The summer of violence in Gaza and Israel on Tuesday entered its fifth week after rockets, fired from inside Gaza, broke the latest ceasefire. After the attack, Israel recalled its negotiators from peace talks in Cairo, and Israeli forces launched new airstrikes.
Since the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8, the IDF has completed 1,300 air strikes, and ground troops have destroyed more than 30 cross-border tunnels. Since January, combatants inside Gaza have fired about 3,000 rockets into Israel. It is the deadliest conflict between Palestinians and Israelis since the Second Intifada, which ended in 2005. As of mid-August, more than 2,000 have died in the current conflict, including 1,975 Gazans (combatants included), 64 Israeli soldiers, and two Israeli civilians.
The Christian minority inside Gaza has not been spared fatalities. But it has also offered shelter, food, education, and medical care to hundreds of Gazans. Hanna Massad, former pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church, has been coordinating Christian aid efforts from his current pastorate in Amman, Jordan. Massad is a graduate of Bethlehem Bible College and earned a doctorate in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. There have been Christians in Gaza since the third century.
Timothy C. Morgan, senior editor, global journalism, and journalist Deann Alford interviewed Massad recently by phone and email as the conflict continued. CT is pursuing a similar interview from the perspective of Christians inside Israel on the latest conflict.
What are Christians inside Gaza telling you?
I was happy to hear about the ceasefire. This morning the news was that, unfortunately, the fighting has continued. Several times daily I communicate with Gaza by phone or Skype. Water supplies are very low in Gaza. There’s little or no electricity. I’ve spoken with my Muslim neighbors and Christians. All are waiting and anxious about what will happen next.
Are Gazans being sheltered in churches?
Gaza Baptist Church hasn’t been damaged, but it’s next door to Gaza’s main police station, which is a target. The bombs have made it too dangerous for Baptist church members to meet. But thousands of Muslims have found refuge in other churches that have opened their doors to refugees. My neighbor called to ask if he and his family could move into my family home in Gaza. Now there’s almost 100 people living in my house. People throughout Gaza are taking care of each other.
Eastern Gaza is very dangerous. Most of north Gaza borders Israel. Through the Christian Mission to Gaza that I founded in 1999 and in partnership with Bethlehem Bible Society and Gaza Baptist Church, we’ve supplied food relief to hundreds of Muslim and Christians. Our goal is to help 1,000 families.
How many Christians remain in Gaza?
Four hundred families. Two months ago there were 1,333 individuals—mostly Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Baptists.
How should Christians understand this conflict?
A Jew killing a Palestinian or Palestinian killing a Jew are symptoms of the problem. The root of the problem is the Israeli occupation of Gaza. As Christians we know there won’t be any peace in peoples’ lives without the Prince of Peace. But as long as this occupation continues, there will not really be a solution.
Even before the war, Gaza suffered more than 40 percent unemployment, while 80 percent of Gazans have been going to charities for food. We as Christians provide relief to both Christians and Muslims through the Christian Mission to Gaza, which reflects God’s love in a practical way. I teach in the Bethlehem Bible College extension campus in Gaza. We hope and pray that through these ministries we reflect Christ’s love in Gaza.
This suffering afflicts both Christian and Muslims. The Lighthouse School experienced the death of two students (brothers) in their home. Israel bombed the home of Christian Jalila Ayyad, killing her. Her son, Jeries, lost his legs and an arm. Jeries used to attend Baptist youth meetings.
Does Israel have a right to exist, and should Palestinians say so?
Absolutely, yes, and Palestinian leaders need to say so.
What do you say to American Christians who support Israel?
As Christians in Palestine, we love the Jewish people. When the Lord changed our hearts, he gave us love for all people. I hope my brothers and sisters in the West also have enough room in their hearts not just for Israel but also for the Palestinians.
See the other side of the coin. In 1948, the state of Israel was founded, and more than 700,000 Palestinians became refugees, and 50,000 to 55,000 of them were Christian. They scattered around the world, some to Gaza and the West Bank. They went to Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Many still live in very difficult circumstances.
