A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas held into its fourth day on May 24. The respite in Gaza allowed survivors of a punishing 11-day air campaign to dig out demolished homes and restore crucial infrastructure. Meanwhile, in Israeli cities that had been threatened by rockets from Gaza, life has returned to something closer to normal.
Before the cease-fire, this latest round of violence claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child, an Arab-Israeli teenager, an Israeli soldier and one Indian and two Thai nationals. The United Nations reports more than 700 were wounded in Israel.
The toll in Gaza was far more grave. According to the United Nations, 242 Palestinians were killed since the violence began on May 10, including 23 girls, 43 boys, 38 women and 138 men. At least 230 of the dead were killed in strikes by Israel Defense Forces. The U.N. reports that some Palestinian casualties may have resulted from rockets fired by militants falling short of their targets in Israel.
Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “Violence is in the language, in the political decisions, in the conditions of life under which the Gaza population has been living.”
The Ministry of Health in Gaza reported that 1,948 Palestinians have been injured, including 610 children and nearly 400 women. It will be months, if not years, for the damage to residences and infrastructure to be addressed in Gaza, which was still rebuilding from an even more destructive conflict in 2014.
Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M., appointed the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem just last November, welcomed “the absence of military violence between Israel and Gaza,” but, he pointed out, in less obvious ways other violence in the region continues.
“Violence is also in the language, in the political decisions, in the conditions of life under which the Gaza population has been living many years, and all the other difficult aspects of the life in Gaza that everyone already knows,” he said.
“It is not surprising, therefore, that periodically this situation leads to an explosion.”
While the region’s politcians jostle and spin for advantage, the Palestinian people remain caught in the middle, he said in an interview with America conducted by email. “As long as the main question of the future of the Palestinian people is not addressed seriously and integrally, I am afraid that we will be regularly exposed to [all these forms of] violence.”
He sees little hope for a resolution to the conflict or even a constructive, near-term response from among the current political leaders on all sides. Noting the unprecedented political chaos in Israel, where the latest attempt to form a new governing coalition, Patriarch Pizzaballa also lamented an ascendant right-wing in Israeli society that shows no interest in any form of dialogue with Palestinians. At the same time, he described the current Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah on the West Bank as “divided, weak and unable now to credibly build a process of dialogue.”
While the region’s politcians jostle and spin for advantage, the Palestinian people remain caught in the middle.
The status of Jerusalem, he said, remains “the heart of the problem,” a “most difficult and delicate” challenge. He said this time “it was the spark that ignited all of the Holy Land.”
Captured by Israeli forces during the Six-Day War in 1967, Jerusalem for Israelis remains the nation’s “unified, eternal” capital, despite the lack of international recognition for that assertion. At the same time, Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza claim East Jerusalem as the hoped-for future capital of an independent Palestinian state, an aspiration increasingly threatened by a rising Jewish settler movement attaining greater mainstream political influence in Israel.
The performance of President Joe Biden, who limited his public statements as the conflict escalated to endorsements of Israel’s right to defend itself, was not exactly a surprise to the patriarch. “Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to [Washington],” Patriarch Pizzaballa said. “Usually, [U.S.] diplomatic statements are generic calls to dialogue and nonviolence.”
He speculated, however, that the president’s behind-the-scenes intervention last week might have played an influential role in bringing the bloodshed to an end. “The United States still has a huge role to play in the Middle East and especially in Israel,” he said. “The attitude of the United States can really make a difference in this quagmire.”
On May 24, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken departed for the Middle East to press the Israelis, Palestinians and regional players to build on the Gaza cease-fire. The secretary hopes to start an immediate flow of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and lay the groundwork for an eventual resumption in long-stalled peace talks.
Patriarch Pizzaballa: The status of Jerusalem remains “the heart of the problem,” a “most difficult and delicate” challenge. This time “it was the spark that ignited all of the Holy Land.”
The Associated Press reported that a State Department official, who was not authorized to discuss the trip on the record and spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Blinken would be reviewing with Israeli, Palestinian and regional leaders from Jordan and Egypt how the United States can support Israel and the Palestinians in rebuilding, address the underlying causes that led to this crisis, and advance equal measures of freedom, security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians “in tangible ways.”
The official would not offer specifics as to what those “tangible ways” were, but already donor nations are being asked to look at potential new contributions to reconstruct the excessive damage done to civilian infrastructure in Gaza. The U.N. estimates that about 1,000 homes in Gaza were destroyed by the end of this 11-day war.
