United Church of Christ Leaders Condemn Hezbollah But Still Miss the Point

In a statement dated July 26 and posted on the denomination’s web site the following day, Rev. Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ and Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, executive minister of the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries, called for an end to violence in the Middle East and for the United States and the international community “to work diplomatically and urgently to reach a cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel, and Hamas and Israel and to pursue negotiations toward a sustainable peace in the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

While the statement lacks the contempt and indifference toward concerns of Jewish safety evidenced by Rev. Thomas’ pastoral letter to the UCC’s Palestinian partners in the region and acknowledges and condemns Hezbollah’s hatred toward Israel, the statement exhibits the same habits of thought and patterns of speech that have marred previous statements from the denomination’s constituent bodies and leaders. In particular, the statement:

Applies the doctrine of sovereignty in a discriminatory manner;

  • Fails to acknowledge Israel’s efforts to prevent civilian casualties;
  • Fails to acknowledge that Hezbollah’s tactics are designed to cause civilian casualties on both sides of the conflict;
  • Fails to acknowledge the role Hezbollah has played in the harm caused to Lebanon’s infrastructure by the conflict;
  • Roots the conflict in Israeli intransigence;
  • Legitimizes Hezbollah’s demand for the release of two terrorists and one spy; and
  • Portrays Israel as an aggressor, regardless of the provocations to which it is subject.

Criticism of Hezbollah

Notably, the statement devotes two sentences to exclusively condemning Hezbollah’s behavior:

We call on Hezbollah to release the Israeli soldiers in its hostage (sic) and end its provocative attacks and hatred against Israel. Hezbollah’s rocket attacks against northern Israel, while effecting little military advantage, have instilled terror in civilian populations, killing and wounding many innocent people, and providing Israel with a pretext for pursuing its own attacks.

Criticism of Israel

While the statement does offer criticism of Hezbollah, Israeli conduct elicits substantially more:

We call on Israel to release the thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians it is holding in administrative detention, and to cease its disproportionate assault on Lebanon. While Israel has the right to defend itself, its retaliation has far exceeded efforts to release the soldiers or incapacitate Hezbollah; it is in fact destroying Lebanon. Beyond bombing intended Hezbollah targets, Israel’s military has attacked Lebanese infrastructure and residences, killing hundreds and wounding thousands more. The human catastrophe is enormous. Touring Lebanon, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland declared “It’s very bad, and deteriorating by the day… I’ve seen too many wounded children, and too many desperate civilians fleeing from the fighting.” No equation of war can justify firebombed children as acceptable casualties.

We deeply grieve the careless deaths of innocent civilians, and the massive destruction of homes and vital infrastructure, cities and whole villages. Israel has bombed ports, bridges, and nearly all major roads, preventing many families from fleeing the bombing and humanitarian assistance from being delivered. In the words of Dr. Mary Mikhael, President of the Near East School of Theology and former Partner representative to the Common Global Ministries Board, written last week, “What Lebanon has built in fifteen years, Israel destroyed in 6 days.

Comparing the criticism leveled at Hezbollah and at Israel reveals a profound tendency to hold Israel and its adversaries to different standards. Nevertheless, the fact that the reverends saw fit to explicitly acknowledge and condemn Hezbollah’s “hate” toward Israel does suggest a nascent understanding of the hostility Israel faces from its current adversaries.

Substantial problems remain, however.

Release of Prisoners

By calling on Israel to release “thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese” prisoners, the authors are rewarding Hezbollah’s kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, perpetrated to force Israel to release two known terrorists and an Israeli citizen convicted of espionage.

