THE devastating explosion at Al-Ahli Arab Hospital took place at the end of a day of prayer and fasting summoned by church leaders in Jerusalem, amid an escalating humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
In the second week of an Israeli siege, food, water, critical medicines, and health supplies were running out fast, the United Nations reported. Its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Wednesday that, in the previous ten days, one million people had been displaced, and large areas of Gaza had been “reduced to rubble”.
Last Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a plea that “the sins of Hamas” be “not borne by the citizens of Gaza”.
The death toll from Hamas’s devastating attack on Israel on 7 October stands at 1400, while it is believed that 199 people remain hostage in Gaza. On Thursday of last week, the social-media account of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, published images that 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.”
On Monday, the RC Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, told journalists that he would be willing to exchange himself for Israeli children taken hostage by Hamas: “I am ready for an exchange, anything, if this can lead to freedom, to bring the children home. No problem. There is total willingness on my part.”
The Council of Christians and Jews in the UK reported this week that it had “heard from many that there is a sense of silence that many Jewish leaders are feeling”.
In the wake of the 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.”
He had been due to meet Jordanian and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday, but they withdrew after the catastrophe at Al-Ahli Hospital.
On the morning after the explosion, the Middle East Council of Churches, which brings together Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Reformed Churches in the region, issued a statement: “It is no longer a secret to everyone that what the Palestinian people are exposed to in Gaza is not a military reaction to military action, but rather a genocide and ethnic cleansing, targeting the detainees of the largest prison in human history and with a premeditation. . .
“What is happening on the land of Gaza in terms of scorched earth practices, and the burning of those on it, has deviated from all logic, divine and human law.” Israel was guilty of “a crime against humanity” which “cannot pass without accountability”. It concluded: “If humanity as a whole does not act immediately and in an appropriate manner, this crime will remain a stain of shame on the forehead of humanity forever.”
Last Friday, the Israeli military began issuing evacuation orders, instructing the civilian population in northern Gaza — estimated to number one million — to move south. The order included the 22 hospitals that 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.
On Sunday, Archbishop Welby echoed the plea for the order to be rescinded and warned that hospitals were “facing catastrophe”.
“The price of evil cannot be paid by the innocent,” he said last Friday. “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.”
The humanitarian situation in Gaza — “fast becoming untenable” according to the UN head of humanitarian affairs — has prompted increasingly urgent appeals from aid agencies. On Wednesday, Christian Aid’s head of Middle East policy and advocacy, William Bell, spoke of the plight of those in Khan Yunis, a city in the south of Gaza, to which thousands of people have fled, and warned that supplies were running out.
“Wilfully impeding relief supplies constitutes a war crime under international law,” he said. “It amounts to a death sentence for those trapped in Gaza.”
Caritas Jerusalem reported this week that most of its staff in Gaza had been forced to leave their homes, some of which had been completely demolished.
Calling for a ceasefire on Wednesday, the UN’s secretary-general, António Guterres, said that “the region is on the precipice.”
At the time of writing, a convoy carrying hundreds of tonnes of aid remained less than one kilometre from Gaza, held at the Egyptian border.
Read more on this story in this week’s Letters