Lynn Hastings, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the region, said hundreds of additional housing units were damaged so badly they are likely uninhabitable. According to the U.N., the destruction is less extensive than the outcome of a 50-day war in 2014, when entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble and 141,000 homes were either wiped out or damaged.
The latest revival of the long-term conflict between Israel and militant groups in Gaza followed a familiar pattern in mid-May after Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets were launched into Israel. Hamas officials claimed the rocket attacks were in retaliation for militarized eviction attempts of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, Israeli provocations at the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the at-times-violent suppression of demonstrations in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israel’s devastating response quickly claimed non-combatant casualties and was justified by Israeli and U.S. officials as self-defense against acts of terror.
But this latest round of fighting, Patriarch Pizzaballa said, can be distinguished from previous clashes because it included for the first time a shocking outbreak of violence between Arab and Jewish communities inside Israel. That violence included bands of Israeli Arab and Jewish neighbors destroying properties, defacing mosques and synagogues, and fighting in the streets of a number of Israeli cities. “Israeli Palestinians,” Patriarch Pizzaballa explained, frustrated by their own experience of second-class citizenship, joined protests over the status of East Jerusalem and the attempt to evict Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in an unprecedented show of solidarity.
Patriarch Pizzaballa: “These attitudes have created an ever-deeper separation between Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians. It will take a long time to rebuild these deeply wounded relationships.”
He worries that “further fractures may develop if proper actions are not taken to build peace” and described the sectarian violence within Israel as “the result of years of violent political language, of a culture and politics of rejection of the other.”
“Little by little, these attitudes have created an ever-deeper separation between the two peoples, Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians, which we may not have realized until today,” he said. “It will take a long time to rebuild these deeply wounded relationships.”
A deeper challenge will be rebuilding hope among Palestinians in a political process that has disappointed generations. Young people coming of age in the West Bank and Gaza, the patriarch said, “suffer greatly because of limitations that affect their daily lives and their long-term plans.”
Unemployment and poverty in Gaza were already at 50 percent or higher before this latest destructive conflict and the economic disruption engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite such limitations, Patriarch Pizzaballa said, “the thirst for freedom is very much alive in the new generation.” He does not believe that a renewed intifada is likely, but it is clear that Palestinian young people “have no intention at all of giving up their aspiration for a motherland.” While some resort to violence, other Palestinian youth have taken their resistance to social media, according to the patriarch.
“It will be interesting to see which form this protest will take in the near future,” he said.
To Americans following the conflict, Patriarch Pizzaballa urged an effort to reach a deeper understanding of the region’s competing nationalistic and territorial claims. “Experience has shown that in situations of conflict, listening to all parties involved and analyzing reality through sound historical hermeneutics is a good starting point,” he said, suggesting that those Americans who can should visit the Holy Land for a direct experience of the issues at work in propelling the conflict.
Young people coming of age in the West Bank and Gaza, the patriarch said, “suffer greatly because of limitations that affect their daily lives and their long-term plans.”
And perhaps the sooner, the better. “The two-state option is in need of help,” he said, “because it is built on the premise that the two states can coexist as peaceful neighbors, and this is not the case now.”
He noted that the Holy See and the international community, “as well the majority of those who live in this region,” continue to support the two-state solution, which he called “the only valid solution” even as the accelerating efforts of Israeli settlers on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem continue to undermine its prospects. “You cannot say to the Palestinians that they do not have a right to their own land and to their own nation,” he said.
And as the conflict continues, a vital role for the Catholic Church remains, the patriarch said.
“The Catholic Church has a role in mediating and finding a way to a long-term solution,” Patriarch Pizzaballa said. “It has worked in this capacity for many years and continues to do so, together with its sister churches and with many Christian and non-Christian communities.”
He called the presence of Christian communities of the West Bank, Israel and Gaza “a sign of unity” and an example of tolerance. “There are Christians of many different rites, confessions, languages and nationalities,” he said. “The role of the church as she lives side-by-side with her people is to call forth, out of the collective human consciousness, what God has placed in the human heart: the moral and ethical rights of people to their human dignity and a place in this world.”
“The voice of the church” will continue to proclaim against injustice, he added. “And her charitable outreach to all in need is, and always has been, the role of the church.”