend

It was critical of both the international community, and the UK Government, which had been “hiding behind the sham of supporting a two-state solution, long acknowledged by many in Palestine and Israel as dead in the water. . . In the last few days, they have expressed unwavering support for Israel, offering diplomatic, intelligence, and security support. They have failed to publicly apply any pressure on Israel to comply with international humanitarian law and protect civilians in Gaza.”

The Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and southern Israel on Wednesday, in the first visit by a foreign minister to the site of the Hamas attacks. He said: “The facts are clear Hamas are terrorists. Israel has the right to defend itself. Hamas and Hamas alone are responsible and accountable for these appalling attacks. Terrorism must never be allowed to prevail.”

The Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council held a vigil on Monday evening outside Downing Street. It was attended by staff members of the Council of Christians and Jews. “The barbaric terrorist attack on innocent lives, including the murder, kidnapping and desecration of women and children, challenges our sense of humanity to the core,” the charity said.

“The WhatsApp messaging groups from our Israel-Palestine study tours, and our interfaith networks, have been pinging with messages of concern. . . For those wondering how they can put words into action, please check in on your Jewish friends and colleagues.”

On Monday, the Church of Ireland Bishops’ Appeal for World Aid and Development released £8650 in emergency funds to the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem.

On Friday, Christian Aid launched an emergency appeal for Gaza. The charity’s head of Middle East policy & advocacy, William Bell, said: “Following atrocities against Israeli civilians last weekend, Israel's military response in Gaza is now creating an escalating humanitarian crisis that threatens more than two million people. After 16 years of closures and sporadic conflict, the people in Gaza were already experiencing very high levels of poverty, unemployment, and violence and insecurity.

“A lack of water, food, and electricity, and intensifying military action, are putting the lives of growing numbers of civilians at risk. Our civil-society partners in Gaza stand ready to respond with medical relief and community-led initiatives such as food, shelter, sanitation, and protection.”  

Read more on the story from Paul Vallely and in our leader comment

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