In the past few weeks, mainline Christian churches and their umbrella organizations have issued statements about Israeli response to the acts of aggression by Hamas and Hezbollah. These statements typically emphasize Israeli use of force and its impact on civilians — not the Arab violence and aggression that precipitated the current crisis and that continues with devastating consequences to Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese civilians. In short, Israel is judged on the unintended consequences of efforts to protect its citizens, while Hamas and Hezbollah are typically given a pass on their openly-stated goal — the destruction of the Jewish State.
In this framework, churches portray the humanitarian crisis as almost exclusively a result of Israeli action. Ironically, certain Arab leaders have exhibited greater willingness to condemn Hezbollah’s provocations than mainline church leaders.
Below is a review of statements issued by these organizations.
The Mennonite Central Committee
In an action alert issued on July 20, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) suggests that the current round of fighting is partly "due to the ongoing Israeli occupation of the disputed Shebaa Farms area." Because the MCC fails to elaborate on the details of the "dispute," the implication is that Israel is occupying Lebanese territory. (The text of this email alert is at the end of this document).
What the MCC fails to report is that Israel took possession of the Shebaa Farms area from Syria – not Lebanon – during the 1967 War. Moreover, the alert fails to acknowledge that, after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan concluded that "Israel had withdrawn its forces from Lebanon" and that the Israeli-Lebanese border must be respected by "all parties"—including Hezbollah. This conclusion was affirmed by the UN Security Council in 2004 when it adopted Resolution 1583. To be sure, the MCC does deplore Hezbollah's violence; but its misleading reference to the Shebaa Farms suggests that Hezbollah was fighting against an occupation of Lebanon that, in fact, did not exist.
In its discussion of events in Gaza, the MCC’s action alert also states:
In the past month, Israel has been engaged in a similar military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, killing dozens of Palestinians and targeting civilian infrastructure. This has resulted in a humanitarian crisis in the already impoverished Gaza Strip. Hamas has also fired small rockets at Israel and captured one Israeli soldier.
The MCC does not report that Israel fully withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, and that despite this withdrawal – which Palestinian leaders had always demanded – Palestinian rocket attacks into Israeli towns have actually increased. Nor does the action alert reveal that Israel’s operation in Gaza came only in response to the daily rocket barrages and Hamas’s cross-border raid into Israel to kidnap the Israeli soldier — Gilad Shalit.
The document also asserts that international criticism of Hamas and Hezbollah is overblown because "many in the region receive social services from these organizations and see them as legitimate resistance movements to Israel’s occupation," and even goes so far as to suggest the groups, both of which are committed to Israel's destruction, should not be labelled terrorist organizations.In fact, Hamas and Hezbollah’s "social services" are part of far-reaching programs to indoctrinate civilians and to recruit adherents to the groups’ extreme anti-Israel agenda. The MCC statement ignores that agenda.
Finally, the MCC appears unconcerned with the Hamas and Hezbollah policy of employing women and children as shields for rocket-launching.
Evangelical Lutheran Church
In a pastoral letter dated July 17, Rev. Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), wrote that "The kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers has caused a severe reaction from Israeli forces."
The Bishop’s statement does not mention that Israel's "severe reaction" was not only to Hezbollah's bloody cross-border raid, during which the soldiers were kidnapped, but also to the group's rockets attack against communities in northwest Israel (The unprovoked Hezbollah rocket barrage actually preceded the kidnapping.)
Bishop Hanson also failed to condemn ongoing Syrian and Iranian support for Hezbollah, without which the terror organization would have been unable to stockpile over 12,000 rockets of varying range, many of which are being used to kill Israeli civilians.
United Methodist Church
Rev. Randy R. Day, chief executive of the General Board of Global Ministries for the United Methodist Church, issued statement on July 14 that stated: "Neither the attacks of Hezbollah on Israel or the Israeli military actions in Gaza and Lebanon can be justified from the perspective of international law or sound political policy."
