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Don’t hold civilians responsible for Hamas’s crimes, says Welby, as Anglican hospital is bombed

15 October 2023


A Palestinian child wounded during an Israeli airstrike receives medical treatment at al-Aqsa hospital in Deir el-Balah, central Gaza Strip on Sunday

A Palestinian child wounded during an Israeli airstrike receives medical treatment at al-Aqsa hospital in Deir el-Balah, central Gaza Strip on Sunday

AS ISRAEL assembles its troops for a ground offensive, the Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a plea “that the sins of Hamas are not borne by the citizens of Gaza”, and warned that the enclave’s hospitals are “facing catastrophe”.

The Al-Ahli Arab hospital, run by the Episcopal diocese of Jerusalem, was hit by a missile on Saturday.

“The price of evil cannot be paid by the innocent,” Archbishop Welby said. “Civilians cannot bear the costs of terrorists. International humanitarian law recognises that, for the sake of everyone’s humanity, some acts can never be permissible in the chaos of warfare. I pray that Israel does everything it can to limit the harm caused to innocent civilians.”

Citing the Geneva Conventions, he said that a humanitarian corridor and convoy were needed “as rapidly as possible . . .

“I join with the US Secretary of State and others in urging the Israeli government to exercise their right of defence with the wisdom that might break the cycles of violence under which generations have struggled. Amidst the chaos and confusion of war, and as much as is possible, I join the calls for Israel’s military response to be proportional and to discriminate between civilians and Hamas.”

The statement was issued on Friday in the wake of warning by the Israeli military telling citizens in the north of Gaza — estimated to number one million — to evacuate to the south: “Evacuate south for your own safety and the safety of your families and distance yourself from Hamas terrorists who are using you as human shields.”

Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, has told the population not to leave. Reuters reported that mosques had broadcast the message: “Hold on to your homes. Hold on to your land.”

The UN has called on the Israeli government to rescind the order, warning that many people including pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, will not be able to follow it.

“One million people cannot flee in a day: many were already displaced or do not have vehicles, and could not move while bombings continued,” it said. “Mass displacement puts the lives of the sick and wounded in immediate danger and risks a public health disaster, at a time when the health system in Gaza is on the brink of collapse, hospitals in the south of the Gaza Strip are at capacity and unable to accept new patients.

“Wars have rules and civilians must be protected at all times. Under international law, Israel needs to take precautionary measures in future attacks to limit any harm to civilians and civilian objects.”

The Gazan authorities say that 2670 people, one quarter of them children, have been killed by Israeli airstrikes. For the past week, Israel has blocked the supply of food, medicines and fuel to the area. It was reported on Saturday that it had allowed water to be delivered to southern Gaza.

Also on Saturday, the UN head of humanitarian affairs, Martin Griffiths, warned that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was “fast becoming untenable”.

“There is no power, no water and no fuel,” he said. “Food supplies are running dangerously low. Hospitals, overwhelmed with patients, are running out of medicine. Morgues are overflowing. Homes, schools, shelters, health-centres and places of worship are under intense bombardment. Entire residential neighbourhoods have been razed to the ground. Aid workers have been killed. . . The past week has been a test for humanity, and humanity is failing.”

Israel’s evacuation order included the 22 hospitals, which were reportedly treating more than 2000 in-patients in northern Gaza, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to warn that this amounted to a “death sentence” for the sick and injured.

“The lives of many critically ill and fragile patients hang in the balance: those in intensive care or who rely on life support; patients undergoing haemodialysis; newborns in incubators; women with complications of pregnancy, and others all face imminent deterioration of their condition or death if they are forced to move and are cut off from life-saving medical attention while being evacuated,” a statement on Saturday said.

“Hospital directors and health workers are now facing an agonizing choice: abandon critically ill patients amid a bombing campaign, put their own lives at risk while remaining on site to treat patients, or endanger their patients’ lives while attempting to transport them to facilities that have no capacity to receive them. Overwhelmingly, care-givers have chosen to stay behind, and honour their oaths as health professionals to “do no harm,” rather than risk moving their critically ill patients during evacuations. Health workers should never have to make such impossible choices.”

The WHO has reported 34 attacks on health care centres in the Gaza Strip, resulting in the death of 11 health-care workers on duty.

And on Saturday, the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, Dr Hosam Naoum, reported on social media that the Al-Ahli Arab hospital, located in Gaza City in the north of the area, had been hit by a missile, leaving four staff members injured and the ultrasound and mammography room damaged (News, 21 October 2016).

The Episcopal News Service reported, too, that three staff members of the hospital had lost their homes during the bombardment of the Al Rimal area, including the medical director, Dr Maher Ayyad.

