Gaza’s Christians Need Our Help

[Author’s note: The witness accounts included below are provided with direct permission. Names and some details and quotations may have been altered purely for the sake of caution. Some sources have been omitted or provided in shorthand out of privacy and safety concerns.]

In my previous post, I laid down the philosophical argument in favor of what I termed Ethical Zionism: a conception of Zionism that, by virtue of its own philosophical justifications as a derivative of Kantian ethics, must be committed to the defense of human rights in general, just as it is committed to the national rights of the Jewish people in particular. However, as any jurist or policy-maker knows, the defense of one person’s rights will, more often than not, come at the cost of another’s. As such, a careful balancing act is necessary to put this ideal of Ethical Zionism (or “Never Again,” as we have previously referred to it) into practice. In order for a “net” moral imperative to be achieved, in keeping with our aforesaid philosophical argument, responses to the various categorical moral imperatives acting on the State of Israel must be prioritized based on the primacy of the State’s mandate to represent the interests of Israeli citizens, with resources allocated and risks undertaken accordingly. In this way, no imperative is acted on that is outweighed by equal and opposite counter-forces, particularly those associated with the State’s responsibilities toward its own citizens, which must receive a higher order of preference for the purposes of the nation-state (which we have previously justified, as well, using Kantian ethics) to be achieved.

It follows, for instance, that the State’s intervention in support of human rights abroad must be tempered by logistical concerns that would encumber such expenditures on a sliding scale. The greater the required expenditure, the greater harm incurred to the rights of Israeli taxpayers in return, and, thus, the less moral justification for the nation-state of the Jewish people, specifically, to intervene in a foreign affair that does not concern their welfare. This is hardly a novel concept; after all, the justification one would expect to hear from any country abstaining from intervention in human rights abuses abroad would be the primacy of its obligation to look after its own citizens. However, what is novel about this approach is that it entails the opposite as well: The greater the State’s ability to intervene in ongoing violations without suffering terrible risks or expenditures, the greater its moral imperative to do so. Yes, even in defense of foreigners.

I cannot stress this point highly enough, as it forms the basic moral argument for this and most future discussions I hope to present. Neither does it go without saying: Under Kantian ethics, and, consequentially, the perception of Zionism derived therefrom, a state is subject to a moral obligation to defend human rights, wherever violations thereof may be found, so long as this does not unduly compromise its ability to meet its obligations toward its own citizens. I hope to review and examine the ideal Zionist position on various foreign affairs, in respect of any one of which it will be possible to raise the questions: What is our interest in this? Why should we care? Why is this our problem? (Or in the words of the less-understood son from the Passover Seder – “Of what use is this service to you?”) Thus, as a preface to the engagement of each of these discussions, I ask that the reader accept as a premise that it is an inherent “good” to help others regardless of personal interest; that a “good” represents an imperative that our own personal self-interests demand we act to uphold, to the extent feasible; and that the right of a people to self-expression is similarly tied to and dependent on the right of all people to their basic human rights and liberties, such that the “good” we expect of others in the form of mutual recognition of and support for our sovereignty is equivalent to the “good” that others may expect of us in terms of the recognition and defense of their basic rights.

(As an aside, I am aware that such an imperative must also be balanced against the harm that interventionism necessarily incurs to other countries’ national sovereignties. For the purposes of this post, I have chosen a case in which this risk is minimized (i.e. in which the foreign oppressor is not an internationally recognized ruling entity). However, we will contend with this aspect more directly in future posts.)

To illustrate this point, I draw the reader’s attention to a crisis looming, as we speak, very close to home. By starting at the lower end of this scale, I intend to pose the argument that the State of Israel faces a moral obligation to act to prevent a human rights catastrophe on our border, because it is uniquely and relatively painlessly situated to do so. I refer at present to the plight of Christian Palestinians in Gaza.

At this point, I hope the readers can forgive my interlude into the sensational; but it is rare and jarring to encounter such circumstances in real life, and it is of particular relevance to the issue at hand.

“HELP US!!! THEY ARE KILLING US!!!”

This was the message posted on Facebook by my friend Ahmed on March 17 of this year. According to Palestinian news sources, the post coincided with a Hamas roundup of protesters against the regime,[1] who had organized[2] (according to unofficial sources, on the scale of hundreds of thousands of protestors) over the course of several weeks against Hamas’ inept and ruinous governance of the strip. According to news reports, Hamas militants fired live ammunition into crowds of protestors and stormed residential complexes to arrest dissidents.[3] Understandably, many would not consider this behavior to be unusual of the radical terrorist organization that has held on to power in the strip for more than a decade. But I found it particularly disconcerting because my friend Ahmed is a Christian – and, consequentially, faces unique dangers in Gaza. Third-person accounts corroborated that Ahmed’s apartment complex had been stormed by Hamas gunmen that morning. For the next 36 hours, his account went dark.