Sometimes my brothers in the West say, “This land is promised to the Jewish people; get over it.” But I would say, what would you do for the people who lost their homes and land in 1948? We have official documents to prove our ownership of the 17 acres my father’s family lost. If we talk about a God of justice and love, how to explain this to the Palestinians who lost their homes and land to Israel?
Amos 5:24 says, “But let justice roll down like river and righteousness like a never-failing stream.” And Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord required of you to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
How should you extend this love to these Palestinians Muslims and Christians who lost their land? You cannot just say that God gave the land to the Jewish people. To love the Palestinians, you must understand their struggle. I see people go too far to support the Jewish people; others go too far to support the Palestinians.
Extend love not just to one side, but to both.
What I say to the church in West is this: There are churches and believers on both sides. Let us focus on the Kingdom of God among the Palestinians and the Kingdom of God among Jewish believers. All of us Christians in the East and the West belong to one body: the body of Christ. Bless the body of Christ in this region.
We can be a blessing to each other and learn from each other and enrich each other’s lives. May we have enough space in our hearts for the Palestinians, the Christians, and the Jewish people. For the bigger circle, we do what we can to help people stop killing each other and to live side-by-side with love and respect.
What should Christians be calling for?
Usually, war and military might will not solve problems. The best way is to sit and find a balanced solution. But as a Palestinian Christian, I go to Gaza and see the siege that Gazans live under from the sky, land, and sea.
I have never been in prison, but I lived in one when I was in Gaza. Gaza has become a huge prison. Life there has been very difficult. Fishermen can go only three miles into the water. Unemployment is oppressive. Gaza is 30 miles long, 7 miles wide, with 1.8 million people. People die because they can’t get the medical treatment they need because of the siege and they’re not able to leave. They also have been affected by the problems between Egypt and Hamas. The people of Gaza need the borders to be opened.
Unless we deal with the conflict, this problem will continue for a long, long time. Continuing this siege contributes to raising young people who will use violence because they have little to lose. They’ve already lost almost everything.
For example, here’s how many people in Gaza view their experience:
We’re not able to live our lives, so what will we lose if we continue this fight? So let us continue this fight until we’re able to improve our lives.
At least, let’s open the borders so Gazans have freedom to walk in and out. The siege must be lifted.
Of the more than 1,900 Gazans killed in this war, according to the United Nations, 72 percent are civilians, and many are children. Some in the West say Hamas is using civilians as human shields. The UN is investigating this. Others say Israel knew civilians were in UN schools and still hit it. It’s terrible all the civilians being killed.
Some Christians inside Israel have influence. How should they speak out?
It’s hard for me to think like somebody who launches missiles from Gaza toward civilians in Israel. It’s hard to imagine. Of course, we as Christians are against this. But I would ask my brothers, the Jews, when you see how many people are killed, do you think it’s worth it? Couldn’t you find another way to solve this horrible conflict?
The power on each side is not equal. For us as Christians, for me, one person killed is too many, either Palestinian or Jew, because each of us is created in the image of God. We can see God in each other.
How we can respect and protect the dignity of humanity regardless of ethnicity is really important. I hope my Jewish brothers will able to look at it from this point of view. And again, for all of us to be honest with ourselves and try to dig even deeper to address the root of this conflict.
How far back in history we should go to try to solve this conflict? I mean, do you want to go to the time of Abraham where he had Isaac and Ishmael?
We have problems we need to solve.
To paraphrase Father Elias Chacour, we need to stand with the weak, with the victim, with the oppressed, without demonizing the oppressor and still love the oppressor. Of course, the weak here is the Palestinian. Palestinians and Jews alike hurt one another. Nobody is winning.
Are you calling for a deeper sense of empathy with both sides?
Christian believers here in the Middle East need the encouragement of their brothers and sisters in the West.
Let us try not to take sides, but to have bigger heart, to love both and pray for both and encourage both, to focus on the Kingdom of God on both sides. When there’s injustice or something wrong, don’t hesitate to speak with love.
If we unconditionally support Israel, if we don’t speak out when there’s injustice, it’s not very good for the Jewish people. That’s because in the long run, if Israel continues with this, in the long run it will destroy its people for generations to come and create more and more enemies who in the future will stand against them.