Monday, October 9, 2023

A New Outbreak of Terrorism and War in Israel and Palestine

Last Saturday, the Islamic terrorist group Hamas carried out a massive attack on Israeli territory, using advanced technology to disable and breach the wall surrounding Palestinian Gaza and invade Israeli territory, seizing hostages and brutally murdering hundreds of men, women, and children in Israeli villages and at a local music festival. At the same time, rockets were fired from Hamas outposts in Gaza against Israeli targets.

My heart and soul go out to everyone who has suffered because of this monstrous and shameful attack, especially my many Jewish friends whose loved ones may have been impacted, or may still be in danger. This all must be terrifying in ways I can scarcely imagine. There is so much frustration, pain, and sadness that still afflict so many Israeli people: good people who wish only to live in their own homes, in safety and security, without grand ideological ambitions, in peace, freedom, and equity with all their neighbors who come from diverse religious and cultural traditions.

Why is there so much violence on this little piece of earth?

The political and military leaders of the State of Israel are determined to do whatever it takes to fight terrorism with all the power at their disposal—to restrain, cut off, and uproot the sources of danger to their people and their nation. But how? Are there means available that are not tainted by retaliation, feeding the cycle of violence, taking revenge for the shedding of innocent blood by shedding more innocent blood? Many good people find that this question has forced itself upon them. How hard it can be, in the face of great danger! It’s not a situation anyone would choose to face. In these circumstances, alas, it has evoked a response that increases suffering and sorrow.

Taken totally by surprise by the weekend attack, Israel has declared war on Hamas and has begun relentlessly bombing Gaza. The awful fact remains that these criminal and barbaric Hamas terrorists embed themselves and operate in the midst of the extremely densely populated and impoverished people of Gaza; they are indistinguishable from the rest of the 2+ million civilian inhabitants crowded into the confines of 365 square kilometers of the Eastern Mediterranean shore. Gaza’s Palestinian people—including women, children, and the elderly—are inevitably the victims of an ongoing Israeli bombardment of their region as Israel tries to seek out and destroy Hamas.

The present tragedy is that a “war against Hamas” (even motivated by an effort of self-defense) means war against the entire population of Gaza. Forgive me, but I cannot be silent: this kind of indiscriminate “total war” is never justifiable and can never bear fruit. There is no effective way to limit the destruction it unleashes. As a Catholic, I think that Vatican II expresses it well when it teaches that “war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (Gaudium et Spes 80). This teaching is also a reasonable inference drawn from the truth about human nature and the dignity of human persons. 

Yet the tremendous fears of the Israeli people are also reasonable, awful, and accurate: Hamas seems to have “upped its game” as a sophisticated and coordinated military threat that can plan unprecedented invasion projects and deploy technical force in new and more dangerous ways. It is hard to imagine that they could have acquired these capacities without third party training and support. Syria and Iran has been indicated as possible sponsors, and behind these Islamic countries that oppose any form of the State of Israel there lurks the long shadow of another hegemonic and increasingly nihilistic power that at this very moment continues to prove its dedication to waging criminal warfare. We cannot assume that Russia has ceased to export its ruthless and destructive tactics to violent militants in Africa and the Middle East, even though the notorious Wagner Group has allegedly been disbanded. It’s certainly “convenient” for Russia’s expansionist war in Ukraine that another “front” has opened up in the Middle East that will divide the attention of NATO, the United States of America, and the U.N. and perhaps draw that attention away from Russia’s plan to pummel the civilian infrastructure of Ukraine this coming winter.

Meanwhile, Palestinians and Israelis appear to be trapped in a toxic and intractable situation that will bring further death, destruction, and misery to countless Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the place known as “The Holy Land.” Alas, it’s a very old and very long story. In its most recent chapters, the modern dynamic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a running source of hatred and violence that has been passed from generation to generation. It has been a constant feature of world news for my entire life.

I have not so much as a hint of how to resolve these conflicts. 

I know that I want the modern nation of Israel to flourish as a homeland for the Jewish people, who have such ancient roots and such a unique history in relation to this land. I also want others who call this region home to have their rights and freedoms fully respected. Religious freedom and uninhibited access to the places of pilgrimage (some of which are considered “holy” by Jews, Muslims, and Christians) are fundamentally necessary. In the abstract, there is widespread agreement on these points, but particular claims and counterclaims have become tied in knots that no one seems to know how to unravel. Assertions of power, terrorism, and war have only tightened the knots. Negotiations and mutual concessions take place between leaders, only to be reinterpreted by new political leaders or rejected by new militant “movements” (like Hamas).

Over the years, I have learned a little about the legitimate needs and the unjust actions of the various parties that have fought over this territory since I was four years old. Peace, even in the form of “coexistence” (which is the lowest level of human interaction, but which will suffice for now, in the present circumstances), along with respect for the rights, needs, and legitimate aspirations of everyone, the renunciation of violence, the commitment to ongoing dialogue to resolve disputes and understand one another better: these are the substance of agreements made by political leaders in treaties again and again and again.

Political leaders cry, “Peace!” but their is no peace. War rages in the ancient land that is so specially loved by God, the land of God’s covenant, of the Law and the prophets; the land where God Himself began to dwell with the human race and—by the events of His crucifixion and resurrection—won for the human heart an ineradicable destiny of union with Himself. Why?! Why so much bloodshed? 

The theologian might respond that “if the Lord’s Providence permits this terrible warfare, it must be because He foresees that it will ultimately lead to a greater peace that glorifies His infinite mercy.” It’s easy enough to say these words, and ultimately I think they are true. But this “theological observation” does not reduce the existential horror of these acts of violence, destruction, and death. What do I know about these raw, harsh realities? As a thinker and writer—and an old fool who has scarcely begun to understand the meaning of the words he has played games with all his life—I grasp for words like straws when confronted with the terrifying need to struggle against the twisted ways of the human heart when it is bent upon evil. I grasp for words, like the long reeds growing on the riverbank that I would lunge for when my boat was overturned, desperately hoping they might help keep me from being swept away by the raging current. 

Words: they may even be true, but they may also hurl us more deeply into the Mystery that sometimes seems so obscure—because we cannot make our eyes or our hearts “large enough” to trust the ineffable ways that Love triumphs over evil. Yet we must trust in the ways of Love. We don’t “understand” and maybe all we can do is suffer these ways of Love, suffering in hope (so seemingly fragile and yet resilient enough to give us strength to take the next step)—hanging on to the hope that Love’s promise will be fulfilled. Ultimately, where else can we go? God is Love, and we must never give up seeking and working for God’s peace even in the face of apparent impossibility.

But my heart finds no consolation, right now, in mere words. I weep for this sacred land. It has been like an open wound in this modern world—a world that has such ardent desires for “peace” without really knowing what peace is. Perhaps the suffering of the Middle East, along with so many other open wounds throughout the world, will open our hearts to an encounter with the One whose peace changes us, and thereby brings greater peace to the world. I weep, and I long for this peace; I beg for it, as I mourn the awful deaths of so many of my Jewish, Muslim, and Christian brothers and sisters and the corresponding afflictions brought down upon perpetrators and victims alike.

I weep and pray.