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David Neuhaus, S.J.November 16, 2023
Left: A Palestinian woman mourns over the bodies of her relatives who were killed in Israeli airstrikes that hit a Greek Orthodox church, in Gaza City, Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Abed Khaled, File) Right: People mourn during the funeral for Israeli Col. Roy Joseph Levy at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem Oct. 15, 2023. (OSV News photo/Lisi Niesner, Reuters)

In the early morning of Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, for Jews not only Sabbath but also Simchat Torah, a holy day celebrating the reading of the Torah, hundreds of armed Palestinian militants from Hamas broke through the barriers between the Gaza Strip and Israel or floated above them, pouring into Israel. They were accompanied by a barrage of missiles fired into Israel. They sowed terror and wreaked havoc, killing about 1,200, wounding thousands more and kidnapping over 240 Israeli soldiers and civilians.

The planning, implementation and ferocity of the attack took Israel by surprise—not only because Israeli intelligence had not uncovered the plot beforehand but also because the army took such a long time to neutralize the threat. Israelis were left shocked and horrified, while many Palestinians watched with a certain sense of vindication and some even rejoiced. Israel immediately responded with an intensive bombardment of Gaza, calling up its military reserves and massing its troops on the border with Gaza. The pounding intensity of the Israeli response was not only a reaction to the horrors that had been committed but also an attempt to restore some sense of security in military superiority after the shameful negligence that had allowed the attacks to take place.

How does one try to formulate a discourse that can encourage moderation, support dialogue and promote reconciliation even in the midst of battle?

The next day, Sunday, Oct. 8, Pope Francis addressed the world in his Angelus address:

I am following apprehensively and sorrowfully what is happening in Israel where violence has exploded yet more ferociously, causing hundreds of deaths and injured. I express my closeness to the families of the victims. I am praying for them and for all who are living hours of terror and anguish. May the attacks and weapons stop. Please! And may it be understood that terrorism and war do not lead to any resolutions, but only to the death and suffering of many innocent people. War is a defeat! Every war is a defeat. Let us pray that there be peace in Israel and in Palestine.

The Israeli Embassy to the Holy See reacted to this statement and those that followed with unease, claiming that the Holy Father and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s secretary of state, were using a discourse that manifested “linguistic ambiguities and terms that allude to a false symmetry.” In insisting that Israel had a legitimate right to self-defense but should not indiscriminately bomb Gaza, the Holy See, the Israeli Embassy argued, was “suggesting parallelisms where they do not exist.”

The issue raised is a serious one. What language should one use to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? This is especially urgent at this time when the conflict takes on dimensions of violence that are unprecedented and emotions run high. How does one try to formulate a discourse that can encourage moderation, support dialogue and promote reconciliation even in the midst of battle? The issues involved are complex, but one must first recognize the morally problematic discourse that is being used by both sides in the conflict in order to dominate the narrative and garner uncritical support.

Whose side are you on?

The two sides to the decades-long conflict, Israelis and Palestinians, not only oppose each other with military arsenals but also attempt to mobilize public opinion at home and abroad in order to justify their actions. The military battle is parallel to the battle to control the images, sounds and words that are broadcast from the battlefield.

On the one hand, terrifying images of armed and masked Hamas militants pouring into Israel and wreaking destruction, killing, raping and maiming in a drunken orgy of vengeance began to appear in the media. These images capture the massacres of the Israeli men, women and children who were mowed down in the area bordering the Gaza Strip, among them hundreds of young people killed while at a music festival and dozens slaughtered, including babies in their cribs, in the taking of the small village of Kfar Aza. The scenes show bodies strewn in public places and in homes, with countless body bags displayed for all to see the enormity of the carnage. Photographs and short videos document the elderly women and young children taken hostage by Hamas, dragged back into the Gaza Strip together with dozens of others, provoking profound terror and searing rage.

On the other hand, Israel’s pummeling of the Gaza Strip with its sophisticated armory of precision weapons has provided a parallel and very different canon of images. Neighborhoods have been erased and high-rise buildings reduced to rubble in seconds, with thousands of Gazan men, women and children buried in the ruins. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans fleeing their homes provide more images of panic and desperation. On Oct. 13, the Israeli army ordered Gazans to evacuate the entire northern part of the Gaza Strip. Images of the flow of people carrying a few precious belongings added to the collection of heart-rending scenes.

The military battle is parallel to the battle to control the images, sounds and words that are broadcast from the battlefield.

