In the past two weeks, over 800 Palestinian refugees in Gaza have been killed and thousands wounded in the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Diminishing American media coverage suggests a story that is losing the interest of a public already fed up with body counts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troubling scenes of trauma and suffering are eclipsed by celebrities, ongoing Congressional scandals, the President-elect and the sad state of the economy.
American Catholics may have perked up a bit, however, when an aide to Pope Benedict, expressing concern over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, commented that it “looks more and more like a big concentration camp.” Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Vatican’s Council for Justice and Peace, made the remark on January 8 to Italian online site Il Sussidiario. He accused the combatants of thinking only of their own interests, while innocent people pay the price. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor responded with astonishment to the use of what he called the “vocabulary of Hamas propaganda.” Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechai Lewy, concurred. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, also denounced Martino and asserted: “These remarks are untrue, distort the memory of the Holocaust and are only used against Israel by terrorist organizations and Holocaust deniers.”
The next day, in a follow-up interview in Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, Martino defended his comments: “I say, look at the conditions of the people who live there, surrounded by a wall that is difficult to cross, in conditions (that are) contrary to human dignity. What has been happening there recently is horrifying.” He said there was nothing in his comments “that may be interpreted as anti-Israeli” and he added: “the rockets of Hamas are not confetti. I condemn them.” But he lamented the deaths of so many Palestinian civilians and children and Israel’s destruction of nonmilitary targets like the U.N. school. He suggested such losses could have been avoided, given that Israeli forces have sophisticated surveillance: “Technology that can let them identify an ant on the ground.”
On the same day, Pope Benedict spoke in more abstract terms as he delivered his yearly “state of the world” speech to diplomats. The pontiff lamented “a renewed outbreak of violence provoking immense damage and suffering for the civilian population” in Gaza and Israel and urged “the rejection of hatred, acts of provocation and the use of arms.” He called for a cease-fire in Gaza and the resumption of peace talks, affirming that “violence, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes, must be firmly condemned.”
The pope’s balanced message stands in sharp contrast with the biased position of the American government. As Congressman Dennis Kucinich put it on January 8 on the House floor:
Today U.S. tax dollars, U.S. jets and U.S. helicopters provided to Israel are enabling the slaughter in Gaza. The Administration enables Israel to press forward with the attack against defenseless civilians, blocks efforts promoting a ceasefire at the U.N. and refuses to make Israel comply with conditions that arms shipments not be used for aggression. Israel is going to receive $30 billion in a ten-year period for military assistance, without having to abide by any humanitarian principles, international laws or standards of basic human decency. Wake up America.
Like the pope, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has urged the American government to rescue the Gaza population held hostage by the fighting and bloodshed. In a December 30 letter to the Secretary of State, Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, Chairman of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the USCCB, urged the government to “take immediate action to help end the escalation of violence between Hamas and Israel.” Bishop Hubbard requested sending “a high level personal representative to the region immediately to help negotiate a ceasefire and make provision for humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.” There is little indication, however, that the bishops’ request has been heeded in any way. On January 8, the U.S. alone, of the 15 member UN Security Council, abstained from voting in favor of a compromise resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the unimpeded provision of food, fuel and medical treatment to Gaza civilians, and intensified international arrangements to prevent arms and ammunition smuggling.
The conflict in Gaza is a moral issue that begins, not with rocket fire into Israel, but with 1.5 million people, most of them refugees, who have been oppressed for the last sixty years. Gaza should prick the conscience of the American taxpayer, whose government shows little concern for the root causes of the present conflict and continues to foot the bill for ongoing military action. The Catholic Catechism defines “conscience” as a judgment of reason whereby one recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act. It also stresses that the conscience must be informed and enlightened. In regard to Gaza, the collective conscience is stretched by some basic moral questions that few dare to voice: Who has the right to exist? Only the rich and powerful? Or also the poor and oppressed? Who have the right to defend themselves? Only the rich and powerful? Or every victim, including the poor and oppressed? Who are criminals and terrorists — only those who strike out at their rich and powerful oppressors? Or also the oppressors themselves? Does a criminal — regardless of whether he is rich or poor, weak or powerful — have the moral right to defend himself from the consequences of his criminal act? Who must obey the laws of God and humanity? Only the poor and oppressed? Or also the rich and powerful?
Reason has an answer for these questions — self-interest has another. What does our individual and collective conscience say? And who do we think we are kidding, anyway?