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End bombing of Gaza, religious leaders urge

07 December 2023

Israeli campaign is catastrophic, says joint statement


Palestinians who have fled from the city of Khan Yunis wait near Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday

Palestinians who have fled from the city of Khan Yunis wait near Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on Tuesday

ISRAEL’s “relentless and unrestrained bombing campaign with horrific indiscriminate effects” must end, religious leaders, including the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, have said.

In a joint statement, the 68 bishops and church leaders, mainly from the United States, South Africa, Britain, and Ireland, write: “Enough is enough. We cannot remain silent as generations of families in Gaza are wiped out in an instant. World leaders cannot sit by while Palestinian civilians in Gaza experience such catastrophic destruction and trauma. The relentless and unrestrained bombing campaign with horrific indiscriminate effects and the ground invasion by Israel must end.”

The letter was published on Thursday of last week, shortly before the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) resumed their offensive in Gaza, after negotiations over the exchange of hostages and prisoners collapsed. On Tuesday, the IDF’s international spokesperson, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, said that Hamas had violated the pause by firing rockets and violating the hostage agreement. Israel was defending civilians on “multiple fronts”, he said, noting threats from Hezbollah. On Thursday of last week, Hamas gunmen killed three Israelis, including a 24-year-old schoolteacher pregnant with her first child.

Gaza officials have reported that about 900 people were killed between Friday and Monday, with the total in excess of 16,000, including 6000 children and 4000 women. This week, Khan Yunis, Gaza’s second city, was the target for strikes. More than two million people are now in the south of Gaza, many of whom have fled the north.

On Monday, Save the Children’s country director in the occupied Palestinian territory, Jason Lee, spoke from the south of Gaza: “There is nowhere safe in Gaza. Families are being warned by Israeli authorities to move, once again, forcibly displacing them into smaller and smaller areas, with no guarantee of safety or return, and without the necessary infrastructure and access to services to support life.

“Rather than the sham pretence that these orders ensure the safety and survival of families, they instead present families with the inconceivable ‘choice’ of one death sentence over another. It is not possible to concentrate large numbers of civilians into such tiny slivers of land without exacerbating an already dire humanitarian catastrophe. . . World leaders must secure a ceasefire now.”

On Friday of last week, Rob Holden, a WHO senior emergency officer, spoke of witnessing scenes at Al-Ahli hospital (News, 17 November) that were “like a horror movie. When you walk in, there there are patients on the floor with the most traumatic injuries that you can imagine, potentially battlefield trauma. . . As you drive into the hospital, you are met with bodies [of the] deceased who’ve died either on arrival at the hospital or during their stay at the hospital, lined up outside, waiting for family members to come and identify them.”

Last week, an investigation by +972 Magazine, a publication run by Palestinian and Israeli journalists, drew on interviews with seven current and former members of Israel’s intelligence community, to explore the IDF’s tactics. It included a description of a system called “Habsora” (“The Gospel”), largely built on artificial intelligence, which can “‘generate’ targets almost automatically”.

One source told the investigation: “Nothing happens by accident. When a three-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed — that it was a price worth paying in order to hit [another] target.”

The IDF maintains that it issues warnings before striking, and that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. Lt. Col. Hecht’s presentation this week asked: “When Hamas terrorists transform civilian areas into terrorist strongholds, what choice are we left with?”

Internationally, concern about Israel’s military operation is growing louder. The US Vice-President, Kamala Harris, told the COP28 climate conference in Dubai that “too many innocent Palestinians have been killed”, while the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, warned: “The massive levels of civilian life and displacement scale we saw in the north must not be repeated in the south.”

The religious leaders’ letter is critical of the “complicity” of the US and other Western countries, referring to “efforts to actively oppose a ceasefire, including by vetoing multiple United Nations Resolutions”. It also argues that “The escalation of war cannot be adequately understood without acknowledging the conflict’s broader backdrop — ongoing Israeli occupation and the disenfranchisement of Palestinians for more than 70 years. Three-quarters of Palestinian residents of Gaza are refugees dating back to 1948.”

Before 7 October, 2023 had been “on track to be the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since the Second Intifada in 2000”, they write, noting “a significant expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, emboldening Israeli settlers to act with impunity as they attack Palestinians and force them from their homes. . . A future where all human dignity in the region is respected looks distant if these realities are not acknowledged.”

The letter also acknowledges the “profound and existential grief experienced in Israel as a result of the actions of Hamas on October 7”. In total, 137 hostages remain in Gaza, including 17 women and children.

This week, The Sunday Times reported that the Israeli police had collected thousands of statements, photographs, and video clips, as part of an investigation into sexual violence and crimes against women on 7 October. Haim Outmezgine, the commander of a special unit of Zaka, a voluntary religious organisation that collects the remains of the dead, told the newspaper: “We collected 1000 bodies in ten days from the festival site and kibbutzim. No one saw more than us.

“It was clear they were trying to spread as much horror as they could — to kill, to burn alive, to rape . . . it seemed their mission was to rape as many as possible.” A volunteer who prepared bodies for burial said: “Opening the body bags was scary, as we didn’t know what we would see. They were all young women. Most in little clothing or shredded clothing and their bodies bloodied particularly round their underwear and some women shot many times in the face as if to mutilate them.”

Dr Cochav Elkayam-Levy, an expert on international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, spoke of being “shocked at the lack of international reaction from bodies such as UN Women”.

On Friday, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem published online an interview with Fr Gabriel Romanelli, parish priest of the Holy Family church in Gaza for the past six years. About 600 people were still sheltering in the church, he said. Many had arrived after an Israeli air-strike on the compound of St Porphyrios’s Greek Orthodox church, which reportedly killed 18 people, including nine children (News, 27 October).

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”.

“It is, of course, important not to have big celebrations,” Fr Romanelli said. “It is a sign of solidarity and respect to those that have lost loved ones, to those who are wounded, as some of the dead bodies remain under the rubble. . .

“Unfortunately, these past few years, people have forgotten that Christmas is not only a feast, but also that Advent is a season of preparation and repentance. . .That is why the liturgical readings chosen by the Church focus on the second coming of Christ, where he will judge the world. He is the great judge who knows what’s in each person’s heart. . . We tend to forget that we need a spiritual healing.”

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment

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