This roll of images shows daily the extraction of an unending stream of bodies of men, women and children from their bombed homes, the writhing agony of the wounded carried off to overcrowded, underdeveloped and grossly overloaded hospitals, the non-stop shrieks of parents or children of the dead, their relatives and friends, gathered around the corpses of their loved ones.

The selection of images is at the heart of the implacable demand from both sides for uncritical solidarity, for support for the right to self-defense and legitimation of the means used against the other. In this battle for public opinion, many stand with Israel and many others with the Palestinians.

In the aftermath of the initial Hamas attack, President Biden declared that his country’s support for Israel was “rock solid and unwavering.” Leaders from major Western European countries followed suit. Israeli suffering was showcased to explain these unilateral manifestations of support. Israeli victims have names, faces, families and voices that cry out their pain in the media. Massive demonstrations have supported Israel, screaming out their condemnation of Hamas, some using expressions redolent of racism, anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia.

Palestinian suffering, although seemingly passed over by those who support Israel, is showcased in Arab, Muslim and many other countries, again galvanizing the sense that the world is unjust, that the powerful side with the powerful and the poor continue to be mercilessly exploited. Massive demonstrations of supporters of the Palestinians screamed out their condemnation of Israel, some using expressions redolent of antisemitism, and manifested a fury at what was termed the hypocrisy of mourning Jewish victims and ignoring Palestinian ones.

Who started it?

Israelis and Palestinians produce very different narratives concerning who is to blame for what is happening. In times of war, it is comforting to know who are the good and who are the bad; that way, the aggressor and the aggressed can be clearly separated from one another, one cheered on and the other excoriated.

On Oct. 7, Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, proclaimed: “We will take mighty vengeance,” as Israel launched its military campaign, named “Operation Swords of Iron.” For those supporting Israel, it is clear that the narrative begins on that black Saturday morning. Israeli President Isaac Herzog stated the following in his meeting with the press on October 12 : “There was no reason at all for this flaring up which ended in the worst tragedy that was ever inflicted in the history of Israel, and the highest number of Jews killed since the Holocaust, including Holocaust survivors.”

In the weeks and months leading up to the attack, Israelis had been focused on the dream that seemed within reach. Israel was about to sign a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, strongly supported by the U.S. administration. This was a further step in a process of normalization agreements with different Arab countries in the Arabian Gulf and North Africa that promised a new era of prosperity and economic cooperation. The Abraham Accords pushed the Palestinian question out of the limelight. Now, suddenly, from the margins, a surge of violence shattered the calm, and Israelis found themselves facing an existential threat of new proportions.

The militants who streamed across the border took Israel by surprise; the threat from the Palestinians had seemed a thing of the past. For the Israelis, it had been reduced to barely noticeable skirmishes, especially in the West Bank, where confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians would result in the deaths of a few Israeli soldiers and settlers and many more Palestinians, militants and civilians caught in the crossfire. The proportions of what happened on Oct. 7, however, not only raised a very acute question about the invincibility of Israel’s military and intelligence network but also raised the terrifying question about whether the state of Israel is after all a safe haven for Jews fleeing violence in a world in which they were a marginal and often persecuted minority.

Muhammad Dayf, the supreme commander of Hamas’s military wing, named this stage of the ongoing conflict “Al-Aqsa Storm” and declared: “Enough is enough!” Hamas declared that this incursion into Israel was itself a response to an ongoing occupation and repression that have been going on for decades. More precisely, Palestinians pointed to increasing Israeli attacks and repressive policies directed against Palestinians throughout the territories Israel had occupied since the Netanyahu rightwing coalition came to power, as well as the intensifying activity of Jewish extremists in the area of Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif (what Jews often call the Temple Mount). For those supporting the Palestinians, the success of Hamas’s attack surprised them as much as it did Israel. Well planned, well executed and devastatingly successful in its initial aims, the attack is not seen as a beginning but as a response to a long series of Israeli acts of violence.

Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, said a few days before the present events that the Gaza Strip was “an open-air prison.”

The attack is justified by Hamas supporters as a reaction to the regime that has kept them enclosed in an overpopulated strip of land, mostly filled with sprawling refugee camps; Israel, they argue, has kept the Gaza Strip under a stranglehold siege. Refugees in Gaza constitute about 70 percent of the population, people driven out of the territories of the new state of Israel in 1948 and their descendants. The dire living conditions since then, worsened by periodic periods of confrontation with Israel since Hamas came to power in 2006, have left it battered and bruised, its population bleeding and its infrastructure regularly devastated. Furthermore, since 2006, the strip has been under a siege that deprives its residents of minimal conditions for life, prosperity and development. The newly-instituted Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, whose diocese includes Gaza, said a few days before the present events that the Gaza Strip was “an open-air prison.”