The hospital director, Suhaila Tarazi, said: “At this stage, our only hope is in God for a miracle in the midst of this scenery of death. . .

Many necessary medicines at the hospital are at a zero balance. The hospital wards at Ahli are full with injured patients. We are trying to help as much as we can. God willing, the State of Israel will open a humanitarian corridor and allow us to save the lives of the innocent. Please keep us in your prayers.”

On Sunday, Archbishop Welby issued a new statement, warning that hospitals were “facing catastrophe. . . I appeal for the evacuation order on hospitals in northern Gaza to be reversed — and for health facilities, health workers, patients and civilians to be protected.

“The evil and barbaric terror attacks on Israelis by Hamas were a blasphemous outrage. But the civilians of Gaza are not responsible for the crimes of Hamas.”

The weekend has seen an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the north of Gaza. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told troops on Friday to be prepared for “the next stage”.

“This is a war for the existence of Israel as a prosperous state, as a democratic state, as homeland of the Jewish people,” the Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said on Friday. Israel has called up a record 300,000 reservists, some of whom are flying to Israel from the UK. On Sunday, Mr Netanyahu pledged to “demolish Hamas”.

Gaza is home to a diminishing number of Christians, of between 900 and 1000. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme, Nader Abu Amsha, head of the Department of Service to Palestinian Refugees of the Middle East Council of Churches (MEEC), said that 828 Christians had taken shelter in two churches (Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox). They had chosen to do this rather than evacuate because “it’s not a humanitarian corridor, it’s forced transfer”.

The MEEC is a partner of the Christian charity Embrace the Middle East, which on Friday described the evacuation order as “unprecedented, and legally and morally indefensible. . .

“There are courageous people on all sides and in all communities calling for an end to the violence in Israel and across all of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, especially now Gaza,” it said. “We stand with them and ask you to do the same the voices calling for restraint must be heard.

“Our own government has failed to show leadership, preferring simplistic responses to constructive, considered, measured and collective action. The UN itself is being ignored by the UK, US, and France, its Permanent Security Council members. . .

“Israel has the right to respond to the barbarous events of the weekend. It does not have the right — on this international law is very clear — to act indiscriminately, without due regard for the safety of innocent civilians. It cannot for example erase whole neighbourhoods, starve or move an entire population from their homes.

“Notwithstanding its support for Israel, it is the duty of our government to make this clear. It has failed to do this.”

In the wake of the Hamas attacks, Western heads of government emphasised their solidarity with Israel and its right to defend itself, but in recent days they have also called for the protection of Palestinian civilians. On Saturday, the US President, Joe Biden, wrote on social media: “The US is working with the governments of Israel, Egypt, Jordan — and with the UN — to surge support to ease the humanitarian consequences of Hamas’s attack, create conditions needed to resume the flow of assistance, and advocate for the upholding of the law of war.”

The British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, told Sky News: “Restraint, discipline — these are the hallmarks of the Israeli Defence Force that I want to see. And indeed, those are the hallmarks of a high-functioning military organisation, which the IDF is, in stark contrast to the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Hamas.

“I’ve said, maintain that clear distinction: Israel seeks to avoid civilian casualties; Hamas seeks civilians in order to target.”

Archbishop Welby’s statement on Friday began by describing the “grief and shock” that had grown greater in the wake of “more devastating news and images emerge from the abhorrent terrorist attacks in Israel” (News, 9 October). On Thursday, the social media account of Prime Minister Netanyahu made public images it had shown to the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. It warned: “These are horrifying photos of babies murdered and burned by the Hamas monsters. Hamas is inhuman. Hamas is ISIS.”

The death toll in the wake of a devastating attack by Hamas on 7 October stands at 1300. The Israel Defence Forces has described it as “the worst massacre of innocent civilians in Israel’s history”. Dozens of hostages remain captive.

“The agonising suffering endured by those who were targeted and their families can scarcely be imagined,” the Archbishop wrote. “Our hearts are broken open by the grief of Israelis and our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world, for whom this trauma and loss stands in the dark and terrible shadow of the worst days of their history.

“I beg that those who have been taken hostage are set free into safety, that they and their loved ones might be released from the horror of their captivity. The anger felt by the people of Israel at the cruelty they have experienced is entirely justified. Many around the world share in that anger.”

Both Embrace the Middle East and Christian Aid have launched emergency appeals.

On Sunday, Pope Francis reiterated his call for the release of hostages and said that humanitarian law must be respected, “especially in Gaza, where it is urgent and necessary to guarantee humanitarian corridors and help the population”.

Both the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, have called for a day of prayer and fasting on Tuesday 17 October.

At the time of writing, the border between Gaza and Egypt, where aid convoys lie waiting, remained close.

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