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Israel is in danger of becoming its own worst enemy, Bishop of Southwark warns

23 January 2024


Israeli women demand that Israel negotiate the immediate release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas, during a street protest in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. The IDF said that 24 soldiers were killed on Tuesday in the Gaza Strip

Israeli women demand that Israel negotiate the immediate release of the remaining hostages held by Hamas, during a street protest in Tel Aviv on Wedne...

ISRAEL “must not become its own worst enemy”, the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, has warned, on his return from a five-day visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“I share the fear of many I spoke to that decisions taken by the Israeli government since 7 October risk spiralling the West Bank deeper into violence,” he said last Friday. “Israel must not become its own worst enemy, but look to negotiate an end to the occupation of the various Palestinian territories on terms that will ensure the flourishing of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

On the same day, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told a national TV conference: “We will not settle for anything short of an absolute victory.” The war could take “many more months,” he said, while repeating his opposition to a two-state solution.

lsrael “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River,” he said. “That collides with the idea of sovereignty. What can we do?”

Bishop Chessun has been calling for a ceasefire since November, when he joined more than 100 Parliamentarians in urging the Government to “end the horrendous levels of killing of civilians and chart a political path to lasting peace for the region”. The diocese of Southwark is linked with the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem.

Last week, he reiterated the call, warning: “Continued military action will only intensify this humanitarian catastrophe and make the prospects for peace more distant. As a religious leader, I add my voice to those calling for the release of the hostages and prisoners, and an immediate ceasefire to end this appalling suffering.”

The “heaviest price is being paid by the most vulnerable,” he warned.

Diocese of SouthwarkBishop Chessun visits the Princess Basma Centre, in East Jerusalem, last week

Aid agencies operating in Gaza continue to speak of a humanitarian catastrophe. On Saturday, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, told the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement: “The wholesale destruction of Gaza and the number of civilian casualties in such a short period are totally unprecedented during my mandate.”

UN Women estimates that two mothers are killed every hour. Almost 20,000 babies have been born during the conflict, and an average rate of 183 a day. Reporting from a visit to Rafah and Khan Younis in Gaza last week, a UN spokeswoman, Tess Ingram, described watching a newborn baby leave hospital without clothing or a blanket.

She was aware of a two-year-old who had died of hypothermia, and a ten-year-old who had died after being unable to get treatment for a pre-existing condition. Doctors had spoken of newborn babies’ dying, having been born weak to under-nourished mothers. One mother who had lost her unborn baby at four months had told her: “It’s OK. It’s best that a baby isn’t born into this nightmare.”

Ms Ingram said: “Seeing newborn babies suffer while some mothers bleed to death should keep us all awake at night. Knowing [that] two very young Israeli children abducted on 7 October have still not been released should also keep us awake.”

The World Food Programme has warned that, beyond Rafah, where more than 1.2 million people are sheltering, the supply of aid is “almost catastrophic”. The UN reports that only one quarter of 29 planned missions to deliver supplies to the north of Gaza in the first two weeks of the year had been successful “after Israeli authorities denied the rest”.

On Monday, Bishop Chessun said that it was “understandable” that Israel’s focus was on security in the wake of the “atrocity” of 7 October. But “in recent years there has been a failure to build partnerships with civil society in the Palestinian communities, with people of good will.” A two-state solution was “the only viable international option, the only one that offers dignity for all the peoples of the land”.

His visit last week included visits to civil-society leaders, including Rabbi Dr Michael Marmur, of Rabbis for Human Rights; and Daniel Munayer, of Musalaha, a charity that facilitates reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. These were “honourable, good people — Jewish, Palestinian, Christian, Muslim — interested in dialogue, in healing divisions, in justice, in a better tomorrow. And, if you ignore that constituency, life becomes even more horrific, more apocalyptic.”

While Israeli support for Mr Netanyahu has plummeted, polling suggests that many continue to support military action. An Israel Democracy Institute poll of 746 respondents at the end of December found that more than half (56 per cent) believed that continuing the military offensive was the best way to recover the hostages. More than 130 hostages remain in Gaza, including Kfir Bibas, whose first birthday last Thursday was marked by a demonstration outside the Red Cross in London (News, 13 October 2023).

Unity in the Israeli government is strained. Last week, Gadi Eisenkot, a senior minister in Israel’s war cabinet, whose son died while serving in the IDF in December, told Israel’s Channel 12 television channel that the hostages would return alive only “if there is a deal, linked to a significant pause in fighting”. He said: “Whoever speaks of absolute defeat [of Hamas] is not speaking the truth.”

Reflecting on his meeting with civil society leaders, Bishop Chessun said: “Holding the middle ground is extremely difficult, but in that middle ground there is a vast coalition of people of good will, and of course the voices not being picked up by the media. The media could do quite a lot to go into that middle ground and listen to these people, and to be proactive in telling their stories, which are ultimately counsels of hope in a desperate situation.”

Diocese of SouthwarkThe Archbishop in Jerusalem, Dr Hosam Naoum, and Bishop Chessun, in St George’s Cathedral last week

His visit to the region included time in the West Bank, which had “underscored the importance of not allowing the war in Gaza to eclipse the suffering of the Palestinian people who struggle with the daily injustices of Israel’s occupation”. Only a few of the 200,000 people who had travelled to work in Israel before the conflict were now able to do so, he reported.

Bishop Chessun also met Christian leaders, who included the Primate of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East, Dr Hosam Naoum; the Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III; bishops from the Armenian Orthodox Church; and priests from Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Ramallah. He also visited St George’s School, and the Princess Basma Centre, a rehabilitation unit for children, both Anglican-run institutions in East Jerusalem.

Christian institutions in the region that served a wider population, such as the majority Muslim pupils at St George’s, were “the strength of the Christian witness”, he said. But, he warned: “At every level, the Christian community and its institutions are under pressure.” He gave as examples a proposal to make a national park of the Mount of Olives, and also a policy of collecting property tax from church-owned properties (News, 2 March 2018).

The Christian community in the Holy Land continued to “dwindle”, despite an “absolute conviction and determination that the ancient Christian communities shall continue to endure”, he said. Young people educated abroad saw a “very different life”, and wrestled over the question whether to return.

The UK Government does not support an immediate ceasefire. Last month, the Minister for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, told MPs that a ceasefire was “implausible”.

There are signs that support in the United States for the Israeli military offensive is ebbing. The White House National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, told CBS last week that it was the right time for Israel to implement a “transition to low-intensity operations” in Gaza. The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, told the Davos conference that, without a “pathway to a Palestinian state”, Israel would not “get genuine security”.

Read more on this story in Comment here and here, and Letters here

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