Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
The West is floundering in immorality and has no right to criticise the Islamist movement Hamas over the way it governs the Palestinian territory of Gaza, a veteran leader of the militant group said. Hamas strategist Mahmoud Al-Zahar told Reuters in an interview that Islamic traditions deserved respect and he accused Europe of promoting promiscuity and political hypocrisy. (Photo: Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip October 23, 2010/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
"We have the right to control our life according to our religion, not according to your religion. You have no religion, You are secular," said Zahar, who is one of the group's most influential and respected voices.
"You do not live like human beings. You do not (even) live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticise us?" he said, speaking from his apartment building in the densely populated Mediterranean city.
Hamas, which is an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement and means "zeal" in Arabic, won a fair, 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election and then seized control of Gaza in 2007 after routing rival forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas.
Next week is the time of year when millions of people around the world look to Jerusalem as the source of inspiration for the Christian festival of Easter and Jewish Passover celebrations. But this week the city is also the recurrent focus of bitter dispute. The United States has directed rare strong criticism at Israel over its plans to expand Jewish settlements there, saying the building undermines U.S. efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Want to know more? Following are links to a sampling of recent Reuters stories about Jerusalem and a Reuters graphic on new Israeli construction in East Jerusalems:
Ordinary women and men, wearing plastic bags on their feet, pulling pants up to knee level, clutch their children to their chests and roam along a 110-metre dark tunnel of sewage to cross from the Israeli-occupied West Bank to East Jerusalem.
Erected under a barrier that Israel is building in the West Bank in defiance of a World Court ruling, the tunnel serves as a gateway connecting Palestinians from the West Bank to East Jerusalem, a centre for medical, social, religious and other services for the Palestinians.
The Palestinian issue has figured prominently over the past week in stories with a religion angle. Pope Benedict's visit to Israel, which ended on Friday, was the most prominent. While visiting Bethlehem, he called Israel's barrier in the West Bank "one of the saddest sights" on his whole tour. Early this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time. Netanyahu said the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace talks while Obama said Jewish settlements in the West Bank "have to be stopped." On Wednesday, United Nations human rights investigators said they hoped to visit Gaza in early June and hold public hearings on whether war crimes were committed there in Israel's blockade of the area governed by the Islamist movement Hamas. (Photo: Palestinian protesters wave flags at the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem's Old City, 21 May 2009/Amir Cohen)
In almost every speech he made, Pope Benedict pleaded for more interfaith contacts and cooperation as a way to move forward towards peace. With the Israeli-Palestinian issue so polarised, the question of promoting understanding among the people of the Holy Land often seems to be reduced mostly to a Jewish-Muslim issue. The tiny Christian minority in the local population often seems to be standing on the sidelines.
When Pope Benedict visited Bethlehem, in the West Bank, last week, he was less than 100 km (60 miles) away from Gaza. But for the 4,000 Christians in this crowded Palestinian territory along the Mediterranean Sea , he might as well have been on the moon. Like nearly all Gazans, they are barred from leaving the Gaza Strip by Israeli restrictions. An Israeli embargo on supplying many essential goods to them has left the impoverished area unable to repair buildings destroyed or damaged by an Israeli offensive in January. Added to all that, the tiny Christian minority has been living since June 2007 under the Islamist rule of Hamas. Faced with conditions like that, attending a papal mass is a luxury few would even dream of. (Photos: Sunday Mass at Holy Family Church, Gaza, 17 May 2009/Suhaib Salem)
Behind the altar at Holy Family Church in Gaza, paintings depict Gospel scenes that all took place within a few hours' drive. There's the Annunciation in Nazareth, the Nativity in Bethlehem, Jesus's baptism in the Jordan River and the Last Supper in Jerusalem -- all places that Benedict visited. But the only place the Gazan Catholic faithful at Sunday Mass here could hope to visit anytime soon would be the route of the Flight to Egypt. Joseph and Mary would probably have brought Jesus through the Gaza region while fleeing Herod's plan to kill all newborn boys in Bethlehem. The rest are all unreachable for them.
Pope Benedict spent Thursday in Nazareth, the town where Jesus grew up in what is now the northern part of Israel. With no pressing political issues there, his sermon and speeches had a more religious focus than some recent ones.
MARRIAGE: "All of us need... to return to Nazareth, to contemplate ever anew the silence and love of the Holy Family, the model of all Christian family life. Here, in the example of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, we come to appreciate even more fully the sacredness of the family, which in God’s plan is based on the lifelong fidelity of a man and a woman consecrated by the marriage covenant and accepting of God’s gift of new life. How much the men and women of our time need to reappropriate this fundamental truth, which stands at the foundation of society, and how important is the witness of married couples for the formation of sound consciences and the building of a civilization of love!"
Who wrote Pope Benedict's speeches for this trip? Why do his speeches to Muslims hit the spot and those to Jews seem to fall short? Does he have two teams of speechwriters, one more attuned to the audience than the other?
We don't know the answers (yet) but a pattern suggesting that has certainly emerged. Look at what he had to say today in Bethlehem to Palestinians, Christian and Muslim:
Four speeches today to four quite different audiences. Pope Benedict first addressed Muslim religious leaders (see our separate blog on that) and then Israel's two grand rabbis. Both were about interfaith dialogue, but he was encouraging the Muslims to pursue it while he reassured the Jews the Catholic Church remained committed to it. He then addressed the Catholic bishops of the Holy Land and a Mass in the Valley of Josephat, just east of Jerusalem's old city. At that Mass, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Fouad Twal, delivered an interesting address comparing the Palestinians and Israelis to Jesus in his agony in the nearby Garden of Gethsemane and the international community to the three Apostles who slept during that crucial period in Christ's passion (see our separate blog on that).
Here are excerpts from the day's speeches:
TO MUSLIM RELIGIOUS LEADERS IN DOME OF THE ROCK:
INTERFAITH DIALOGUE: "Since the teachings of religious traditions ultimately concern the reality of God, the meaning of life, and the common destiny of mankind – that is to say, all that is most sacred and dear to us – there may be a temptation to engage in such dialogue with reluctance or ambivalence about its possibilities for success. Yet we can begin with the belief that the One God is the infinite source of justice and mercy, since in him the two exist in perfect unity. Those who confess his name are entrusted with the task of striving tirelessly for righteousness while imitating his forgiveness..."
From the “Get Your Priorities Right’ file…
When faced with a potential public health crisis it is important, as Deputy Minister of Health, that you ease public angst by coming up with an acceptable name for new diseases.
That’s why we were all relieved to learn that Israel’s Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, an Orthodox Jew, has decided that the outbreak of what is being called ‘swine flu’ elsewhere in the world will henceforth be known as ‘Mexico Flu’ in Israel.
Our Jerusalem bureau has sent a very interesting report about criticism within the Israeli army of the Gaza offensive in January. What caught my eye was that it brings up the issue of a religious war, a term usually used in relation to Muslims. (Photo: Israeli air strike near Gaza-Egypt border in southern Gaza Strip, 26 Feb 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
The story starts off as follows: