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World divided on Israel-Palestine conflict

Q: Archbishop J, why is the Church silent on the Palestine issue? 

To say that the Church is silent on Palestine would be untrue. In fact, the Pope has spoken on several occasions about the war. Priests and bishops in every jurisdiction of the Church have spoken and continue to speak for peace and to call for an end to the killings of the innocent—particularly the children on both sides of the divide.

There have been public and private occasions of fasting and prayer by the faithful everywhere, as we find ourselves witnesses to the prolonged suffering.

“Every war is a defeat,” said Pope Francis in October. And that is true. No one wins when there is a war. The death of the innocent is no victory.

Three weeks ago, he was adamant that there must be an end to the senseless killings—by Hamas and by Israel. He urged “No to war, yes to dialogue” as the only pathway to peace.

Importantly, in a January interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Pope Francis renewed calls for a global ceasefire, warning that the world was on “the brink of the abyss”. He drew attention to the Oslo Agreement, saying that until the two-State solution is applied, “true peace remains distant”.

Here at home, the unwarranted killings in Gaza and the suffering of the hostages and their families are remembered at every altar in the Prayers of the Faithful. When we pray, we are not silent; the prayers of intercession are powerful, as has been proven over centuries. But I guess the question that we are asking, and rightly so, is: Are we doing enough?

Over the past months, the Pope has met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine, President Joe Biden of the USA, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Türkiye (Turkey) as he engages in strategic dialogue. He aims to bring world leaders to their senses and, as he says, “stop the clamour of war”.

Here lies the key to the Church’s position. The Church will never advocate for violence to be met with violence. Instead, the Church seeks to draw people together to confront each other’s humanity and see in ourselves—in each other—brothers and sisters in one world.

The Church seeks a path of peace through dialogue and acts of mercy and grace. It is the way of Christ and the way of the Church today.


Whose war is it?

The historical antecedents cannot be ignored. The British Balfour Declaration of October 1917 promised the establishment of a Jewish national home in Ottoman-controlled Palestine but without the collaboration of the Palestinian people. Where you choose to begin determines how you see the present war.

October 7, 2023, marks the attack of Hamas on Israel during the celebration of the feast of Simchat Torah, or ‘Joy of the Torah’. Hamas used thousands of rockets, had around three thousand militants storm along Israel’s border, resulting in some 1200 fatalities, and took 252 hostages. Some have called the attack unprovoked. Others would say it was a result of nearly 100 years of provocation. Israel has responded with the death of over 30,000 Palestinians to date.

Acts of violence as a solution to conflict must never be condoned. Whatever the view, the attack and the taking of hostages must be condemned outright. And, whatever the view, the killing of children in retaliation must also be condemned. The continued death toll in Gaza has been disproportionate in its response to the violent attack by Hamas.

My opinion is that the taking of human life cannot be justified, regardless of the extenuating circumstances.

The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, speaking to journalists, February 13, said of the events in Gaza, “Israel’s right of self-defence, which has been invoked to justify this operation, must be proportional. With 30,000 dead, it certainly isn’t.” Israel’s Embassy to the Holy See called the remarks “deplorable”. Interestingly, the 1965 Vatican declaration, Nostra Aetate uses the same word to speak about “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (4).

The cardinal was being accused of anti-Semitism for challenging Israel about its actions against the Palestinian people. This is the challenge of communicating on this matter.

Because of the suffering of the Holocaust, the extreme racism that led to the death of six million Jews, and the world’s silence, we are all reluctant to be perceived as anti-Semitic.


Ideology and religion

This challenging, emotionally charged, ideological issue requires discernment and deep thinking.

My personal reflection is that the issues in Gaza and Haiti need to be brought to the forefront and that I must play a role in ensuring that we are more visible and perhaps more vocal in advocating for resolution to the current conflicts through diplomacy.

Our Catholic Commission for Social Justice held a symposium on Ukraine at UWI last year, which was enlightening. Similar discussions on Gaza and the terrors in Haiti should continue in a consistent manner.

As the old people say, two wrongs do not make a right. The response of Israel was way above and beyond what could even be conceived as proportionate. We are seeing the dismantling of democracy and the rules of war as we once knew it—all with the acquiescence of nations who have previously positioned themselves as icons of justice.

The accommodating of bombings of universities, hospitals, schools and homes, obstructions to humanitarian aid, and the acceptance of deployment of weapons to be used against civilians are unjustifiable and simply inhumane.


The young voices

It is no surprise our young people are angry, and protests on university campuses and marches the world over are taking place, as the young are calling the old— and perhaps jaded—to accountability and action. They continue to challenge authorities in their right to free speech and lawful protest.

We can juxtapose this with the “discomfort of Jewish students forced, perhaps for the first time, to confront the fact that much of the world disapproves of what Israel is up to,” according to Columbia University English Professor Bruce Robbins, who is Jewish.

The UN has not been silent, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has not been inactive. Last week, the ICC has called for arrest warrants for Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The world is divided over Israel and Palestine. But as long as we agree to war as a solution, we are putting diplomacy and democracy under threat. The dilemma we face is that States with power are willing to misuse the power of veto to disempower the institutions they established to create peace.

The result is continued chaos and sustained warfare.

As you can see, this is a complex issue, but it must not deter us from speaking the truth and witnessing to it, regardless of the cost or inconvenience.


Key Message:

The Israel-Palestinian conflict, regardless of its origins and current manifestations, should not deter us from being clear in our response and our witness.

Action Step:

Reflect on your response to complex situations in which you see what is right but find it difficult to respond appropriately. Ask God for grace.

Scripture Reading:

James 4:1-10