The seven-week long Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza ended on Aug. 26, leaving more than 2,000 Palestinians and 67 Israelis dead and widespread destruction in Gaza. But if the situation on the ground does not change soon another war could break out again, Bishop William Shomali, the auxiliary-bishop of the Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, warns in this exclusive interview with America.
To avoid a fourth such war, in which “everyone loses,” the Palestinian-born bishop hopes that the U.S. will engage this time in “a strong mediation” to broker peace and foster reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, with the help of those states that are close to the two peoples.
Q. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza has ended. What are your feelings? What has this done to both peoples?
A. Yes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza has ended, for the moment. But it left behind a lot of hatred in the hearts of the two peoples. The gap between both peoples is now more difficult to fill. Peace seems to have fled. So far nothing of what was hoped for from the ceasefire has happened. My feeling: it was an absurd, nonsense war. It was a war in which both sides are losers.
Q. You have visited Gaza since the truce was agreed. What have you seen?
A. Yes, since then I was able to visit Gaza. Entering Gaza through the neighborhood district of Shuja’iyya I was surprised by the volume of destruction; it seemed the aftermath of an earthquake. I saw people on the street looking for water, and finding water in tanks put on the streets by Caritas Jerusalem. Everyone I met was speaking about what happened during the seven weeks of war. People were traumatized. It is rare to find a house which didn’t suffer awfully. I know too that some families in Gaza disappeared completely: father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, children. All dead. I know also that from the Israeli side more than 65 soldiers passed away; this is another suffering for their families. I feel for the victims on both sides, but the destruction in Gaza was more important, far greater.
The Christians of Gaza were also hurt by the war. Two houses were completely destroyed. Another 60 houses, that is 25 percent of all the Christian houses there, were damaged by shells and need repair.
Q. What struck you most as you stood in the midst of all this human suffering and destruction?
A. As I stood in the midst of all this human suffering and destruction I was struck by a question: Why Lord, why all these wars? Why this third war between Gaza and Israel? Cannot human beings find a solution? Cannot the international community impose a solution on peoples who don’t find any way to an agreement? I had only questions in my head, without answers.
Q. As you look ahead to the coming weeks and months, what do you fear? What do you hope for?
A. What do I fear? I fear that the same causes lead to the same results. In less than five years we had three wars, each one worse than the other. If there is no peace and reconciliation a fourth war may take place. This is what I am afraid of; and another war makes more hatred and more hatred makes more wars. It is a vicious circle.
What do I hope for? I hope for a strong mediation coming from the United States, from all the countries which are close to Palestinians and Israelis. A strong mediation can produce something. I hope for an Israeli Rabin who could really make peace, who will try at least to find peace. I hope that Hamas will become more moderate and that Mahmoud Abbas could control Gaza, in this case, he will impose more restraint in Gaza. He is not responsible for this war, he was against it and he is blaming Hamas for it. But at the same time this war is caused because of the failure of the peace process after the American mediation with Mr. Kerry. This is the last, the deepest reason for this war: the failure of the peace process. There was a frozen peace process between Palestinians and Israelis, and people in Gaza lived in a desperate situation where they were like being in a jail, unable to move, unable to go to the sea to fish, unable to find work, unable to introduce merchandise. So the feeling of being in a jail is a serious cause for this war.
Q. Where is this all going to end?
A. Really I don’t know! From one side my mind tells me that craziness and foolishness may continue and lead to the same results. But my faith tells me that peace is coming, sooner or later, and that the prayer encounter in the Vatican gardens, united to the prayer of millions of people of goodwill among Christians, Muslims and Jews will lead to peace. I believe that the answer of the Lord will come. It will come later on. Surprisingly. Maybe after five years, maybe less, maybe more. But my faith, my heart tells me that there will be a solution and this will encourage the peacemakers to continue their work, and not to be afraid from another failure.
Q. What has the church in the Holy Land to say as it surveys the damage and looks to the future?
A. In the short term, we are really willing to help people who have suffered in Gaza. The Catholic organizations worked very hard during the war, giving water, food, medical instruments, medicines, even carburetors because the hospitals didn’t have electricity, only generators and they needed four carburetors. Now we have to repair our schools which were damaged by the war and start the new academic year. I should also add that all the different churches and many Muslims recognize the role of the church in alleviating the suffering of the people during the seven weeks of the war.
In the longer term, we have to continue our advocacy and tell people, tell politicians, to work harder because peace is possible. I would like also to underline that reconciliation between two peoples is the unique solution; reconciliation based on the international resolutions, a reconciliation which would lead to the two-state solution according to the borders of pre-June 1967. Reconciliation is a win-win solution, while war is a lose-lose solution. We have to repeat this to everyone, and pray for reconciliation. I believe that our work and prayers will produce justice and peace.
Q. On the plane returning from Korea, Pope Francis spoke about the levels of cruelty and torture in today’s world, and said this should frighten us and cause us to reflect.
A. I agree with the Holy Father about cruelty and torture. Each war is cruel. It’s more cruel when children, women and innocent people, sick people, handicapped people suffer without reason.
The last war in Gaza caused the death of more than 500 children. Some newspapers mentioned that during the same period of the seven weeks (of the conflict) 5,000 children were born in Gaza as if the 5,000 make up for the 500, as if it is was just a problem of number. But the child is not a number; he or she is a human being who hopes to live, to grow up and gain the same respect as other children. Children are the first victims of war because they are defenseless. I had the same impression when I saw the Yazidis, the Christians and others escaping from the cruelty of the Islamic State; the children are the first victims.
Here too, as the Holy Father said, you have to add torture. Torture is diabolic. It makes others suffer, and this suffering gives some satisfaction to that person who practices torture. The Islamic States went so far in their persecution of the minorities—Shiites, Christians and Yazidis that after centuries of human progress in every field it is unbelievable how humanity can go backward and become subhuman and inhuman. For this reason I hope that the United Nations together with the 10 countries that met in England will make efforts to neutralize the Islamic State and also allow the minorities to defend themselves. It is not normal that a jeep of some members of the Islamic State can come and cause a whole village to flee under threat. People have full right to defend themselves.
Europe learned from two World Wars to be more human, to collaborate more and to find the way of peace, so too I hope that the Middle East, including Palestinians and Israelis, will learn from the past wars how to find peace, reconciliation and prosperity.