By Philip S. Powell, 31st July 2014
Israel began Operation Protective Edge against the Hamas militants in the Gaza strip on 8 July. Since then over 1,400 Palestinians have been killed, mostly civilians, including hundreds of teenagers and young children. Also 58 Israelis have been killed - 56 soldiers and two civilians.
For those of us in the West, far away from the conflict, we watch on TV images of bombed buildings, weeping parents next to their dead children and hospital beds with patients suffering terrible injuries with that numb feeling of helplessness in not knowing what to do.
The government of Israel, in fact every government in the world, has a responsibility to protect the lives and property of its citizens against military threats, and therefore has decided to act decisively to deal with the threat from Hamas. But this is only one side of the story. On the other side the Palestinian people have been waiting for almost seven decades for the creation of their state, as was promised by the United Nations, while in the meantime dealing with the harsh realities of living as second-class citizens under Israeli rule and helplessly watching their land being confiscated and occupied by the state of Israel.
This has led to two competing narratives about the conflict that are based on rejecting the other and wanting the same thing – the land. It should also be mentioned that the “two narratives” do not mean the two sides are equal; in fact one side has one of the most powerful armies in the world, financed and resourced by America, and the other is largely a defenceless refugee population living under an Israeli blockade. One wonders how there can be peace in the Middle East without justice for the Palestinian people.
However, there is not only an actual conflict going on in the Middle East, there is also a media-war going on around the world between these two sides, or rather between the two different narratives about the conflict. Facebook and Twitter are full of posts and tweets about the conflict with both sides promoting videos, images and news articles that will confirm and prove the rightness of their own cause in the conflict.
What should Christians think and do?
The relationship between Gentile Christians and Jews is a complicated one. Christians are deeply divided over what is the right relationship between the Church of Jesus, himself a Jew, and the Jewish people who see themselves as the biological descendants of Jacob, who was later renamed Israel. Broadly speaking there are two divergent views, along with several different perspectives and interpretations of the place of the Jews in relation to the Christian faith. Some Christians believe that God still has a special Covenant relationship with the Jewish people and in 1948 miraculously created the state of Israel as a homeland for his chosen people. It is even argued that the tiny nation of Israel is the second hand in the giant clock of time, moving the whole of world history towards its final climax. Some even suggest that how Christians relate to Israel may determine their own salvation.
Other Christians believe that in the coming of Jesus, the messianic promises and hopes of the Jewish nation have already been fulfilled and the only reality in history that now matters is the Kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated. A kingdom in which both Jews and Gentiles are one because they are a new creation in Christ. Jesus Christ is the focal-point and climax of world history, not the Jewish people, the temple or the Holy Land. The Bible says, God so loved the world, not God so loved the Jews, that he gave His only begotten Son.
Nevertheless, regardless of what Christians today think about the Jewish people and the state of Israel, sadly, in the history of the church, Christians have engaged in the most vicious forms of anti-Semitism, factors that contributed in Europe to the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust, which obliterated six million Jews during World War II. Consequently many Christians still have a sense of guilt and shame about how the Church has treated and acted towards the Jews. All this means it is very difficult to know how to think clearly and biblically about the present Israel-Palestine conflict in Gaza and respond in a prayerful and compassionate manner.
Every Christian has been called by Jesus, the great Prince of Peace, to be a peacemaker in the world. Despite what is currently happening, we must earnestly pray and act in the hope that one day God will establish justice and peace in the Middle East. The Jubilee Centre published a Cambridge Paper Jerusalem: at the centre of God's plans? by Peter Walker. The author explains that both the Jews and the Palestinians have to give up their cherished ideals of a homeland that belongs exclusively to only one group. He writes “Yet in this painful situation, where ideals are having to be surrendered, one wonders if the God of surprises might not be mysteriously at work. Might those who have set their heart too intently on Jerusalem now come to see him who is truly on ‘centre stage’?”
The Jubilee Centre’s spin-off organisation, Concordis International also published a report from their consultation “The Role of UK Churches in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” in 2009. The Report explores the barriers to peace and the possibility of collaborative action across a variety of groups in the future.
The escalation of violence and innocent bloodshed, the anger and despair felt around world, can make us feel confused and hopeless but it is worth remembering what Pope Francis prayed when he hosted the Presidents of both Palestine and Israel, Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres, for an evening service at the Vatican on the 8th June:
“Lord, God of Abraham, God of the Prophets, God of Love, you created us and you call us to live as brothers and sisters. Give us the strength daily to be instruments of peace; enable us to see everyone who crosses our path as our brother or sister. Make us sensitive to the plea of our citizens who entreat us to turn our weapons of war into implements of peace, our trepidation into confident trust, and our quarrelling into forgiveness.”