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This is not a balanced conflict

EVENTS in the Gaza Strip are so fast-moving that, when you read this, the statistics will be outdated. As a surgeon in Gaza City commented, there is simply “too much happening for the media to cover”. But, though it is difficult to convey the impact, it is possible to give an idea.

At the time of writing, about 900 Palestinians have been killed and more than 3500 injured: more than half of the casualties are civilians, and as many as one in four of the victims is a child. Despite its statements that it is aiming at only “terrorist” targets, the Israeli military has hit blocks of flats, refugee camps, passing cars, a market place, mosques, a university, clinics and ambulances, schools, harbours, and even a bird farm. The infrastructure of normal life has been obliterated in a territory the size of a decent-sized European city and already reeling from a siege and Israeli policies of isolation that go back about 20 years. Government minis­tries have been destroyed, and access to water, electricity, and basic foods has been severely affected. This week, Israel is being accused of war crimes in the Gaza Strip by agencies such as the United Nations, the Red Cross, and international and local human-rights groups. But invest­igating specific cases is made harder because Israel has kept the territory off-limits to the inter­national press. The rocket fire from Gaza into Israel has continued, and Israel has sought to blame the bloodshed on Hamas. From last June, there was a six-month informal truce, and Palestinian rockets were reduced by 97 per cent for several months, despite the Israeli blockade. But, on 4 November, Israeli forces conducted an armed raid, killing a handful of Hamas men. After this, Hamas re­launched its rockets. UNSURPRISINGLY, one of the largest-scale losses of life in Palestine/Israel since 1967 has drawn plenty of official responses from Western church leaders and Christian organisations. There have been state­ments and “action alerts” from the Anglican Communion, the Evan­gelical Alliance, the Pope, Roman Catholic bishops from various coun­tries, and in the United States from United Methodists, Presby­terians, and figures such as Jim Wallis. NGOs have also issued reactions. While some Christian groups have spoken out strongly — Christian Aid and World Vision, for example, joined calls for a suspension of talks to upgrade EU-Israel relations — many have repeated well-worn pleas for peace and an end to “cycles” of vio­lence and revenge. Reading these official reactions, you can feel the desperation to achieve “balance”. Yet, in reality, the conflict in Palestine/ Israel is not “balanced”. The Christian response should thus not be arti­ficially, or disingenuously, even-handed. The Palestinians are stateless, col­on­ised, dispossessed, exiled, walled-in, and occupied. Israelis often say that they feel walled in by the Arab states around them. Yet it is a relatively wealthy state, enjoying the military, diplo­matic, and financial support of the largest power in the world. With this backing, it is able to defy UN resolutions and encroach on Pales­tinian territory. THERE are often two obstacles to the taking of an appropriate stance to­wards a just peace in Palestine/Israel by Churches and Christian groups in the West. First, it can be difficult to formulate a meaningful critique of Israeli policies without attracting cries of “excusing terrorism” or “anti-Semitism”. The latter accusation is especially levelled against Christians who join the global movement to put pressure on Israel by using boycotts and disinvestment. Yet it is neither an apologia for the Hamas movement and Palestinian rocket-fire — nor anti-Semitism — to call the destruction in Gaza and the Israeli colonisation of Palestine what it is: illegal, and conducive to con­tinuous war rather than peace. The second obstacle for Christians seeking a just peace is that, in recent times, it has been claimed that Christian Palestinians are being persecuted by Hamas and Muslim Palestinians. The reality is very different. Christian Palestinians, like all Palestinians, often seek emigration for economic reasons. Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories of terri­torial fragmentation, closure, and ethnic separation have crippled the Palestinian economy, hitting hard the disproportionately middle-class Christians. In recent years, the generally positive sectarian relations in Pales­tinian society have been strained. Many Christian Palestinians (and Muslims) have always been uneasy with the Islamist politics of Hamas. Moreover, in the past couple of years, there have been isolated attacks on Christians, such as the killing of Rami Ayyad, the manager of the Bible Society bookshop in Gaza City (News, 12 October 2007). The perpetrators, however, have been tiny radical Islamist groups who are opposed by Hamas, and who have emerged in a context of political des­peration and social collapse. Besides, there is no contra­diction between fighting Israeli apartheid and standing against reac­tionary fanaticism in Palestinian society. More than ever, Christian leaders and Churches need to stand up and be counted. This could mean many things: pilgrimages that show solid­arity with Palestinians; targeted boycotts of Israeli products; writing to MPs; inviting Palestinian speakers; twinning; film screenings; selling Palestinian-made goods. There is no excuse for con­trived neutrality while the Pales­tinians and Jewish Israelis who struggle against colonialism and occupation need our solidarity. The carnage in Gaza should be a wake-up call: Israeli apartheid is a day-to-day reality, even when there is no headline-grabbing violence. Chri­stians must act before it is too late.

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