This indicates a troubling moral equivalence between Israel’s defensive behavior and the behavior of those who seek its destruction. Rev. Day makes no distinction between the motive behind Israeli actions and the aims of its adversaries–again, Israel works to minimize civilian casualties, while Hezbollah and Hamas target civilians; Israel seeks to protect its existence, while both Hezbollah and Hamas are explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish State.
National Council of Churches
The National Council of Churches and its partner, the Church World Service issued a statement on July 14 that roots the violence almost exclusively in Israeli behavior, beginning its analysis of the conflict with the assertion that "Any hope for peace, itself a miracle in the midst of occupation, was stifled with Israel’s missile strike on Gaza and the death of innocent Palestinians." In an effort to determine which missile strike the statement was referring to, CAMERA contacted Rev. Dan Webster from the NCC’s news office who reported the statement was based on an article published in the New York Times on June 11. This article described an errant Israeli artillery shell that allegedly landed on a Gaza beach on June 9, 2006 and killed eight civilians.
While Israeli officials initially expressed regret for the deaths, it is far from clear that the explosion was caused by an incoming Israeli shell. Israeli officials assert that the explosion took place10 minutes after artillery fire in the area had stopped. Moreover, the IDF has found that shrapnel removed from Palestinian survivors was not from Israeli-made ordnance.
On June 21 – more than three weeks before the NCC issued its statement unequivocally condemning Israel for the Gaza beach explosion – the Jerusalem Post reported that one survivor of the blast was subjected to unnecessary and debilitating surgical cuts while being treated at Shifa Hospital in Gaza, raising the possibility that evidence exonerating Israel was removed from the victim’s body.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the details of the tragedy, the NCC used the episode in its attempt to characterize the recent violence as being a consequence of Israeli provocations.
United Church of Christ
In mid-July, John Thomas, president and general minister of the United Church of Christ, issued a pastoral letter to the denomination’s Palestinian friends and partners complaining about the efforts of Jewish groups to influence the denomination’s statements on the Arab-Israeli conflict. (The letter said nothing about similar efforts by Sabeel, an anti-Israel Palestinian Christian group.) Thomas also reaffirmed a resolution passed in 2005 which asked Israel to take down the security fence (without asking the Palestinians to stop the terror attacks), and condemned Israel’s Christian supporters for focusing on a "few terrorist acts." The letter made no mention whatsoever of the hundreds of rocket attacks launched from Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal in August 2005, nor did it mention Hezbollah’s massive rocket attacks into northern Israel.
Rev. Thomas statement is emblematic of the one-sided, hostile and biased social witness the denomination has offered in response to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Other groups, while still disproportionately focused on Israel's response, were not quite as one-sided:
Presbyterian Church (USA)
In a letter to President Bush, Clifton Kirkpatrick, clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), does denounce Hezbollah’s actions as provocative and acknowledging that Israel has a right to self-defense. It also explicitly calls for Bush to put pressure on Hezbollah to stop attacks on Israel and to return the kidnapped soldiers. This well deserved condemnation of Hezbollah is in striking contrast to statements issued by other mainline Protestant churches and church organizations, which tend to condemn Israel.
Still, the letter accuses Israel of using indiscriminate and disproportionate force in Lebanon, but does not report on the far-reaching steps Israel has taken to avoid unintended casualties, such as dropping leaflets that warn civilians to stay away from Hamas and Hezbollah targets. It is, in fact, Hamas and Hezbollah which use indiscriminately fire rockets at Israeli civilians, often from within Arab population centers, an act which guarantees civilian casualties on both sides.
Hezbollah’s practices have prompted a rebuke from Jan Egeland, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator for the United Nations: "Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending ... among women and children," Egeland said. "I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don't think anyone should be proud of having many more women and children dead than armed men."
