Israel refutes claims an IDF sniper killed a Christian mother, daughter at church in Gaza

Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images
Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

Updated at 8:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 19, 2023: The IDF has refuted claims made by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem that an IDF sniper killed a mother and daughter who were sheltering at the Holy Family Parish Catholic church compound in Gaza. After an internal review, the IDF released a statement saying that its soldiers did not target the church and were not responsible for any casualties at that church. The statement added that a separate incident did occur near a church located in Shejaiya where there has been intense fighting between the IDF and Hamas. The IDF is reviewing that incident. 

Pierbattista Pizzaballa had claimed that IDF strikes hit the convent at Holy Family Parish on Saturday and destroyed the building’s generator. Due to damage sistained by the building, dozens of people who had sought refuge there, including those who are disabled, are now displaced. He had also claimed that an IDF sniper had killed a mother and daugher. "One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety," Pizzaballa wrote Saturday. 

The IDF says reports on these incidents do match the conclusion of an initial review that found the IDF troopers were targeting Hamas spotters in enemy lookouts at a separate location. It said this incident occurred "in the area where the two women were reportedly killed." 

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"Following the reports of two women that were shot in the area of the Latin Church in Shejaya, the IDF has finished conducting an initial review of the incident. The review found that on December 17th, in the early afternoon,Hamas terrorists launched a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) at IDF troops from the vicinity of the church," the IDF said.

“The troops then identified three people in the vicinity, operating as spotters for Hamas by guiding their attacks in the direction of the IDF troopers. In response, our troops fired towards the spotters and hits were identified.” 

“A review of the IDF’s operational findings support this,” the Israeli military added. “The IDF takes claims regarding harm to sensitive sites with the utmost seriousness — especially churches — considering that Christian communities are a minority group in the Middle East.”

“The IDF directs its operations against the Hamas terrorist organization and not against civilians, regardless of their religious affiliation. The IDF takes many measures to mitigate harm to civilians in the Gaza Strip.”

The statement concluded, “These efforts stand in contrast to Hamas, (which) does everything in its power to endanger civilians and exploits them, as well as religious sites, as human shields for their terrorist activities.”

In a statement released Sunday, the IDF said: 

Yesterday (Saturday), a letter from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem was received describing a tragic incident that took place in the Holy Family Parish which is located in the Rimal area in the Gaza Strip. Yesterday morning (Saturday), representatives of the church contacted the IDF regarding explosions that were heard near the church.”

During the dialogue between the IDF and representatives of the community, no reports of a hit on the church, nor civilians being injured or killed, were raised. A review of the IDF’s operational findings support this.

When reviewing incidents that may have taken place in the vicinity of churches in Gaza, it was found that an incident took place during yesterday afternoon (Saturday) in another area in Gaza, near the Latin Church in the Shejayia area.

An initial review suggests that IDF troops, who were operating against Hamas terrorists in the area, operated against a threat that they identified in the area of the church. The IDF is conducting a thorough review of the incident.

The IDF only targets terrorists and terror infrastructure and does not target civilians, no matter their religion. The IDF takes vast measures to avoid harm to uninvolved civilians, while fighting against a terrorist organization which does everything to put civilians at risk — including by using civilians and holy sites as human shields for its terror activities.

Original report:

The Israeli Defense Forces have confirmed that their soldiers shot and killed two Christian women on the grounds of Gaza City’s only Catholic church. An IDF spokesperson acknowledged the civilian casualties to the media, following revelations of the incident by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pierbattista Pizzaballa.

The IDF spokesperson, in a statement to Fox News Digital, confirmed the incident which took place near the church in the Shejayia area of Gaza during an operation against Hamas terrorists.

Pizzaballa, in a letter on Saturday, detailed the events leading to the deaths of Nahida and her daughter Samar at the Holy Family Church. “Around noon today … a sniper of the IDF murdered two Christian women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza, where the majority of Christian families have taken refuge since the start of the war,” the patriarchate said.

He described the incident as unprovoked, stating the victims were shot in cold blood within the church premises, where no combatants were present. The patriarch’s urgent letter also mentioned that seven other parishioners were wounded while trying to protect others inside the church compound.

The Holy See, through its official news agency Vatican News, republished Pizzaballa’s report with additional commentary. The statement emphasized the Israeli military’s entry into the Holy Family Catholic Parish compound, alleging that soldiers shot at anyone leaving the church, The Times of Israel reported. 

The IDF, however, maintained that its operation was directed against a perceived threat in the area of the church and was part of its broader action against Hamas.

The Holy Family Church, the only Catholic Church in the Gaza Strip, is home to the Missionaries of Charity.

Pizzaballa said the assault included a rocket fired from an Israeli tank hitting the nuns’ convent, disrupting the operations of the order’s care for about 54 disabled civilians living in the compound. He detailed the destruction caused by the attack, including damage to the building’s generator, solar panels and water tanks, essential for the community’s survival.

Pope Francis, in his Angelus address, condemned the violence, highlighting the targeting of unarmed civilians and the attack within the parish complex, The Telegraph reported. He described the situation as war and terrorism, calling for prayers for peace.

The IDF, while acknowledging the incident, said the Latin Patriarchate’s initial communication about explosions near the church on Saturday morning did not mention any casualties. The IDF’s statement to Fox News Digital indicated that the review of operational findings supported this claim.

The victims were part of Gaza’s shrinking Christian community.

Layla Moran, a Liberal Democrat MP in the United Kingdom, expressed her concerns for her relatives trapped in the church, describing a dire situation with no access to food or water and ongoing sniper fire, according to The Telegraph.

“I am desperately worried for my extended family in Gaza City,” Moran was quoted as saying. “There are snipers at every window pointing into the church. Still shooting anyone emerging from buildings to use, for example, toilets. Still no food or water.”

Hammam Farah, related to the victims, shared his account on X, painting a grim picture of the situation.

“This morning Israeli snipers shot and killed my two family friends in an attack on the Holy Family Catholic Church in Gaza. Nahida (Um Emad Anton) and Samar, mother and daughter, were walking to the Sisters’ Convent to use the only bathroom,” he wrote. “One was killed as she tried to carry the other to safety. Their bodies remain strewn across the church courtyard. The water tanks and solar panels were also struck. We don’t know if they have enough water to survive. The Christian community in Gaza is on the verge of extinction.”

Italy’s top diplomat, Antonio Tajani, appealed to the Israeli government and IDF to protect Christian places of worship.

The Israeli army stated that it is investigating the killings at the church, emphasizing its policy of targeting only terrorists and terror infrastructure, not civilians. The IDF spokesperson added that their operations are complicated by Hamas’ tactics of using civilians and holy sites as shields for their activities.

According to claims by the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry, about 18,800 people have died since the war began after Hamas struck Israel on Oct. 7, with the majority being civilians, according to the Times of Israel, which says these figures are thought to include around 7,000 members or affiliates of Hamas, in addition to civilians who were casualties of Palestinian rockets that misfired.

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