JERUSALEM - Six months after the end of the most recent war in Gaza, there is still a "grave humanitarian crisis" in the narrow strip wedged between the Egyptian and Israeli borders, where more than 1.8 million Palestinians live closed off to the world because of an international embargo.

Published in International

JERUSALEM - Catholic aid organizations are hopeful that the most recent ceasefire between Israel and Hamas will hold as they begin to assess the needs in Gaza after 50 days of war.

Published in International

AMMAN, Jordan - Humanitarians and the people of the Gaza Strip are apprehensive about whether there will be a renewal of the truce between Israel and the militant Hamas, said a U.S. Catholic aid official.

Published in International

AMMAN, Jordan - A top Catholic charity official described Gaza as a "complete catastrophe" after nearly four weeks of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas.

Published in International

WASHINGTON - The head of a Michigan-based tour company that leads trips to the Holy Land said the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas so far has not had an impact on pilgrimages he and his associates lead.

Published in International

JERUSALEM - With most international airlines cancelling their flights into Israel's Ben Gurion airport after several Hamas missiles were launched toward the area July 22, Anton Mousallam has only three words on his mind: cancellation, cancellation, cancellation.

Published in International

JERUSALEM - The head of Caritas in Jerusalem said he would launch an international appeal to help with the Gaza Strip and would not wait until the end of Israeli-Hamas hostilities, as he had done in the past.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI condemned escalating hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, saying hatred and violence are never an appropriate solution to problems.

He also called for greater efforts to promote a truce and peace negotiations.

"I am following with great concern the escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip," the Pope said at the end of his general audience Nov. 21.

"Hatred and violence are not the solution to problems," he said to applause from those gathered in the Paul VI hall.

"I encourage the initiatives and efforts of those who are seeking to establish a ceasefire and to promote negotiations."

He also called on leaders on both sides of the conflict to make "courageous decisions in favour of peace and put an end to a conflict that has negative repercussions throughout the entire Middle East region, which is already troubled by too many conflicts and is in need of peace and reconciliation."

The Pope expressed his closeness to victims and all those suffering because of the violence.

His appeal came as both sides in the conflict launched fresh attacks. Just hours before the Pope spoke, a bomb exploded on a bus in Tel Aviv, wounding at least 10 people. That attack followed a week-long Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip aimed at stopping rocket strikes by Palestinian militants.

More than 130 Palestinians and at least five Israelis have been killed since Israel launched its offensive.

Published in International

JERUSALEM - As diplomatic efforts were underway to reach a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel Nov. 20, Catholics on both sides of the Gaza border prayed for peace.

"When we pray for peace, we pray for peace for everyone," said Fr. Yoel Salvaterra, who serves the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Beersheba, after a morning in which more than 20 rockets landed in the city. "Our prayers have no borders. We know we are suffering here and they are suffering there. It is just suffering."

Egypt was reported to have been brokering a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and the Israeli government late Nov. 20, according to news reports.

The parish celebrated Mass Nov. 18 in the church bomb shelter, Salvaterra said, and only 15 people came to pray, about half the normal number. The community has about 150 members.

"People live in fear," he said. "Everybody is staying home. Sometimes they call me for assurance, sometimes I call them. The situation has not been easy as even before the Israeli operation we suffered from rockets once or twice a month. The uncertainty was difficult."

Though several homes in Beersheba took direct hits from the rockets, no one from the community has been injured, he said.

Going to Sunday Mass is a way of supporting one another and finding strength through prayer, said Rafoul Assy, 50, who hails from the northern all-Melkite village of Fassuta and has lived in Beersheba for more than 20 years. Although Assy was unable to attend Mass because of his work, he said his wife and four children found comfort in the familiar routine of the prayers.

"The Mass itself took only three-quarters of an hour but they stayed there for over an hour talking to the other people," said Assy. "It is difficult for the children. They spend their days in the bomb shelter. Every time there is a siren the little one grabs the iPad and runs to the shelter. They are afraid."

In Gaza, George Antone, 31, project manager for the Pontifical Mission for Palestine, told Catholic News Service Nov. 20 that people are staying home because it is too risky to leave. No one knows where Israel's bombs may land next, he said.

"The situation here is terrible. Last night it was as if we were living in hell. Every 15 minutes you could hear an explosion."

One member of Holy Family parish in Gaza died of a heart attack during a bombing and had just been buried at the church cemetery, he said. Otherwise, people leave their homes only to get essentials. Supplies such as fuel and bread are running low because flour can't be delivered to the bakeries, he said.

"I don't like the killing on either side. I respect life," Antone said. "This is not the way in which we can find a solution. Peace never comes with blood. That is what we say to the people in church. This will lead to nothing only a very bad scenario on both sides and the people will pay the price."

He added that he sees the conflict between Hamas and the Israeli government as not only political but also one stemming from religious fanaticism from both Muslims and Jews.

