As an Israeli Defense Forces operation into the Gaza Strip entered its second day on July 18, the head of Caritas Jerusalem said he would launch an international appeal for assistance in Gaza and would not wait until the end of the Israel-Hamas hostilities, as he has done in the past. The Rev. Raed Abusahlia, general director of Caritas Jerusalem, said that more than 80,000 Palestinians had been displaced and 1,250 homes had been completely demolished by Israeli airstrikes and the invasion of Gaza in July. He said 80 percent of the Gaza Strip was without electricity and 90 percent of people did not have drinkable water.
“Families are leaving everything behind and they don’t know what they will be coming back to,” he said. “It is very difficult. There will be a lot of work to do afterward.”
Pope Francis telephoned President Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, on July 18, urging all sides to end hostilities. The pope told the leaders that the conflict was creating “numerous victims and was giving way to a state of serious humanitarian emergency,” the Vatican said in a written communique released on July 18.
After 10 days of aerial bombardment in response to missile attacks launched by Hamas and other militant groups, Israel launched a ground offensive on July 17. In an email to Father Abusahlia that night, Amin Sabbagh, coordinator of Gaza Caritas staff, wrote: “We are facing heavy attack from the sea, from the air and from land. There are lots of explosions everywhere, and people are afraid.… The situation is impossible. We pray that the Lord brings his peace upon us.”
“This needs to stop on both sides,” Father Abusahlia said. “We would have liked Hamas to have accepted the ceasefire,” but Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, “don’t want just a ceasefire,” it also wants “the lifting of the blockade and an opening of the crossings from both Israel and Egypt.” Referring to the seven-year Israeli-imposed blockade of the Gaza Strip, he added, “1.7 million people in Gaza should not remain in the [world’s] biggest prison.”
Despite calls by Hamas not to leave their homes, thousands of people in targeted quarters heeded Israeli warnings to evacuate and were being sheltered in U.N. school buildings. Some Palestinians remained in their homes, fearing theft in difficult economic times.
Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem urged Palestinian and Israeli political leaders to accept Pope Francis’ call for an immediate ceasefire. “Many innocent people have been killed. The human pride is terrible, and the result is the loss of innocent people,” Bishop Shomali said. “We need an immediate ceasefire both in southern Israel and in Gaza. People are afraid, tired; they don’t sleep.”
In Jerusalem, Matthew McGarry, country representative for Catholic Relief Services, said he was in regular contact with staff in Gaza. They told him that although militants had been launching missiles toward Israel from civilian areas, many people had also been killed by Israeli airstrikes in areas where there were no launch sites.
A young C.R.S. intern and her family were killed while sitting in their house, he said. “She was just a young woman trying to improve her situation,” he said. “It is very frightening, frustrating and disappointing,” said McGarry. “Clearly this latest round of hostilities is more intense. The indiscriminate targeting of civilians is unacceptable, whoever is doing it.”