One of the most disheartening aspects about Christian commentary regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict is that Christian leaders typically find Palestinian violence against Israel unremarkable. In other words, they usually wait until Israel responds to attacks against it before condemning Palestinian provocations. Israeli use of force by itself is enough to trigger Christian condemnation; Palestinian violence, however, is not. Condemnations of Palestinian violence, when they are made, are almost invariably preceded by condemnations of Israel.
And when Christians criticize both Israel and the Palestinians in a show of even-handedness, they offer robust, specific and theologically-grounded criticism of Israeli policies while giving much lighter treatment to Palestinian acts of war. Israeli actions are condemned on moral grounds; Palestinian actions are typically portrayed as tactical or strategic errors.
Christian commentary about the Arab-Israeli conflict is also marked by another troubling tendency of describing Palestinian suffering in great detail while describing Israeli suffering in vague abstract terms or sometimes ignoring it altogether.
The Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, a grouping of Christian leaders that includes Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch who openly denies the Jewish people the right to a sovereign state of their own, have issued a statement that has done all these things in less than 500 words.
Not only does the statement underscore the Christian tendency to refrain from commenting on episodes of the Arab-Israeli conflict until Israel responds to Palestinian provocation, the document also condemns Israel in very specific and theologically based terms, while portraying Palestinian violence as merely a tactical mistake. And lastly, the document offers a detailed depiction of Palestinian suffering, but makes no mention at all of the Israelis living under the threat of rocket and mortar attacks since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
In the Name of God
The statement, issued on Jan. 22, 2008, bemoans the suffering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip caused by the Israeli decision to tighten restrictions on goods flowing into the Hamas-controlled territory. The Israelis tightened restrictions on the flow of goods into the territory in response to a substantial increase in rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. The statement calls upon the Israeli government to end the siege. The document begins as follows:
In the Name of God, end the siege over Gaza.
One and a half million people imprisoned and without proper food or medicine. 800,000 without electricity supply; this is illegal collective punishment, an immoral act in violation of the basic human and natural laws as well as International Law. It cannot be tolerated anymore. The siege over Gaza should end now.
Voices from our people there say "We feel the threat of being exterminated by this siege"
One obvious question is why the Heads of Churches did not invoke God in calling for an end to Hamass rocket attacks against Israeli civilians but only invoked the name of God in its call for Israel to end the siege. Another question the Bishops should ask themselves is if they really expect Israel to provide fuel and electricity to the residents of a territory governed by Hamas, an organization dedicated to Israels destruction and engaged in ongoing acts of war against Israeli civilians.
Israeli Suffering Ignored
True to form, the Heads of Churches offer no detail whatsoever of Israeli suffering caused by Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks. Information from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides some context:
More than 4,000 rockets and mortar shells have been fired into Israel by Hamas and other terrorist organizations since Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005. The daily rocket fire has deliberately targeted civilian communities in Israel, making life in its towns and villages in the vicinity of Gaza unbearable. In recent weeks, Hamas has escalated rocket fire against Israel. Since January 1 2008, Palestinian terrorists have fired more than 420 rockets and mortar shells into Israel, over 200 of which were fired in a span of four days last week.
Tellingly, the leaders make no mention of the suffering of the residents of Sderot, where school children must stay alert for sirens warning of an impending attack and where children have been wetting their beds out of fear. Apparently, Arab residents of the Gaza Strip are worthy of the Bishops sympathy; Jewish residents of Sderot are not.
Hamas not mentioned
The Bishops suggestion that the residents of Gaza Strip face the threat of extermination as a result of the restrictions imposed by Israel in response to escalating attacks fails to take into account Hamass role in manufacturing this crisis. But if the Heads of Churches are unable to connect the dots between Hamass actions and the suffering of the Gaza Strip, it appears that at least some Palestinian leaders are able to do so. According to the Jerusalem Post:
A top PA official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post that Hamas was "holding more than 1.5 million Palestinians hostage" in an attempt to rally the Arab and Muslim masses against the PA and Israel
"Of course, we strongly condemn the Israeli measures against the residents of the Gaza Strip, but Hamas is also responsible for what's happening there," he said. "Unfortunately, the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are paying a heavy price for Hamas's irresponsible actions."
The official also accused Hamas of ordering owners of bakeries to keep their businesses closed for the second day running to create a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. "Hamas is preventing people from buying bread," he said. "They want to deepen the crisis so as to serve their own interests."
The official said that contrary to Hamas's claims, there is enough fuel and flour to keep the bakeries in the Gaza Strip operating for another two months. "Hamas members have stolen most of the fuel in the Gaza Strip to fill their vehicles," he said.
In reference to Hamass role in creating the crisis, the Heads of Christian Churches in Jerusalem can only muster the following oblique and mealy-mouthed admonition:
We would say to all concerned parties; while ever you persist in firing rockets into Israel you encourage public opinion outside this Land to feel there is a justification for this siege.
A more realistic and honest response from the Heads of Churches would be to affirm that Hamas is morally responsible for the suffering of both the residents of the Gaza Strip and Sderot because it allows the territory it controls to be used as a launching pad for rocket attacks against Israel. Instead, the Heads of Churches merely condemn the rocket attacks as a strategic error. Most responsible commentators would regard indiscriminate rocket attacks on civilian populations as an immoral act; the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem apparently do not. In fact, the Bishops cannot even bring themselves to mention Hamas by name in their statement.
The Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem also offer (bad) strategic advice to the Israelis stating This siege will not guarantee the end to rocket firing, but will only increase the bitterness and suffering and invite more revenge, while the innocents keep dying.
In fact, it appears that the restrictions may achieve their desired goal. According to the Boston Globe, Israel has eased restrictions on aid into the Gaza Strip in response to a decrease in rocket attacks.
If the Heads of Churches can target Israel for criticism, why are they unable to mention Hamas by name? Their criticism of Israel is robust and direct; their criticism of Hamas is diffuse, oblique and weak.
And if the Heads of churches can describe in detail the suffering of the residents of Gaza, why cant they offer one word of comfort directly to the Israeli residents of Sderot?
The ultimate question facing the Christian Heads of Churches in Jerusalem, and their audiences in the U.S. is what can Bishops in Jerusalem do to promote responsible and accountable leadership in Palestinian society ?
Apparently not very much.