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‘The Core of the Conflict Is Not Being Dealt With'

An interview with Father David Neuhaus, the Jesuit’s Holy Land Superior on Latest Violence in Israel


Black smoke billows after an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City targeted the Ansar compound, linked to the Hamas movement, in the Gaza Strip on May 14. Israel targeted Gaza and deployed extra troops to the border as Palestinians fired barrages of rockets back, with the death toll in the enclave on the fourth day of conflict climbing to more than 100. (photo: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP via Getty Images)


Register Editors World

May 14, 2021

Civil unrest exploded into violence this week, as Israel and Gaza exchanged rocket fire and street fighting broke out between Jewish and Arab residents in Israeli cities. Now, since May 10, the death toll in Gaza has risen to 122 people as Israel’s ground and air bombardment of the Gaza Strip is stoking fears of an all-out war. Seven people have been killed in the attacks in Israel. Pope Francis is among the world leaders who have called for a rapid deescalation of the conflict.


Jesuit Father David Neuhaus is the superior of the Jesuit community in the Holy Land. A Jewish convert and Scripture scholar, he served until 2017 as the Latin patriarchal vicar for the Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel and the coordinator of the pastoral care for migrant workers and asylum seekers. He is the author, most recently, of Introduction to Judaism for Christian Arabs.


In an email exchange with Register editors, Father Neuhaus discussed the issues leading to the flare-up and the historic roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This week, violence erupted in the Israeli city of Lod, where cars were stoned, offices burned, and mobs rampaged through the streets, attacking innocent bystanders. Would you discuss the nature and scope of the clashes in Israeli neighborhoods, as well as the impact of the exchange of rocket fire between Gaza and Israel?


The conflict was born decades ago, when Jews, seeking a national home, migrated to Palestine, where Palestinian Arabs had their home. Since the beginning of the 20th century, waves of violence have washed over this land, which also happens to be a land seen as holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Following the awareness that dawned on Westerners that Jews had received a very bad deal in many of the countries of Christendom for centuries — a bad deal that reached a catastrophic summit in the events of the Shoah/Holocaust during the Second World War — many Westerners were sympathetic to the Jewish search for security and stability and ignored the Palestinians who were progressively displaced.


Violence has exploded many times in the past in full-scale wars, uprisings and cycles of terrorism and repression. We are now witnessing a new explosion of violence, provoked by events in Jerusalem, at a time when Muslims were marking the month of Ramadan and some Jewish Israelis were celebrating the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in the 1967 War.

Jerusalem is always a simmering cauldron, but tensions overflowed into open violence this time when the Israeli authorities embarked on various fronts in a renewed effort to insist on their control of East Jerusalem. This escalated very fast in rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip and clashes inside Israel proper, particularly in cities where Arabs and Jews live.


Pope Francis has called for an end to the violent confrontations and urged support for “common solutions” that benefit Palestinians and Israelis, along with a renewed emphasis on a “two-state solution.” How have local Church authorities responded?


The Holy See has consistently, as far back as the early 1920s, been calling for a just resolution to the conflict. Indeed, the two-state solution, a state for Jews and a state for Palestinians, is the predominant vision for a just solution in the international community. This was proposed already in 1947, when Palestine was partitioned by a decision of the United Nations. However, Israel was established as a Jewish state and the Palestinians have received no state even after 73 years of struggle. The visits of the pontiffs, especially those of Pope St. John Paul II in 2000, Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and Pope Francis in 2014, have underlined the need for all parties to dialogue and share the land; but as long as the occupation of the Palestinian lands conquered in 1967 remains in place, there is no state for Palestinians.


The local Church has strongly echoed the calls of the Holy See. This time, too, in a statement published on May 9, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the local Roman Catholic jurisdiction, said, “Our Church has been clear that peace requires justice. Insofar as far as the rights of everyone, Israelis and Palestinians, are not upheld and respected, there will be no justice and therefore no peace in the city. It is our duty not to ignore injustice nor any aggression against human dignity regardless of who is committing them.”


