23 January 2024, The Tablet

Pope appeals against escalation in ‘tinderbox’ Middle East

“Let us not forget Ukraine, let us not forget Palestine, Israel, let us not forget the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip who are suffering so much.”

Pope appeals against escalation in ‘tinderbox’ Middle East

Houthi rebels and their supporters rally in support of Gaza and against the US at Sanaa in Yemen.
Associated Press / Alamy

Pope Francis appealed for international powers to avoid actions that could escalate tensions in the Middle East.

Speaking at his general audience on 17 January, he said: “I ask everyone to avoid any step that increases tension in the Middle East and other scenarios of war.”

He added: “Let us not forget Ukraine, let us not forget Palestine, Israel, let us not forget the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip who are suffering so much.”

On Monday, the UN secretary general António Guterres said: “The Middle East is a tinderbox, we must do all we can to prevent conflict igniting across the region. And that starts with an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to relieve the suffering in Gaza.”

The apostolic vicar of Southern Arabia said that military escalation in the Red Sea and Yemen “may make the recovery of Yemen more difficult”.  

Bishop Paolo Martinelli OFM Cap hoped that the intensification of the military confrontation will not affect the peace process in the war-torn country. At the same time, some 26 international aid organisations helping civilians in Yemen issued a warning of disastrous consequences of military escalation

Yemen has been caught in civil war since 2014, when pro-Iranian Houthi rebels stormed the Yemeni capital Sanaa and toppled the internationally recognised and Saudi-backed government. An estimated 4.5 million people have been displaced since then.

The conflict in Gaza prompted Houthi rebels to attack maritime vessels in the Red Sea in support of Hamas, and the US and UK have responded with strikes on Houthi positions in Yemen.

A series of statements on the conflict in the Holy Land has been published by Pax Christi International, including a 17 January statement from Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, and Archbishop John Charles Wester of Santa Fe, condemning Hamas and calling for an “immediate and total” halt to military action in Gaza.

They mourned the “more than 23,000 people, most of them innocent civilians” killed in Gaza over more than 100 days of bombardments, and warned that “the present war will produce major conflict in Lebanon, increase violence in the West Bank, and cause outbreaks throughout the Middle East”.

They encouraged the people of the US to support the Pope’s calls for an immediate ceasefire and “press for our government to make it the centrepiece of its foreign policy in the Middle East at this pivotal moment”.

Toine van Teeffelen, a Pax Christi partner in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, alleged this week that “the Israeli army and West Bank settlers are not separate entities”. He reported that “in the Hebron area, for example, Palestinians suddenly see their settler neighbours in military uniforms exhibiting the same threats and violence as before without uniforms”.

He reported that after 7 October about 5,500 residents of Israeli settlements were recruited into “regional” or “territorial” battalions. These units are supposed to guard the areas around the settlements and the army distributed about 7,000 weapons to them.

Van Teeffelen said the violence and threats of the settlers are not just randomly violent but intended to expel people, individually or collectively. He said that if there is significant aggression by Palestinians, “the settlers may seize the opportunity for a new Nakba or expulsion of Palestinian residents”.

Already, about 30 Bedouin communities have been expelled from large areas of land in the West Bank, where settlers are likely to move in.

On Monday, Fr Ibrahim Faltas, the Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, drew attention to the suffering in the West Bank, where “the bodies collected so far have been 400, while the wounded have exceeded 10,000”, while there have been “thousands of arrests and the destruction that reigns everywhere”. 

Fr Faltas said that in Gaza the entire Christian community is barricaded in two churches: 600 people in the Latin parish of the Holy Family and 200 in the Greek Orthodox Church. He appealed for proper consideration of a “two peoples, two states” solution.

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