Israel-Gaza Fighting Provokes Church Response

Recent Israel-Gaza missile exchanges have sparked renewed concerns over the delicate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and prompted church bodies to offer moral voices in the ongoing conflict.

After a short stint in peace talks, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Wednesday he will resume negotiations with Israel – a turnabout from his statement earlier in the day when he said Palestinians will not talk with Israel until a cease-fire is reached.

Abbas had explained that peace was "our strategic choice," and said it will end the Israeli "occupation" of the Palestinian territories and result in a Palestinian state, according to CNN.

Although Abbas did not disclose when talks will be resumed, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said based on the peace talk timetable, Palestinian and Israeli leaders are scheduled to meet next week, according to The Associated Press.

Israel on Monday ended a five-day military operation in Gaza that killed at least 110 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers. More than half of the Palestinians killed were said to be civilians, including a six-month-old baby and several children.

The fight was sparked by Gaza militants who launched dozens of missiles into southern Israel, one of which killed a person. Palestinian rockets take place nearly every day but do not normally injure or kill anyone.

The World Council of Churches, the world's largest ecumenical body, condemned the Israeli military for killing civilians in Gaza as well as militants in Gaza.

"We absolutely condemn these deadly attacks on civilians by the Israeli military on Gaza and by militants firing rockets from Gaza," said WCC general secretary the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, in a statement. "Incessant violations of life and of human rights must stop."

Kobia called on Israel to stop its blockade on Gaza, which affects the supply of food, fuel, medicine and other essential needs into the strip. Israel has allowed some fuel and medicinal supplies into Gaza, but has kept the border checkpoints closed except for emergency humanitarian needs.

Human rights groups have also protested against the blockade, arguing that Israel is punishing innocent civilians in their fight against the Hamas leadership.

Earlier this year, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society had urged its church members and agencies to divest from Caterpillar, Inc. because it accused the company of facilitating Israel's destruction of Palestinian property. Moreover, Washington-based Methodist Federation for Social Action called for divestment from all "companies supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and other violations of human rights in Israel/Palestine."

Mark Tooley, The Institute on Religion & Democracy's director of UMAction, countered:

"Israel is unremittingly portrayed as the chief obstacle to Middle East peace by these radicalized United Methodist groups, and by extension, the United States is viewed as directly complicit through its support of Israel," he argued. "Widespread parts of the United Methodist Church bureaucracy are claiming one primary solution to Middle East violence: punish Israel."

"Church agencies should strive towards fairness and factuality," Tooley said. "Targeting Israel as the Middle-East's unique villain, while virtually ignoring terrorism and radical Islam, is a gross disservice to members of The United Methodist Church and to the wider public."

IRD is an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians with the goal to reform mainline churches' social witness to align with what they believe is in accordance with biblical and historic Christian teachings.

Secretary of State Rice also chastised Gaza's Hamas leadership for not taking action against its militants and sparking this outbreak in fighting during the sensitive Mideast peace talks.

"Hamas, which in effect holds the people of Gaza hostage in their hands, is now trying to make the path to a Palestinian state hostage to them," Rice said, according to CNN. "We cannot permit that to happen."

On the line is the historic Israeli-Palestinian peace talk forged by the Bush administration in November to reconcile the two long-time and bitter foes before Bush steps down from office. The two sides agreed that they will negotiate a peace treaty, which includes the creation of a Palestinian state, aimed to be completed by the end of 2008.

Abbas represents all Palestinians in the peace talks despite the fact that Hamas now controls the Gaza Strip after its military coup last year. Abbas and his pro-Western government Fatah party control the West Bank.

The United States, Israel, and many Western governments consider Hamas a terrorist group because it refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist and continues to attack its neighbor.

Even after Israel's recent counterattack, rockets from Gaza continue to be launched into Israel with at least 11 missiles hitting the country on Wednesday. Israel said it would continue its military attack on militants and Hamas in Gaza while continuing peace talks with West Bank Palestinian leaders.

"We will continue to struggle in order to reduce to nil the threat that is upsetting the quality of life of residents of the south," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week, according to CNN.

He described the Palestinian attacks on Israel as an "almost daily war."

"This may not always be loved but it is an important part of counterterrorist activity," Olmert contended.

WCC's Kobia urged churches and Christians "to speak out for the people of Gaza now and join in an international initiative to promote peace in the weeks ahead."

The WCC Central Committee invites member churches to join in a week of International Church Action for Peace in Palestine and Israel on June 4 -10, 2008. All churches are invited to join churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem in a worldwide prayer for peace on Sunday, June 8, 2008.