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What should we think about the Gaza crisis?

At the time of writing, over 1800 Palestinians and 67 Israelis have been killed in the present crisis which began on 8th July. Israeli forces have been attacking the Gaza strip from land, air and sea in response to the firing of rockets and the use of tunnels under the border by Hamas fighters infiltrating Israel. The great majority of the Palestinian deaths have been civilians, including many children; all but three of the Israelis have been soldiers.

The Gaza strip is a small, densely populated area of land between Israel and Egypt. Since 2007, it has been ruled by Hamas, an organisation on the extreme wing of Palestinian politics and regarded as terrorists by most Western countries as well as Israel and Egypt. Other important things to know about Hamas are that it refuses to recognise the existence of the state of Israel, that it has repeatedly engaged in violence against Israel – and that it was democratically elected as the government of Gaza.

Apart from being appalled at the human cost of this conflict, what should Christians think about it, and how should we respond? What should we think about the modern state of Israel in general, and this conflict in particular? We have to admit that Christians are divided on the issue, and there are various reasons for that. I’m not going to attempt a complete response in this short post: I will simply offer a few pointers that should help our response. This is intended primarily for our own church, though I am very happy for others to make use of it. I know that not everyone will agree, and I’ll be glad to discuss further (I hope I don’t live to regret that offer!).

1. History is complicated. People on all sides of the argument like to quote history selectively. For example, those who support Israel tend to overlook the following:

  • the land that became ‘Israel’ in 1948 was not empty, but had been inhabited mostly by Arab peoples under the Ottoman Empire for many centuries;
  • at its foundation, Israel expelled many thousands of peaceful people who have never been allowed to return;
  • many of the early founders of the Israeli state were involved in acts that could well be described as terrorism (‘terrorist’ often turns out to be a slippery term);
  • Israel has for many years been defying international law by occupying of territories outside its borders and its seizure of land that belongs lawfully to Palestinians.

But people on the other side forget things too, for instance:

  • Israel has lived under siege ever since it was founded. On the day the state was established by international agreement, Israel was invaded by the armies of several Arab nations intent on its destruction;
  • Israelis have also lived with the threat of indiscriminate terrorism for many years;
  • and of course, Jewish people have been subject to bitter persecution in Europe for centuries, most terribly in the Holocaust.

The roots of the present conflict go back much further than the last hundred years. So we should avoid sweeping statements based on one or two historical facts, especially when the facts are wrong. Unfortunately, that happens a lot.

2. Israel does not have a divine right to do as it pleases. Many Christians believe that the modern state of Israel is at the heart of God’s purposes for the world, and that the Church has a divinely ordained duty to ‘bless Israel’. This idea has strongly influenced American foreign policy in recent decades. I am convinced that this view is deeply misguided and damaging. It seriously misreads Scriptures such as Ephesians 2 and 3, and indeed the whole sweep of God’s purposes to create a single new humanity in Jesus Christ. But even if it were true, it would not imply that Israel has the right to ignore justice or to trample on the surrounding peoples. Amos 1 and 2 remind us that God will hold every nation accountable for its actions. And the more revelation of God’s character and laws we have received, the higher the bar for judgement. This is fearfully relevant for our own nation, as well as for Israel and its neighbours.

3. Israel does have a right to self-defence. Unless we are pacifists (an honourable position, but not one that the Bible supports), we should be able to agree that any state is allowed to defend itself against attack. Hamas wishes to annihilate Israel. Israel has every right to strike back. However, given point (2), such actions must be proportionate and appropriate, and the response in this crisis has been anything but that. This is true of the whole campaign, and in particular the attacks on schools and UN compounds sheltering thousands of civilians are completely indefensible. It is right to condemn them.

4. The Palestinians have been deprived of justice and driven to despair. Consider what the Palestinian Arabs have suffered since 1967. Very many of them have lived either as refugees or under illegal Israeli occupation. Large areas of their land have been seized. In Gaza, they are confined to a tiny, vulnerable and overcrowded territory, all of whose borders are closed and controlled by others. They are economically poor and politically powerless. It is not surprising that they have been driven to political extremes and, in some cases, to support for terrorism – for which all of them are now being made to suffer. An obvious and powerful side-effect of the Israeli assault on Gaza is that it deepens and perpetuates the inhabitants’ hatred for Israel. It drives more of the population to support the extremists of Hamas. In this sense, the assault is futile and short-sighted.

5. There has been a dismal lack of statesmanship on both sides. If there is any hope for the Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace together, it rests on the imagination and courage of their respective leaders. Parallels are sometimes drawn with the conflicts in Northern Ireland and South Africa. The (incomplete) resolution of those conflicts relied on leaders on both sides who could see beyond the logic of violence and the narrow interests of their own supporters. The Arab-Israeli conflict is more complex than either of those conflicts. But as Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin – an even more unlikely pairing than Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley – showed in 1978-79, progress is not impossible. However, in the present crisis there seems to be no sign of such statesmanship, which could start to bridge the gap between the two sides.

Given this background, then, what should Christians do? Here are some suggestions:

  • Pray for peace and for the relief of suffering. Because God hates oppression and loves justice, we will also be praying for a just peace. But as Christians, we will pray along gospel lines (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We understand that the only final peace is in Jesus Christ, and what people need most is the chance to hear the gospel. So we don’t pray for God to favour one nation over another, but for an open door for the gospel. Prayer matters, and prayer works.
  • Do all that we can to understand the perspectives of the peoples involved and to learn about them.  Their stories will stir our hearts, inform our prayers and keep us from arguing in slogans.
  • Let it be known that we have a concern for both sides in the conflict. Some Muslims, in particular, think that Christians don’t care about the people of Gaza because of ‘Christian’ America’s unwavering support for Israel. God cares about the welfare of them all, and so should we.

As we have opportunity, financially support and pray for agencies who are working for the spiritual and material blessing of the suffering people of Gaza. And don’t forget that the spiritual needs of the Israelis are just as great.

Steve Wilmshurst

Steve is Director of Training for Kensington. He's married to Andrea and they have two daughters, Sarah and Anna. Steve also runs the Cornhill+ training programme.