The people Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah wants released are:

1. Samir Kantar, who on April 22, 1979 led a group of terrorists as they infiltrated Israel from Lebanon and broke into an apartment of the Haran family of Nahariya, took 28-year-old Danny Haram hostage along with his four-year-old daughter Einat. Haram’s wife Smadar, hid in the attic with her two-year-old daughter, Yael, and suffocated the girl while trying desperately to keep her quiet to avoid capture. During a subsequent shoot-out with Israeli policemen and soldiers, the terrorists killed the father and the four-year-old girl in cold blood. Moreover, a policeman and two terrorists accompanying Kantar were killed. Reports indicate the terrorists shot the husband in the head and smashed the girl’s skull with “the butts of their rifles.” (Jan. 24, 2004, Agence France Press)

When previous prisoner release negotiations failed in 2003 because of Israeli refusals to release Kantar, the Associated Press reported the following:

Mohammed Fneish, a Hezbollah legislator, said the group [Hezbollah] would try to kidnap more Israelis if the deal breaks down. “If the pressure cards we have … are not sufficient to convince the Israeli enemy’s government to respect the freedom of our detainees … the Hezbollah command will definitely search for means to force the Israeli enemy’s government to release our detainees,” he told Al Manar TV. (Nov. 10, 2003, Associated Press)

2. Yehia Skaff, who reports indicate was captured in March 1978 on the Israeli coast with Palestinian guerillas who perpetrated an attack that cost 35 Israeli lives. Some reports indicate Skaff died during the attack and possibly drowned. Arab detainees have reported having met Skaff while in detention (Aug. 16, 2004, Associated Press).

3. Nasim Nisr, a Lebanese-born Israeli imprisoned for having contact with Hezbollah. According to a Dec. 12, 2002 report by Agence France Press, Nasr pleaded guilty of espionage and was sentenced to six years in Jail. According to the report, Hezbollah asked Nasr “to produce a map of the Tel Aviv region and mark up all the electricity and gas companies in the area” and “to photograph similar installations in Haifa, northern Israel and the central regions.” It should be noted that Haifa and northern Israel are currently the targets of Hezbollah rocket attacks during the recent fighting.

By unintentionally lending legitimacy to Hezbollah’s campaign of kidnapping, the statements undermines the explicit acknowledgment of Israel’s right to defend itself offered previously in the statem ent. Such acceptance of the terrorist group’s terms can only encourage future kidnappings.

Sovereignty

The discriminatory manner in which the authors apply the doctrine of sovereignty becomes obvious in the following passage:

Israel points to UN Security Council Resolution 1559 to appeal to the international community to sanction Israel’s pursuit of Hezbollah since Lebanon has not down so. Yet UN Resolution 1559 asserts Lebanon’s sovereignty, which Israel is disregarding by its assault. Lebanon’s year-old government, incapable of disarming Hezbollah, is powerless to stop Israel’s assault and unable to deliver aid to its people. Meanwhile Hezbollah is increasing its social services to the needy. We fear that Israel’s campaign will serve to weaken Lebanon’s fragile government and bolster Hezbollah’s image as champion of the people, outcomes that threaten the interests of the U.S. and the region.

Here, the reverends accuse Israel of disregarding Lebanon’s sovereignty, while obliquely acknowledging that the Lebanese government is incapable of living up to the obligations of a sovereign state, namely to prevent its territory from being used as a staging ground for attacks against neighboring states.

Moreover, the reverends criticize Israel for violating Lebanon’s sovereignty, when in fact, it was a violation of Israel’s sovereignty by Hezbollah that initiated the current round of violence. Nor do the authors acknowledge that Hezbollah’s missile attacks and kidnapping, in addition to being an assault on Israeli sovereignty, are also a usurpation of Lebanese sovereignty. In short, the authors acknowledge only one so-called violation of sovereignty – that of Lebanon by the Jewish State – while ignoring two other instances in which sovereignty has been violated.

This is a common element of the Protestant pattern of speech about the Arab-Israeli conflict; the social witness of mainline churches is not stirred by Arab and Muslim violence against Israel, but is triggered, with few exceptions, by Israeli response to this violence.

If the reverends are truly worried about the prospects of Hezbollah being perceived as a champion of the people, why not work more forcefully to condemn its actions which put civilians at risk, thereby helping to expose its populist facade?

