After an unprecedented Hamas attack against Israel Oct. 7, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem called for world leaders to de-escalate violence, urging a peaceful solution to the conflict in the region.
But while the patriarch did not condemn directly the Hamas attack, a priest living in Israel told The Pillar that Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa faces a difficult prospect as the war begins, with the possibility that a statement from him could cause harm to Palestinian Christians.
“The operation launched from Gaza and the reaction of the Israeli Army are bringing us back to the worst period of our recent history,” Pizzaballa said in an Oct. 7 statement.
“The too many casualties and tragedies, which both Palestinians and Israeli families have to deal with, will create more hatred and division, and will destroy more and more any perspective of stability,” he added.
“We call on the international community, the religious leaders in the region and in the world. To make every effort in helping to de-escalate the situation, restore calm and work to guarantee the fundamental rights of people in the region.”
Pizzaballa’s statement came after Hamas launched a surprise attack against Israel Oct. 7, in which more than 700 people, mostly civilians, were killed.
Among the violence was a surprise attack on a music festival in southern Israel — held to commemorate the Jewish festival of Sukkot — at which some 260 people were killed by Hamas militants. The attack included violence against civilians across Israel, including social media posts suggesting that Hamas attackers have committed acts of sexual assault against Israelis.
Hamas has also claimed to have taken more than 100 hostages to the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory it controls along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel has responded with a siege against the Gaza Strip, with officials reportedly cutting off fuel and water supplies to the territory, and ordering a barrage of missile strikes against Gaza.
Ground battles in Gaza between Israeli forces and Hamas militants are expected in the days to come, after Israel formally declared war against Hamas in response to the attacks.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Hamas attack was coordinated and funded with help from Iran’s military.
World leaders have condemned Hamas’ attack against Israel, with U.S. President Joe Biden saying the U.S. “unequivocally condemns this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas terrorists from Gaza,” and backing an Israeli military response.
But Pizzaballa’s statement was more circumspect, condemning a “cycle of violence” involving Palestinians and Israelis.
Fr. Antoine Levy, OP, an academic who lives in Jerusalem, told The Pillar that the Pizzaballa has to approach his public statements very carefully, because of how they might affect Palestinian Christians, who could face lethal violence if they were perceived to oppose Hamas activities.
The priest, who is Jewish and a convert to Catholicism, said Monday that “the reflex of the Church [amid violence] is always the same: to try to protect her own faithful. The problem is that the majority of Catholic faithful in this region are Palestinians, so they are caught in this fight — boxed in between — and whether they are in hot areas or not, there is considerable pressure in the Palestinian world to support this conflict. So I understand that pastors are trying to limit the damage at the moment — to try to secure some sort of middle line for their parishioners.”
“The patriarch is also caught in this fight, and he knows very, very well where right and wrong lie, but he can not take sides, because the majority of the Catholic faithful are Palestinians, so it’s true for him and for them — they cannot take sides, that would be very, very dangerous for them,” he added.
There are almost 1,100 Palestinian Christians living in the Gaza Strip — a small minority among the region’s population of more than 2 million. In 2017, there were approximately 47,000 Christians living in the West Bank, and more than 100,000 living in Israel.
Caught in the middle of the region’s conflicts, those Christians face unique challenges to their own security.
Christians the in the Gaza Strip “face the same experience as Christian Palestinians in Israel and in the West Bank — but multiplied by 100. They don’t have any margin of maneuver. They need to keep quiet, and even if they’re not fully convinced, they must pretend that they’re fully on the side of Hamas, because that is their only chance of survival,” Levy said.
The Gaza Strip has been subject since 2007 to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade, leaving the region almost entirely dependent on Israel for food, water, and electricity. The blockade came after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip that year, following a military conflict between the Fatah and Hamas parties, and after Hamas’ decision not to recognize Israel, or to disavow violence against Israelis.
Israel, for its part, has been accused of overseeing a blockade which makes Gaza an “open air prison,” according to human rights advocates, while Hamas has continued its own commitment to violence against Israel, leaving the situation a source of ongoing regional conflict.
While political leaders have largely condemned the Hamas attacks, there have also been statements claiming that Israel is responsible for the violence.
The Democratic Socialists of America said in an Oct. 7 statement that the attack is “a direct result of Israel’s apartheid regime—a regime that receives billions in funding from the United States,” with several student organizations in the U.S. offering similar sentiments.
Levy pushed back on that narrative.
Hamas has “built Gaza into a military fortress against Israel,” he charged. “What do you do in this situation?”
The priest said that in his experience, “injustices are inevitable in extremely tense and complicated situations. [But] I also believe that the Israeli police and especially the military do whatever they can to reduce these injustices to the minimum,” the priest told The Pillar.
He added that charges of Israeli injustice do not “justify slaughtering civilians, and kidnapping children, as we have seen these last days.”
The priest said that in his view, “Israel is not going to pull any punches” in its response.
“The priority now for Israel is to get the hostages back, at any cost. It will not matter to them the number of Hamas soldiers they will have to kill. Of course, they will not attack children, they will try to minimize the casualties in the civilian population. But the real decision, hanging over the state of Israel for so many years, is whether Israel wants to eradicate Hamas as a political entity or not. Because Israel knows that if this political entity vanishes — as terrible as it is — what could come in its stead could be even more terrible,” he said.
That decision, the priest said, would dramatically impact the lives of Palestinian Christians.
“How do you deal with complete chaos?” he asked.
The priest said he is uncertain what to expect from the international community as a war continues in the region.
Levy said that as Israel works to extract hostages by force from densely populated Gaza neighborhoods, there will be more bloodshed on both sides of the war, including civilian casualties.
“That’s probably a calculation by Hamas,” he said, adding that Israel is left with few good choices to respond — only with a “little less bad choice” than others.
For his part, Pope Francis on Sunday called for a ceasefire in the Middle East, claiming that “terrorism and war do not lead to any solution, but only to the death and suffering of so many innocent people.”
“War is always a defeat! Every war is a defeat!” he insisted.
Levy said it is possible that the Holy See will attempt to play a mediating role in the conflict in the days to come.
“I think the whole question is whether Hamas is willing to negotiate, and too, if Israel is willing to negotiate. That is far from a given on one side or the other, for the time being. It's a chess match.”
“But if there's some sort of space for de-escalation, well, the Holy See is in a good spot — it is one of the very few powers that is somewhat perceived as neutral on both sides. So it could be a recourse, but that's a big question mark here.”