The shocking question for the Israeli establishment that polices the prison from the outside is this: How did the Hamas militants get out? This question hovers over the Israeli establishment and will certainly be taken up when this round of hostilities ends. However, another question must be asked as well: What motivated the Hamas militants? What can explain the almost unimaginable spree of slaughter that left hundreds of dead on that black Saturday? Are the young men involved inhuman killing machines by birth, by genetic make-up, or because of their culture or religion? Or should their violent reaction be understood within the conditions in which they and their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have been living as the world has looked the other way? Understanding context does not remove culpability for participating in horrendous acts of brutality, but it is the only way to stop a cycle of violence that has gone on for too long. Can these questions even be asked side by side without falling into the trap of legitimizing violence against either Israelis or Palestinians?

Demonizing the other

The word “terrorist” plays an important role in each side’s presentation of what is happening. A few days into the war, John Simpson of the BBC defended the decision of the BBC not to call Hamas terrorists. “The answer goes right back to the BBC’s founding principles. Terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally. It’s simply not the BBC’s job to tell people who to support and who to condemn—who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” The U.K. defense secretary, Grant Shapps, said that this policy verged on the disgraceful.

This is one part of a battle to formulate discourse that can communicate the events in a war. The two sides are eager to show the other as demonic.

The Israeli point of view

In the media battle, supporters of Israel portray Hamas as Nazis, as ISIS, as servants of the evil empire of Islamic Iran. The use of images of some Palestinians rejoicing in the horrors visited upon Israelis solidifies the sense of horror and the contempt. Supporters of Israel point out that the people of Gaza elected Hamas and so argue that they are responsible for their own misfortune. Pointing to the long history of antisemitism and contempt for Jews in so many parts of the world, supporters of Israel present Israelis as the victims of unprovoked violence at the hands of bloodthirsty Palestinian terrorists, continuity in the suffering of the Jews throughout history.

Prominent Israeli journalist Alon Goldstein wrote: “As terrible as it is, it is also that simple; throughout each generation, there are those aiming to annihilate us because we are Jews. Now we face despicable creatures, reincarnated Nazis, Amalek.” He argued that this history justified Israel “strik[ing] the Arab enemy with a force that would bring it to its knees, hurt each and every family and rue the day that they ever crossed the Gaza border.”

The belief that victory is attainable by defeating the enemy in pitiless warfare is at the heart of the rhetoric of war. This is perhaps the most venomous myth in any conflict.

Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, said that “Hamas terrorists bound, burned and executed children. They are savages…. Hamas is ISIS.” Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, said that the war against Hamas is in a direct line with the war against ISIS. These portrayals were echoed by President Biden in his remarks on Oct. 10 underlining that the United States stands with Israel. He referred to the Hamas attack as “pure unadulterated evil,” arguing that Hamas’s reason for being is “to kill Jews.”

In the light of the fight against evil, the divisions that marked Israeli society in the past months have evaporated. Furthermore, the marked reservations that the Biden administration expressed with regard to Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition have also vanished, as Mr. Biden not only regularly calls in to express his support for Israel but also sends a steady stream of officials to manifest that support concretely, bringing assurances of diplomatic, military and economic assistance.

The Palestinian point of view

However, in the Arab and Muslim worlds and in many countries that have known colonialism, racism and exclusion, the Palestinians have succeeded in linking their struggle to a worldwide liberation struggle against colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy. Israelis are presented as colonial supremacists engaged in decades of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland. Hamas justifies the cruelty of its militants by portraying Israelis as colonial settlers whose only interest is the oppression and eventual extinction of Palestinians. Hamas has explained that it does not target civilians, chillingly adding that the elderly, babies, children and youth are all part of the colonial Zionist project to deprive Palestinians of their rights and banish them from the stage of history.

One of the outspoken supporters of the Palestinians, Gustavo Petro, the leftist president of Colombia, likened Israeli declarations on the war against Gaza and its military actions to Nazi practices on his Twitter account: “No democrat in the world can accept Gaza being turned into a concentration camp.” President Cyril Ramphosa of South Africa, wearing a Palestinian scarf in solidarity, declared that Israeli treatment of Palestinians smacked of apartheid, the evil regime that South Africans had fought against.

The portrayal of the other side as demonic justifies the means used to fight it. The enemy is dehumanized, commonly likened to savage animals that have lost any shadow of humanity, morality or logic, killing machines that can only be stopped by brutal and merciless war. Ultimately, there is little room for the recognition that there are civilians on the other side, innocent bystanders who are the first victims in this logic of total war, whether they are being targeted deliberately, as in the attacks on Oct. 7, or their deaths are being justified as collateral damage even when they vastly outnumber legitimate military targets. Whatever its logic, a rhetoric that minimizes concern for noncombatants strengthens fear, hatred and an inexhaustible desire for revenge.