Civilian Casualties/Infrastructure Damage

In the statement’s description of Israel’s behavior and its impact on infrastructure and civilians, the reverends ignore an important truth about the goals and tactics of Hezbollah. Hezbollah is openly dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish State because Israel is located on land previously conquered and ruled by Muslims. To this end, Hezbollah seeks to terrorize Israelis by targeting its civilians and delegitimize Israel in world public opinion by launching attacks from heavily populated Lebanese areas so as to generate condemnations when Israel acts to defend itself.

It should be noted however, that according to Article 28 of the Fourth Geneva Convention:,”The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.”  This is exactly what Hezbollah has attempted to do – render itself exempt from military action by hiding its terrorists and equipment in heavily populated areas. Reverends Thomas and Rogers-Witte say nothing about this, nor do they acknowledge Israel’s efforts to prevent civilian casualties in Lebanon through the extensive use of leaflets, cell phone text messages and radio announcements. They ignore reports of Hezbollah keeping civilians in combat zones under gunpoint. Israel has vigorously leafleted combat areas, warning civilians to get out of the way; Hezbollah has been firing its un-targeted rockets indiscriminately, and without warning, at civilian populations.

By failing to point out and condemn Hezbollah’s actions while at the same time condemning Israel for unintended consequences of its efforts to protect its citizens, Reverends Thomas and Rogers-Witte are rewarding Hezbollah, helping ensure these tactics will be used again in the future. Consequently, more civilians will be put at risk.

In addition, what Lebanon built in 15 years has not been destroyed by Israel in six days. The New York Times recently published a report about the clear divide between the areas in Beirut and Lebanon, between areas targeted by Israel as Hezbollah strongholds and the areas Israel has left entirely alone where people are free to carry on their lives freely.

Israel’s Alleged Intransigence

With the phrase “providing Israel with a pretext for pursuing its own attacks,” Reverends Thomas and Rogers-Witte suggest that the real cause of the conflict is not Hezbollah’s aggression and Arab refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist but underlying Israeli intransigence that seeks to exploit any provocation. In addition, the assertion that Israel has used the rain of missiles on its people, towns, cities and countryside as “a pretext” to confront Hezbollah radically misrepresents the magnitude of threat posed by Hezbollah’s assault both regionally and in its global dimension.

Thus, while the authors thoughtlessly attribute to Hezbollah humanitarian concern for the Lebanese people despite the fact that the group puts civilians at risk, they attribute malevolent intentions to Israel’s actions to protect itself.

The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is replete with instances in which Israelis have worked to render their state acceptable to its adversaries, but which have failed as a result of a refusal by the Arab and Muslim world to negotiate with Israel.

For example, the Arab nations refused to negotiate after the 1967 Six Day War, when Israel came into control of the West Bank and Gaza. Instead they issued the notorious three “no’s” – no recognition, no negotiation and no peace. Most recently in the Camp David/Taba negotiations of 2000/2001, Israel made a far-reaching land-for-peace offer only to be rebuffed by the Palestinians who refused even to make a counter-offer and launched an unprecedented terror campaign. It should also be noted that the current round of attacks against Israel were launched from Gaza and Lebanon, areas that Israel withdrew from in an effort to achieve peace.

By leveling the preponderance of their criticism against Israel, the authors of this statement support the misguided notion that it is overwhelmingly within Israel’s power – a nation of barely six million in a Muslim-dominated region of 300 million – to determine the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

History demonstrates the limits of Israeli concessions in the face of Arab and Muslim aggression. Territorial concessions on Israel’s part have not brought an end to the siege that it has faced since its creation. The refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist is the true root of the suffering caused by the conflict.

Conclusion

The recent statement issued by the UCC shows signs of improvement in the denomination’s public witness regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it is still quite far from characterizing the conflict in a full, fair and accurate manner. Only when the leaders and constituent bodies of the UCC examine their habits of mind and patterns of speech about the Arab-Israeli conflict can the church’s prophetic voice be used effectively to promote genuine peace and end suffering in the region.