Furthermore, the heads of the Christian Churches in a joint statement published the same day said that the heads of Churches “are profoundly disheartened and concerned about the recent violent events in East Jerusalem. These developments […] violate the sanctity of the people of Jerusalem and of Jerusalem as the City of Peace. The actions undermining the safety of worshippers and the dignity of the Palestinians who are subject to eviction are unacceptable.”


Reportedly, one trigger for the recent conflict was a legal dispute over several properties in Sheikh Jarrah that will be heard by Israel’s supreme court. In brief, what can you tell us about the case, as well as the legal status of Israel’s Arab minority?


These are two separate issues. The Palestinians that are threatened with eviction from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah are not Israeli citizens, as they live in an area occupied by Israel in 1967. They live in properties that Israel claims were Jewish properties before the 1948 War, when Israel was established. Israel’s reclaiming of these properties and evicting the residents is only legitimate if Israel agrees to restore all properties to their owners from the period before 1948. The residents in Sheikh Jarrah would then return to the properties they lived in before 1948, expropriated from them in Israel proper.


The injustice of the evictions is because the principle of restoring property to its original owners only applies to property once owned by Jews and does not include property once owned by Palestinians. Of course, the property once owned by Palestinians includes a huge array of homes, buildings, fields and lands in what is today Israel.


With regard to the Arab minority in Israel, this refers to those Palestinian Arabs who remained within the borders of what became the state of Israel in 1948. They were granted full citizenship and were given the right to vote in a country that insisted it was a democracy. However, the problem they face is that the state is defined as Jewish. They, not being Jews, face many forms of discrimination, particularly in the realm of development, so that they do not enjoy the same standards of public education, health care, building rights, municipal services, etc.


Alongside the occupation of Palestinian lands after the 1967 War, the issue of discrimination of Arab citizens constitutes the major challenge facing the state of Israel today.

COVID-19-related rules that barred Muslims from visiting Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during Ramadan this year also sparked unrest. What can you tell us about that issue? Have other religious groups faced similar restrictions on worship?


The Muslims did not oppose the COVID regulations that prevented many from attending the Ramadan prayers in the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), the holiest place for Muslims in the Holy Land. Tensions exploded when the Israeli authorities tried to prevent Palestinians from gathering in places where they traditionally gathered (particularly at Damascus Gate), and this was not linked to COVID. This was seen as a further attempt to impose Israeli controls on East Jerusalem Palestinians. This, coupled with the threatened evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and the marches of extremist Jewish Israeli nationalists through East Jerusalem, led to the clashes that broke out.


Last month, the Biden administration announced it would restore $235 million in economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, reversing the Trump administration’s decision to cut the funds. How has this shift been interpreted by Israeli and Palestinian leaders?


Of course, Israel was unhappy with this and the Palestinians relieved by it. The Trump administration’s strong support for Binyamin Netanyahu gave the Israeli authorities a free hand in consolidating their control of the Palestinian territories under occupation. The cutting of U.S. funding led to the strangling of many essential Palestinian institutions and created a human welfare crisis. The Church sees the restoration of this funding as the correction of an injustice.


Critics of President Biden’s resumption of U.N. aid to Palestinians and his return to the Iran nuclear deal argue that these policies have emboldened Tehran, which is acting through Hamas, the terrorist organization that has fired rockets into Israel. What is your response?


This is not the way I would formulate the issues. There is a very real conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that precedes the emergence of Islamic Iran and Hama and whatever relationship they may have. This festering wound — the imbalance between Israelis who have a home and Palestinians who lack one — is the heart of the problem. This has gone on for 73 years, and it is feeding all kinds of ideologies that spread hatred and violence.


There have been calls from the U.S., the United Nations and Europe for both sides to deescalate. What should be the most immediate goal?


The most immediate goal is to stop the shooting. Human lives are being lost and others destroyed. Once the shooting stops, the challenge is, once again, to get the two sides to recognize one another’s legitimate grievances and work on achieving justice that alone can bring peace.


What does this current conflict mean for the Middle East?


The current conflict shows that the core of the conflict is still not being dealt with, and as long as it is ignored, it will explode from time to time. The only response to this core issue is violent repression, which brings in its wake violent reaction. Violence remains the strategy. We must pray that other strategies are found!

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