"We Christians are not political, we call for peace and to save lives," Antone said. "This conflict will lead to nothing. We pray a real truce will be reached and then afterward they have to start negotiating for peace. That is the only way to solve the problem. They have to sit and speak and find a way where there will be no war for our children and the coming generations."

In a Nov. 19 report Sami El-Yousef, regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association's office in Jerusalem, noted widespread destruction in Gaza and said almost all of the Christian institutions have sustained some damage from the shelling in the form of broken glass and doors.

He said children and the elderly are paying the heaviest price and called for prayers that the hostilities would end as soon as possible.

Published in International


JERUSALEM - The Israeli government and leaders of Hamas must make courageous decisions to end the violence that has once again forced residents of Southern Israel into their bomb shelters and residents of the Gaza Strip into their homes, said Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem.

"We are sad for this escalation. It does not lead to peace but only leads to more violence," Bishop Shomali told Catholic News Service Nov. 16. "This is a vicious circle of violence and (retaliation) is really not the solution. Courageous decisions need to be taken from the part of Israel and also on the part of Hamas not to remain in the circle of retaliation."

He said simultaneous international intervention from Egypt and the United States is needed for the violence to stop.

"Left alone, Israel and Hamas will remain in a circle of retaliation," he said.

"The most important thing is to find a comprehensive solution to the whole Palestinian-Israeli conflict; if not, we will remain with the same retaliations and the same problems," he said.

Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said 120 rockets were fired into southern Israeli communities from Nov. 10 to Nov. 14, when Israel launched air strikes that targeted and killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. More than 90 Palestinians and at least three Israelis had died in the violence as of Nov. 19.

In a Nov. 15 statement, Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal expressed his deep concern at the escalation, reiterating that violence will not solve the crisis. Only a global solution can find a resolution to the conflict, said a statement from his office.

"In this particular tense context, the patriarch is in solidarity with all victims who are at the center of his thoughts and prayers," the statement said. "He also prays that all those in position of responsibility in this situation do not give in to hate."

Throughout the crisis Zion Evrony, Israel's ambassador to the Holy See, was making phone calls to Vatican officials and journalists to explain his country's position.

"The Palestinian people are not our enemy; Hamas and the other terrorist organizations are," he told Catholic News Service Nov. 19. "We deeply regret the loss of life of non-involved civilians."

The ambassador said the Israeli government made "tens of thousands of phone calls" and dropped leaflets in Gaza advising people to stay away from Hamas organization buildings and rocket launch sites before it began its retaliation bombing.

Israel cannot "sit idly by and not respond" when Hamas now has rockets and missiles capable of striking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, putting an estimated 3 million people at risk.

The current tension will end, he said, only when Hamas stops firing missiles and rockets into Israeli territory. But in the end, the real solution to the ongoing conflict will have to be "the existence of two states living side by side in peace."

Sami El-Yousef, regional director for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association's Pontifical Mission office in Jerusalem, said he has been in touch with the organization's partners in the Gaza Strip and it appears that Israel is specifically targeting the Hamas leadership, as opposed to the 2008 incursion that involved large-scale destruction of civilian residential areas.

"So far in this early stage we are not seeing the large-scale destruction (we saw in 2008). It remains to be seen if ... it will escalate to much greater damage," El-Yousef said Nov. 16. As many as 1,400 Palestinians died in the 2008 incursion.

He noted that Egypt is also under a different regime, and it is likely that the borders to Gaza will be more open and accessible to moving goods and services and allow people to reach hospitals. After the election of the Hamas government in 2007, Israel blockaded the Gaza Strip, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak enforced the blockade during the 2008 attacks.

El-Yousef said civilians in Gaza rushed to bakeries to buy bread following the assassination of the Hamas leader, and many food stores have run out of supplies. People are under curfew and are very concerned about any possible ground operation escalating the violence.

"The next couple of days will be critical as to where this is heading," he said. "Based on that, we need to assess the situation and decide how to respond."

El-Yousef said he had been in Gaza three weeks earlier and "things were looking up." CNEWA was hopeful that staffers would be able to look at sustainable issues where people could take over their lives and move out of the humanitarian needs, he said.

The situation will continue like this, he said, "unless both sides are willing to take difficult decisions."
He said Israel was wrong to think that if it can get rid of a Hamas leader, the whole organization will collapse.

"There will be someone to replace him ... and they will have to deal with someone much worse. With each possible new person, they are dealing with a more and more extreme leadership, and the likelihood of reaching a solution becomes more difficult," he said. "The cycle gets worse and worse. This is going nowhere and just creating more hatred."

He said he hopes that new leaders in the Middle East might play a positive role in calming things down so that a lasting solution can be found.

"What we have now is conflict management rather than resolution," he said.
- - -
Contributing to this story was Cindy Wooden at the Vatican.

Published in International
Page 2 of 2