Pax Christi International, a peace organization that draws its support from adherents of the Roman Catholic Church, issued a statement on July 24 that focuses in detail on Israel's response to attacks against it, but failes to acknowledge Arab responsibility for those attacks. For example, the statement states that "A series of recent events in Gaza led to Palestinian rocket attacks and the abduction of an Israeli soldier. Israel arrested several Hamas parliamentarians, attacked Palestinian ministerial buildings and later, launched a massive attack on the Gaza Strip. Since the start of the Israeli operation "Summer Rain" on the 28th of June 2006, the civilian population has been deprived of access to electricity, water and humanitarian aid, largely the result of the destruction of bridges and the only power station in the Gaza Strip."
What Pax Christi International’s narrative does not include is the ongoing rocket attacks emanating from Gaza (even after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal). Moreover, by using the phrase "A series of recent events" the statement suggests that Israel somehow provoked the rocket attacks and the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. It is also important to note that the statement does not mention the kidnapping and murder of Eliahu Asheri on June 25, nor does it acknowledge that Israel has allowed trucks carrying humanitarian supplies into Gaza.
The statement also asserts that the actions of the Israeli government put Lebanon’s fragile democracy at risk without acknowledging Hezbollah’s usurpation of Lebanese sovereignty in the southern part of the country and its unilateral actions that pulled the nation into war.
Nevertheless, there are a few bright spots in the statement, including:
• A call for the unconditional release of captured Israeli soldiers.
• An acknowledgment of Iranian and Syrian support for Hezbollah.
At the same time, Pax Christi’s presence in the United States, known as Pax Christi USA, issued a one-sided statement on July 21 that condemned Israel for "disproportionate use of force ... against the people of Lebanon and Gaza."
The statement continues: "The intentional targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure is unconscionable and a flagrant violation by Israel of the Geneva Conventions. We urge the Israeli government to immediately cease military action against the people of Lebanon and Gaza and to commit to finding a diplomatic solution which leads to peace. We urge Hezbollah to immediately cease its cross-border attacks and to release captured Israeli soldiers."
This statement clearly mis-characterizes the facts. Israel is not targeting civilians and is not targeting the people of Lebanon and Gaza, but is in fact, taking extreme precautions to prevent civilian casualties. Hezbollah, which receives a much milder rebuke, openly targets civilians while hiding amongst civilians.
There are several commonalities apparent in these and other statements issued by Churches and Church organizations since July 12. These commonalities include:
• An attempt to portray Israeli use of force solely as an overreaction to kidnappings (by themselves and act of war) without acknowledging the hundreds of rocket attacks against Israeli civilians launched by Hamas since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the rocket attacks that preceded the Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers;
• A failure to acknowledge that Hezbollah has, with Syrian and Iranian support, stockpiled weapons for use against Israel;
• A failure to acknowledge the fundamental difference between the motives of the warring parties. Israel uses force to protect its citizens; Hamas and Hezbollah use force in an effort to destroy the Jewish State;
• A failure to acknowledge the fundamental difference between the practices of the warring parties. Israel works to avoid civilian casualties by warning people to leave areas before attacks; Hamas and Hezbollah target civilians while hiding amongst their own civilians, guaranteeing civilian casualties. Hezbollah has also used checkpoints to prevent Lebanese civilians from fleeing combat areas; and
• A failure to acknowledge that Israel was attacked by territory from which it had previously withdrawn from in the pursuit of peace.
It is also important to note that the organizations that offered these statements offered little if any criticism of Hamas and Hezbollah’s provocative actions before Israel responded. Criticism of Hamas and Hezbollah’s misdeeds typically serves as an adjunct to statements primarily focused on condemning Israel.
