My wife is a wise woman. Many of our friends, colleagues and fellow church members have very strong opinions of the Gaza conflict. On the one hand there are those who are absolutely convinced that Israel is an oppressive bloodthirsty regime, murdering innocent children and civilians. On the other, some see Israel as the oppressed people of God, fighting against an evil enemy who are determined to have a second Holocaust. Israel is a particularly emotive issue triggering strong reactions, demonstrations and calls for action. It has become almost a shibboleth issue to determine where you are at on the left/right political plumb line.
And this is where my wife comes in. She does not know and she does not claim to know. To her the situation is confusing, complex and almost impossible to get a handle on. That is why she is wise. Because it is. The fool takes a complicated and confused subject and pronounces it simple. I have learnt a great deal from her. Perhaps we don't have the answer? Perhaps we should ask questions and try to learn? So let's take some of the key questions that arise in order to help us in understanding.
1) What is the conflict about? Two groups of people who are both claiming that the land of Israel/Palestine belongs to them. Basically the Palestinians who are generally supported by the Arab nations and the Jews who are supported to a significant extent by the Americans.
2) Who are Hamas? Hamas were formed in 1987 and arose out of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Fatah were the main political grouping for the Palestinians but in an astonishing election result in 2006 Hamas took control. There was a bitter civil war between Fatah and Hamas that resulted in Hamas taking control of Gaza and Fatah control of the West Bank. Fatah are an Islamic group.
3) Who are Israel? The modern nation state of Israel came out of the Zionist movement of the 19th Century and the Balfour Declaration by the British government in 1917. The persecution of the Jews throughout history in Europe came to a head in the Holocaust when over six million European Jews were killed. In 1947 the United Nations approved the idea of two separate states – a Jewish one in their ancient homeland and a Palestinian one. In 1948 the state of Israel was established. Immediately the Arab nations tried to destroy it, they failed. The same thing happened in 1967 with the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Each time, against all the odds, the tiny nation of Jewish people emerged victorious. But at considerable cost to the Palestinians who found themselves at the centre of a war which cost them dearly.
4) Why do the people in Gaza suffer so much? Because there are 1.9 million people squashed into an area 25 miles long and five miles wide and three of their borders are controlled by Israel. The fourth with Egypt is also blocked. Israel wants to prevent rockets and arms getting to Hamas and so they have instigated a blockade that also impoverishes the whole community.
5) Are the Israelis targeting civilians? Are Hamas using civilians as human shields? When Israel retaliates to rockets fired from Hamas, invariably this is into densely populated civilian areas, which results in considerable causalities. Some claim that Hamas are deliberately putting rockets into populated areas, but it is difficult to see what else they could do. Gaza is tiny and would they really put them into an open field where the vastly superior Israelis air force would quickly destroy them. It is also clear that Israel is not trying to have as many civilian casualties as possible – if Israel wanted to, with their vastly superior armour, they could wipe out the whole of Gaza. If Israel were indiscriminately targeting civilians, why are three times as many young men killed as women?
6) What do the Israelis want? What do Hamas want? Israel wants survival and secure borders in a region where they perceive that the vast majority want to wipe them out. If 1,500 rockets fell on the area between Edinburgh and Glasgow in one week, you could understand their fears! Likewise most of the Palestinians want a home and a land they could call their own. But Hamas are different. Why? It is their stated policy to wipe out not Israel but the Jews – this is from their 1988 charter which they still uphold – Article 7: "the time will come until Muslims fight the Jews and kill them; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry, O Muslim! There is a Jews hiding behind me, come and kill him". They want "the banner of Allah to be raised over every inch of Palestine".
7) Why are so many people so anti-Israel? There is a deep-rooted ingrained hatred of Israel and the Jews. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of anti-Semitic crimes in Europe and the UK are perpetrated by Muslims. Mehdi Hasan, a Muslim writer, is clear: "It pains me to have to admit this but anti-Semitism isn't just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; its routine and commonplace." I can think of one 'liberal' Muslim friend who told me that she would not go and see Schindler's List with me, because it was 'Jewish propaganda'.
But there is also a strong political right wing and left wing anti-Jewish tradition in European society. People will tell you they just care about innocent children being murdered and they are just boycotting a theatre group because they are part of that. But if that were true why are people not on the streets protesting about the 200,000 killed in Syria, or the hundreds being killed in Ukraine, or the massacres of Christians in Iraq? Why not boycott China, Russia, Sudan, etc.? The reason is a bit complicated but is combined with the Islamic hatred of Israel, and traditional antisemitism that has been prevalent in Europe for hundreds of years. People say they don't hate the Jews – they just hate Israel – but Israel is a Jewish state and therefore it is very easy to feed antisemitism. Can you imagine what would happen if George Galloway said that he wanted a 'French Free Zone', or an Islamic Free Zone'? But an Israeli Free Zone somehow seems acceptable! Who would have thought, given recent history that in the 21st century people would be marching on Berlin's streets shouting 'death to the Jew'?!
8) What does the Bible say? It is amazing to me how some branches of the Church are so certain about this. Often you will get some mainstream churches making pronouncements against Israel but keeping silent about Hamas. That just does not make sense. Equally you will get others – especially the more zealous Christian Zionists – who regard anything other than full-hearted endorsement of anything Israel does as equivalent to denial of the divinity of Christ. The situation is surely more complex than that. Personally I think that the return of the Jews to Israel is something to do with God! But I don't buy into the more extreme Christian Zionism. I do feel that there is still a special place for the Jews. But that they, like the Jews of the first Century (Paul, Peter, James, John, Mary etc.) still need Jesus as their saviour. I cannot identify the current nation state of Israel with the Judah of the Old Testament, but neither can I believe that God has forgotten his people.
9) What solutions could there be? The extremes are obvious. Either get rid of the Palestinian state, or get rid of the Jewish state. Neither is an option for any humane Christian. What about the two state solution? We are trying that but given the ideology of Hamas, and the fears of Israel that is going to be hard to achieve. Many Western liberals are too optimistic. They think if only we got rid of Israel's weapons then everything would be fine. It won't. In fact no matter which angle you take on it there does not appear to be a solution. I think that is mainly because this is a human situation – full of sin and sorrow. It needs a saviour.
10) So what can we do? Firstly pray for the peace of Israel. And Gaza. Secondly we must proclaim and live the good news to both Jews and Muslims. We must not hate nor blame either but instead point them, as our fellow sinners to Christ. Thirdly we can offer as much real aid and support, as we do weapons, to those caught up in this crisis. And please can we stop supplying the hate merchants with more ammunition!
For a more detailed discussion, listen to this podcast produced by Solas.