by David Neuhaus SJ
Since Saturday early morning, October 7, 2023, Palestinians and Israelis have engaged in full-frontal military conflict. Hundreds of Palestinian Hamas militants from the Gaza Strip broke through the fence that separates the Strip from Israeli territory, pouring in on foot after a bulldozer smashed through it. Others came on gliders. Their entry into Israeli territory was accompanied by a barrage of missiles on the surrounding area, some reaching as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Israeli army responded with incessant bombings of Gaza City and ferocious battles to wipe out the insurgents on the ground, calling up army reserves to be ready for further military intervention.
Israel was caught off guard; its famed military intelligence was unaware of what was planned over weeks and months.
Many have described Gaza as an open-air prison, constantly under Israeli surveillance. How did the breakout succeed?
Amid the ongoing ferocious conflict, it is too early to analyse, understand and discern where we are heading. However, it is clear that it is difficult to retain one’s humanity in the present situation.
In Israel, a sensory bombardment continues unabated day and night. Ears are constantly assailed by the hum of Israeli aircraft flying overhead to bomb Gaza or the Hezbollah forces in south Lebanon. Hezbollah is making menacing moves in solidarity with Hamas.
And then there are the booms heard from the missiles sent from Gaza – either intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system or falling. These provoke blood-curdling sirens to warn those nearby to go to bomb shelters for refuge. And when the missiles hit residential areas, the ambulance and police sirens add to the sense of terror.
In Gaza, all of these sounds are intensified as Israeli missiles wipe out entire buildings that, within seconds, are reduced to rubble. The ambulance sirens rarely fall silent in Gaza.
Eyes are bombarded with images of horror and destruction.
In Israel, images show masked Hamas gunmen roaming the streets in Israeli towns and villages, shooting men, women and children. More than a thousand have been killed, more than 250 in one particular location where Israeli youth were gathered for an open-air celebration, many shot down as they tried to flee. Images of bodies littering the streets remind Israelis of attacks on Jews in the darkest hours of Jewish history. Israelis dragged from their lives into the Gaza Strip as hostages, old women, young children, anyone that could be taken alive.
In Gaza, images of bodies of men, women and children being pulled from the rubble of destroyed homes as the death toll steadily rises. Images of the wounded taken to underequipped and underdeveloped hospitals after years of a merciless blockade on the Strip.
And parents, children, relatives and friends shrieking their loss to a world that seems incapable or unwilling to hear their cry. Images of people fleeing the bombs with nowhere to go in a strip of land that is one of the most overpopulated territories in the world, exposed everywhere to Israeli missiles. Most present-day Gazans are descendants of those expelled from the Israeli territories that Hamas is now bombarding.
And then there is the constant stream of words proclaimed by leaders that sow hatred and the desire for never-ending vengeance. A Hamas spokesman chillingly explained that no civilians are being targeted. For him and his foot soldiers, every Israeli, old and young, man and woman, is a militant settler determined to preserve Israeli hegemony and keep Palestinians in submission.
Israeli leaders liken Hamas to the Nazis and ISIS, identifying Israelis as eternal victims of an unfathomable hatred and genocidal impulse. Israelis and the world are told that Israel is engaged in defence against an enemy that knows no limits to its cruelty.
For too many on each side, there are no civilians, no innocent bystanders! The humanity of the other has been almost totally obscured by decades of conflict that have shut down every horizon except that of never-ending war.
Pope Francis declared last Sunday at the Angelus that war is a defeat for everybody. This is not only because of the hundreds of dead, the thousands of wounded, and the massive destruction of property on both sides. It is also true because the spark of humanity, which we are called to recognise in each other, all created in the image and likeness of God, is being steadily extinguished.