Remember the humanity on both sides of Israel-Gaza conflict, Catholic aid group insists

Gaza photo Buildings destroyed by airstrikes in the Gaza Strip/ Mohammed Hinnawi/UNRWA

Catholics must be mindful of the humanity on both sides of conflict in Israel and Gaza, said a top official at a global Catholic aid agency shortly before the conflict reportedly reached a cease-fire on Thursday.

“The key thing is to, as Catholics, to just put oneself into the humanity of the situation on both sides – which is, people are terrified,” Bill O’Keefe, executive vice president for mission, mobilization and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, told CNA on Thursday of the conflict.

Children both in Gaza and Israel had to witness rocket attacks or airstrikes, he noted.

“Our focus as Catholics has got to be ‘this is unacceptable’,” he said of the 11-day conflict. “Our role should be pushing and pushing for peace, and in a way that makes sure that people on both sides are thriving, like we would want to be thriving if we were in that position.”

Catholics also cannot ignore the suffering in Gaza, he said, a territory mentioned in Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. The humanitarian situation there “should be a matter of concern for Catholics who believe that all are created in the image and likeness of God,” he said.

CNA spoke with O’Keefe Thursday afternoon, shortly before Israeli media reported that Israel’s security cabinet approved a cease-fire agreement with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules Gaza.

During the 11-day conflict that began May 10, Hamas – along with the allied group Islamic Jihad – fired thousands of rockets into Israel, while the Israeli military conducted airstrikes on targets in Gaza, including on residential buildings and a high-rise that included offices of the Associated Press and other media, claiming that Hamas operated out of the buildings.

According to health officials in Gaza, 232 Palestinians have been killed – including 65 children and 39 women – and more than 1,900 have been wounded in the air strikes, Reuters reported on Wednesday. Israeli security officials have claimed that some of the civilian casualties in Gaza were caused by Hamas rocket misfires.

In Israel, meanwhile, 12 people were killed as of Wednesday, Israeli officials reported; hundreds of people injured by rocket attacks, according to Reuters. The vast majority of the Hamas rockets were intercepted by Israel’s missile defense system.

Pope Francis on Sunday, May 16, warned of a “spiral of death and destruction” in the region. He called the deaths of children due to the conflict “terrible and unacceptable,” after praying the Regina Coeli at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

O’Keefe said that an “immediate cease-fire” was the most pressing need for peace in the region, as well as a commitment to the “kinds of long-term peace process that the Catholic bishops and the Vatican have called for.” This includes a two-state solution with a viable sovereign state for Palestine and security for Israel, he said.

According to CRS staff members within Gaza, O’Keefe emphasized the scale of the “devastation” in the territory.

“What’s been destroyed in these 11 days is really unprecedented there,” O’Keefe said, noting extensive damage to water and sewage infrastructure, and housing.  

For the Christian community in Gaza, CRS staff said that the intensive bombing has been “traumatizing.” Six Christian families have sought refuge at a Catholic parish in Gaza, while the Missionaries of Charity continue to operate a home for severely-disabled children.

The destruction has been exacerbated by twin crises – the recent COVID-19 pandemic, and long-standing issues of unemployment and poverty caused by Israel’s blockade of the narrow strip of land, O’Keefe said. While one COVID testing center in Gaza was destroyed, CRS is working with Caritas Jerusalem and other groups to get in-home care to families in Gaza suffering from the virus.

A critical project will be quickly rebuilding residences and infrastructure in Gaza, he said.

“We know that there is going to have to be a massive rebuilding effort,” he said. “It’s in everyone’s interest to make sure that effort is generously funded and moves forward quickly.”

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“Our team is already figuring out how to get assistance to the thousands of people who have lost their homes,” he said.

Hamas began firing rockets on May 10 following escalating tensions on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Palestinians clashed with Israeli police beginning on May 7, the last Friday of the Islamic season of Ramadan, outside al-Aqsa Mosque. More than 200 Palestinians and 17 police officers were reportedly injured from the clashes.

Muslims claimed they were prevented by Israeli authorities from gathering at sites in Jerusalem during Ramadan. Palestinians were also protesting planned evictions of Palestinian residents from Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, a case which is currently before Israel’s supreme court.

Within Israel, violence broke out sporadically among Arab and Jewish mobs in recent days, with synagogues targeted, as well as stores, and homes on both sides.

Pope Francis called the violence between neighbors “a serious wound to fraternity,” one “which will be difficult to heal if there is not an immediate opening to dialogue.”

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in a May 9 statement, said, “Insofar as far as the rights of everyone, Israelis and Palestinians, are not upheld and respected, there will be no justice and therefore no peace in the city.”

A joint statement that day of the heads of the Christian Churches said that “recent violent events in East Jerusalem” did “violate the sanctity of the people of Jerusalem and of Jerusalem as the City of Peace. The actions undermining the safety of worshippers and the dignity of the Palestinians who are subject to eviction are unacceptable.”

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