One year ago this week, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) began their attack on the tiny and overcrowded territory of Gaza, with a massive artillery bombardment and airstrikes, supposedly in response to Hamas rocket attacks.
When the violence finally ended seven weeks later, there was a ghastly asymmetry to the suffering which gave the lie to the suggestion from some that the IDF is "the most moral army in the world". According to the United Nations, some 71 Israelis had been killed, six of them civilians, while 2,205 Palestinians had died, over two-thirds of them civilians and including 521 children. Save the Children estimated that a further 3,436 Palestinian children were wounded, many of them with life-changing injuries, while 1,500 had lost their parents. Over 100,000 Palestinian homes had been damaged, along with 75 hospitals and clinics and 279 schools.
The picture above was taken by me in Gaza earlier this year and shows a Palestinian child standing in front of the ruins of the al-Wafa Geriatric Hospital, destroyed by Israeli bombing on 23 July 2014. The social and physical infrastructure of the territory was shattered.
The humanitarian situation in Gaza, home to some 1.8 million Palestinians yet barely twice the size of the District of Columbia (or the same size as the Isle of Wight if you're British), was already bad enough even before the war. With chronic shortages of water and electricity, and two-thirds of the population relying on food aid, the UN had declared in a 2012 report that Gaza was rapidly becoming 'unliveable' for its inhabitants. Effectively imprisoned by an Israeli blockade enforced since 2006, and enduring Israeli assaults every two years or so (Israeli military strategists chillingly describe their policy as 'mowing the grass' every once and while), the Palestinians of Gaza were rapidly losing all hope even before this final and most brutal assault.
The international community was quick to acknowledge the need to rebuild Gaza, but in the year since the violence ended some 100,000 Palestinians are still homeless and not one of the almost 20,000 homes that were totally destroyed or made uninhabitable in the conflict has been rebuilt. Major reconstruction of health facilities, water networks and schools has also not yet begun. Gaza's unemployment rate is now the highest in the world according to the World Bank and the percentage of people reliant on food aid has risen to almost three quarters.
A key obstacle to reconstruction and economic recovery is the fact that Israel is still not allowing desperately needed aggregate, wood, steel bars, and cement into the territory. This despite it agreeing as part of the August 2014 truce with Hamas that it would ease restrictions on the import of construction materials.
Gaza has become a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions, and yet the world – and many evangelical Christians in particular – seem strangely indifferent to its suffering and ignorant of the underlying causes. Why is this?
Martin Saunders put his finger on the problem in his piece 'The awkward truth about Evangelicals and Gaza'. A simplistic and often knee-jerk view that the Israelis are the 'good guys' and the Palestinians the 'bad guys', together with a visceral fear of what Saunders called 'accidental antisemitism' when embarking on any criticism of Israel's actions, has meant that many evangelicals have 'consciously looked away' when confronted by the suffering and injustice in Gaza.
I think the problem is worse. Some evangelicals, especially in the United States, have been positively callous in their response. Republican Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a fundamentalist Christian and former Baptist minister, told a pro-Israel gathering in New York in December 2014 that the US should stop funding the reconstruction of Gaza and spend the money instead on concrete for more Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. This despite the fact that the entire international community, including the current US administration, regards such settlements as illegal under the Geneva Convention.
In Britain, almost 10,000 people are following the Facebook page of the UK arm of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), launched recently in London. Its controversial founder, John Hagee, who heads a mega-church in San Antonio, Texas, told a CUFI meeting in Washington in July last year that Hamas were trying "to win the war with dead civilians" and that Israel should show less not more restraint. Hagee was presumably referring to Israel's assertion that Hamas was using civilians as 'human shields', a claim comprehensively debunked in this recent HuffPost blog and video.
Another area of potential confusion for Christians, touched on by Saunders, is what the Bible has to say about the situation in Gaza. Many Christians seem to feel that Israel's military interventions in Gaza have a divine sanction, as the land belongs to the Jewish people anyway. This seems to overlook the fact that the land promise is now fulfilled in the person of Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). I am always struck by the fact that Gaza appears only once in the New Testament, in Acts 8:26, where the Angel of the Lord sends Philip the Evangelist to Gaza, presumably to preach the Gospel. Some of the earliest believers were in Gaza, and around 1,300 Palestinian Christians still live there today.
The fact is that the Holy Land, including Gaza, belongs to God not man (Leviticus 25:23). I believe that He is grieving at the daily suffering which is occurring in the Palestinian territories, and the world's inability to address the underlying problem, which is how Israel's 48-year occupation can be brought to an end and Jews and Palestinians can share the land in peace and justice. Slowly but surely, more Christians are coming to understand this reality. Whether this will be in time to save the people of Gaza remains to be seen.
Jeremy Moodey is Chief Executive of the Christian development charity Embrace the Middle East, which supports Christian-led development projects in Gaza. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @JeremyMoodey.