The situation of Christians in Gaza has become precarious, at best. Over the past decade, news media have chronicled the various threats issued by armed groups within the strip against its Christian population[4] – which numbers between 1,300 and a meager 700 souls, according to reports.[5] The Christian community of Gaza is divided among three churches, all concentrated in the Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City. Adjacent to and directly west of Sajayeh – a closely contested battleground in recent military skirmishes – Zeitoun has sustained significant damage and casualties in recent wars between Israel and Hamas.[6] However, this was hardly the start of their troubles.

In the previous century, Muslim and Christian Palestinians had largely enjoyed an uneventful coexistence. This reality changed after Hamas seized power in the strip in 2006.[7]

In 2007, reports first surfaced that a prominent Christian professor at Palestine International University, Prof. Sana al-Sayegh, had gone missing. After several weeks she resurfaced and professed her conversion to Islam. Allegations from her family and others expressed the belief that Sana had been kidnapped and forcibly converted by Hamas. Israeli media cited anonymous sources stating that “Sayegh said she couldn’t talk. It was very clear she had been abducted and was made to do things she didn’t want to do.”[8]

This was only the beginning. In October, Rami Ayyad, manager of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore and a leader of the Gaza Baptist Church, was brutally and publicly beaten and executed by masked gunmen, following weeks of targetted stalking and harassment. Six months prior, his bookstore had been firebombed.[9] (It is worth noting that the 2007 article by Ha’aretz estimated the Christian population of Gaza at around 3,000.[10] If this was accurate, the population has shrunk by more than half in the past decade, based on current estimates.) In an interview published by Ha’Aretz, Rami’s brother, Ibrahim, attested to the growing insecurity and persecution of Christian children in Gazan schools.[11]
These incidents were not isolated. Since Hamas’s takeover of the strip, stories have repeatedly surfaced of kidnappings, forced conversions and other forms of creeping persecution against the Christian community, often in the context of attempts by Hamas and other militant groups to enforce Sharia law in Gaza.[12]
Reached for comment, my friend Abdal, another Christian Palestinian living in Gaza, presented a similar picture:
“My parents told me to be careful and not talk too much to the Muslims, it is better to keep a low profile. Not get attention… There are events I remember that [were] really scary, one of those [was] when the Jews were forced out from here. My mother spoke to my father about how we would be next. I guess I wasn’t meant to hear that, but I did and it scared me so much. Another event was when [Hamas] came to power. Slowly it became worse for us to live here.”

I spoke to Abdal following a previous post of his from February 10, depicting an attack by armed militants on his church:

Before Christmas [January 7, 2019 for Orthodox Christians] they warned us from celebrating it, and [the Popular Resistance Committees, a powerful Gazan militant group] said it is forbidden [and] there will be consequences. Today when I went home from Church together with my brother and Ibrim, we got surrounded by their [soldiers]. My brother was able to run away but me and Ibrim [were] left. They directly started fighting, one said he would blow my head off with the weapon if I didn’t do what he told me to do. Ibrim they throw on the ground and started kicking him. Then guards from the church came by, they are from [Hamas]. And those morons ran away. But now I am really scared. They are out to get us! Al-Nasser Salah al-Deen [Bridages, the military wing of the PRC] are dangerous.

The message ended with an ominous plea:

Please don’t ignore us! We are in huge danger here.

For the sake of brevity, let us assume from this point and going forward (though there is more material where that came from) that the Gazan Christian community faces real and immediate danger. This being the case, Ethical Zionism would demand that the State of Israel take action to assist them, provided the rendering of such assistance would be feasible without unduly harming the rights of Israeli citizens. Therefore, we must first examine the question of how such assistance could be feasibly rendered – if at all – and at what cost.

As the Gaza strip is currently ruled by a hostile power with which Israel is currently engaged in intensive de-escalation efforts, it stands to reason that direct military intervention in defense of Gaza’s Christians on an incidental basis would incur unacceptable setbacks on the diplomatic front (even if this also alleviates the concern of injuring the sovereignty of the Palestinian nation, which remains contested). If so, the clearest recourse would be to ensure the passage of this community outside of the strip before such direct threats materialize, whether by negotiation with the Hamas authorities, through the quiet issuance of administrative border clearances or otherwise.