Violence and victory

Fed by what seems like an unquenchable thirst for revenge, both sides to the conflict propose that violence will bring victory. The belief that victory is attainable by defeating the enemy in pitiless warfare is at the heart of the rhetoric of war. This is perhaps the most venomous myth in any conflict.

This is not the first time that Israel has been taken by surprise. In 1973, a joint Egyptian and Syrian attack on Israel on Yom Kippur caught Israel off-guard. It took the Israelis a number of days to repulse the attacks. The war is celebrated as a victory by Egypt and Syria even though ultimately the Israeli military prevailed. Interestingly, within five years, Israel and Egypt had signed peace accords sponsored by the United States.

The latest Palestinian incursion into Israel took place almost 40 years to the day after the outbreak of the 1973 war. But the conflict between Israel and Egypt was between two neighbors sharing a common border: Negotiations could settle border disputes. The current conflict is far more complex, as there are no clear borders between Israel and the Palestinians. The borders proposed by the U.N. Partition Plan in 1947, then by international law after the armistice agreement in 1949, then by the failed negotiations imposed by the United States in the 1990s, have left Palestinians stateless. Furthermore, increasingly extremist Israeli governments have refused to recognize that the Palestinians have a right to a sovereign state with defined borders. Might the intensity of the present conflict and the terrible losses on both sides take us beyond the horizon of endless war with a growing recognition that victory is illusive and continued violence is ultimately suicidal?

The word of the church

The international community seems to have given up on trying to play a moderating role in the conflict, and those peace plans that were proposed by various international parties have gone nowhere. Since the breakdown in the U.S.-sponsored Israel-Palestine peace process initiated in the mid-1990s, there has been little prospect of a change in the situation on the ground. Mr. Netanyahu’s latest ruling coalition includes in its ranks members who are implacable foes of any compromise with the Palestinians. In the Palestinian arena, the Palestinian Authority leadership has been challenged by Islamic movements that have expressed particularly vociferous opposition to compromise or dialogue with Israelis. Meanwhile, Israel continues to expand its presence in the territories meant to constitute a homeland for Palestinians, strangling hope of a new horizon.

In this context, the presence of the Catholic Church is particularly needed. Free of the constraints of political interests and avoiding as much as possible the games of international diplomacy, the church can be prophetic in reminding all that every human being—yes, even a Hamas militant or a Zionist settler—is created in the image and likeness of God. The church can remind humanity, and especially Israelis and Palestinians, that we are all called to a different path, one of justice, peace, equality and reconciliation rather than that of war, violence, vengeance and hatred. The church can afford to be “naïve” and promote the belief that tomorrow can be different from today, that the mistakes of yesterday do not need to condition the fate of humanity.

The church has as its vocation the ministry of the word, the Word made flesh being at its center. The church is called to witness to a different reality than that of division and strife. The ministry of the word is one in which the words spoken by the church can unlock new horizons, creative possibilities and bear witness to them.

In a dramatic response to a question from a journalist, Cardinal Pizzaballa offered himself in exchange for the Israeli children held hostage by Hamas. In solidarity with the suffering, he would no doubt also offer himself in exchange for the Palestinian children buried under the bombs dropped in Gaza. In a letter he addressed to the faithful on Oct. 24, 2023, Cardinal Pizzaballa expressed his anguish:

To have the courage of love and peace here, today, means not allowing hatred, revenge, anger and pain to occupy all the space of our hearts, of our speech, of our thinking. It means making a personal commitment to justice, being able to affirm and denounce the painful truth of injustice and evil that surrounds us, without letting it pollute our relationships. It means being committed, being convinced that it is still worthwhile to do all we can for peace, justice, equality and reconciliation. Our speech must not be about death and closed doors. On the contrary, our words must be creative, lifegiving, they must give perspective and open horizons.

On Oct. 15, Pope Francis published an apostolic exhortation to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of St. ​​Thérèse of Lisieux. In his description of the life and theology of this beloved saint, much venerated throughout the Middle East, he wrote words that might be a fitting reflection for these dark days in Israel/Palestine:

It is trust that brings us to love and thus sets us free from fear. It is trust that helps us to stop looking to ourselves and enables us to put into God’s hands what he alone can accomplish. Doing so provides us with an immense source of love and energy for seeking the good of our brothers and sisters.

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