Regarding the recent events in Gaza and Lebanon, mainstream Churches and the umbrella organizations they support, have offered a distorted picture that is all too consistent with a broader misrepresentation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Appendix – Mennonite Central Committee Alert
TO: MCC Middle East Advocates
FROM: J. Daryl Byler (MCC Washington Office)
RE: Middle East Crisis
DATE: July 20, 2006
ISSUE Violence reached new levels in the Middle East in the past week, as Israel launched a major military offensive against Hezbollah forces in Lebanon in response to Hezbollah's kidnapping of several Israeli troops. Already, some 300 Lebanese and 30 Israelis have been killed in the fighting. There is potential for the violence to spread further, as some are blaming Syria and Iran for supporting Hezbollah. The region is already extremely volatile due to the situations in the Gaza Strip and Iraq.
BACKGROUND In 2000, Israel withdrew from a "buffer zone" that it had occupied in southern Lebanon for many years. U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, adopted in September 2004, calls for "the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias," which would include Hezbollah. But Hezbollah has grown stronger and tensions between Israel and Hezbollah have simmered due to the ongoing Israeli occupation of the disputed Shebaa Farms area, the continuing Israeli detention of several Lebanese prisoners, and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On July 12, Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon launched Katyusha rockets aimed at Israeli outposts in the Shebaa Farms area and the Israeli town of Shlomi. Hezbollah forces also briefly crossed Israel's border and captured two Israeli soldiers. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared this to be an "act of war." Israel has bombed suspected Hezbollah sites and civilian infrastructure across Lebanon, including the runways at Beirut International Airport, and formed a naval blockade on Lebanon's Mediterranean shore. Hezbollah continues to fire rockets into Israel, some reaching as far south as Haifa. Ken and Kass Seitz, MCC Lebanon country representatives, write that it is "very painful to witness . . . this country, still in the process of rebuilding and getting on its feet from the previous war (1975-1992), torn apart again." BBC News has interviewed Bassam Shamoun, long-term Lebanese staff worker with MCC. His reflections on the current situation can be found at http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/2/hi/middle_east/5188732.stm and an MCC podcast interview can be heard at www.mcc.org. In the past month, Israel has been engaged in a similar military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, killing dozens of Palestinians and targeting civilian infrastructure. This has resulted in a humanitarian crisis in the already impoverished Gaza Strip. Hamas has also fired small rockets at Israel and captured one Israeli soldier.
FAITH REFLECTION "A king is not saved by his great army;" reflects the psalmist, "a warrioris not delivered by his great strength" (Psalm 34:16). And yet for thousands of years, nations and resistance groups have sought to prove otherwise. Rather than living into Isaiah's vision of a day when nations will no longer learn war (Isaiah 2:4), nations have instead builtincreasingly powerful and precise weapons and sought to control others with threats and the use of force. The biblical prophets, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament taught that peace can only be built on the practice of justice (Isaiah 32:17), that loving enemies is the only way to live like God's children (Matthew5:43-48), and that good is the only force strong enough to overcome evil (Romans 12:21). Neither hostage taking and acts of terror, nor overwhelming force, targeted assassinations and naval blockades will create the conditions for peace and security. Indeed, they cannot, for they do not lead to mutual understanding or the practice of justice.
ACTION Urge President Bush to take constructive steps that will: 1) prevent this conflict from escalating further; and 2) address the root causes of the conflict. You may wish to make points such as the following:
* Ask President Bush to call for an immediate cease fire and to use hisinfluence to promote direct talks between Israel and Hamas and Israel andHezbollah. Remind him that the current approach is creating a humanitariandisaster and could easily escalate into a broader regional conflict thatwill not serve U.S. interests or those of Middle Eastern nations.
* Urge President Bush to take an even-handed approach to the conflict.While Israel has been a long-term U.S. ally, it is not helpful to place all the blame on Hezbollah and Hamas. The United States and Israel may labelHezbollah and Hamas as terrorist groups, but many in the region receivesocial services from these organizations and see them as legitimateresistance movements to Israel's occupation.
* Urge President Bush to return the U.S. ambassador to Syria and towork toward normalization of relationships with Iran. If the U.S. hopes tobe a helpful player in the region, it must build mutually respectfulface-to-face relationships with all players.
President George W. Bush
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
(202) 456-1414 FAX