Where would they go? Israel, the West Bank, Jordan? I’ll be candid in asserting that the answer is effectively irrelevant for the purpose of making the moral argument to work toward their rescue, since, as we can surmise, arrangement for the transfer and resettlement of up to 1,300 refugees facing dire danger on our very doorstep should be an inherently surmountable task regardless of which option we choose. Oskar Schindler, a lone entrepreneur of limited means, was able to rescue a similar number of Jews under near-impossible circumstances, and in the heart of hostile territory, without any hope of safe passage abroad.[13] To the State of Israel, with its relatively vast resources, military capacities, international ties and government-administered lands, the effort and expenditure involved in such a rescue would be negligible. It would not need to raise taxes on Israeli citizens. It would not require a serious military operation, nor any particular added risk to the lives of Israeli citizens. We share a close land border with the territory in question. The population in danger has family living in Israeli territory in many cases, speaks one of the official languages of our country, is numerically insignificant, and is otherwise well-suited to integration and absorption. I could go on, but, in summary, it should be evident why, given the “sliding scale” of moral obligation illustrated in the preface to this post, and in consideration of the demands of Ethical Zionism that we have previously outlined, we should assume that a strong categorical imperative compels us, as Zionists, to demand that our government act to rescue Gaza’s Christian community. As firm believers in the doctrine of “Never Again,” we cannot deny the moral obligation that bars us from turning a blind eye to the suffering on our doorstep, nor that we would expect any other ethical civilization to rescue us under similar circumstances.

This is not to say that the matter is entirely without challenges, of course. There are a number of factors that could be seen to either impede our logistical capabilities or complicate the moral equation, among them: How do we know that they wish to be rescued? What if Hamas does not consent to their departure? Should we be concerned about the de facto ethnic cleansing of Gaza that this would entail? Could the absorption of 1,300 Palestinian refugees pose a security threat to Israel, or serve as a precedent for further resettlement demands in the future?

While this list is not exhaustive, and the questions raised are substantive, my purpose herein is not to provide the groundwork for a comprehensive rescue operation so much as to make the argument that attaining such a solution in principle constitutes a moral imperative. The moral imperative’s effect is contingent on the operation being feasible, and thus it can be presumed to remain in effect so long as it can be assumed that these obstacles are inherently surmountable. In this respect, without engaging in minute examination of all of the possible issues that could arise from the questions posed above, I feel confident that none of these issues should serve as a serious impediment to ensuring the safety and security of 1,300 people. I have little doubt that, given Israel’s military, diplomatic and intelligence capabilities, suitable resolutions, whether logistical or theoretical, can be found for all of these issues; and thus, little doubt that we must act in spite of them.

I will, in any event, note that while we do not know that the population wishes to be rescued per se – and, perhaps, cannot know, since to admit as much could endanger the community so long as they remain in Gazan territory – it stands to reason that individuals in such circumstances should be afforded the option of rescue regardless if they have actively requested it, all the more so for their likely inability to communicate such need. And the need demonstrably exists, and is pressing as ever.

Following some frantic coordination efforts, contact with my friend Ahmed was reestablished on March 18. He sent the following message:

It was awful, they got in here and took me and my brother and we were questioned, about a lot of things. But now we both go to come home and now I’m really scared but relieved… I was only beaten once. Now I want to be in bed and cry so I forget about this day.

As relieved as I was to hear of my friend’s safe return, there is no telling how many times this chilling account was replayed across Zeitun – nor if those stories had similar endings. Under the circumstance of a defenseless community in need of assistance – assistance that the State of Israel is uniquely positioned to immediately and near-painlessly render – we face a moral obligation to respond to the call of our brothers and sisters in Gaza, and to rescue them from harm. I believe that this is the behavior that we would expect and desire others to uphold in our regard, and, accordingly, this is the standard that Ethical Zionism demands of us. Gaza’s Christians need our help, and our nationalism – and the human decency that underpins it – command that we be mindful, and oblige.

In future posts, I intend to use this instance as a benchmark for examining the relative moral arguments for and against Zionist interventionism in other international crises, as well as presenting the inverse argument as a means of assessing the relative moral measure of Israel’s current engagements with foreign countries engaged in various acts of oppression abroad.

[1] “Hamas raids homes, arrests dozens of activists,” March 17, 2019, Ma’an News Agency.

[2] “Gazans protest demanding better living conditions,” March 16, 2019, Ma’an News Agency.
[3] “Hamas violently disperses demonstrators on 3rd day of internal protests,” Times of Israel staff, March 16, 2019, Times of Israel.
[5] “Faithful Few: Can Gaza’s Christian community survive?” Donald MacIntyre, December 23, 2018, The Guardian; “Silent night: After Christmas celebrations, Christians fear shrinking community will disappear in Gaza,” Bel Trew, December 28, 2018, The Independent; Cf. U.S. Department of State, International Religious Freedom
Report 2009: Israel and the Occupied Territories, 2009 (as of
November 5, 2010).
[6] “‘Some were decapitated. My cousin and his son died in front of me,'” Rory McCarthy, Hazem Balousha, January 10, 2009, The Guardian; “”IDF investigation an Israeli stunt,”” Ali Waked, October 22, 2010, YNetnews; “For Arab Clan, Days of Agony in a Cross-Fire,”
Taghreed El-Khodary, Isabel Kershner, January 9, 2009, New York Times.
[9] “Christian bookstore manager martyred in Gaza City,” Deann Alford, October 8, 2007, Christianity Today.
[10] See footnote 7.
[11] Ibid.
[12] See footnote 4, “Christians being kidnapped;” footnote 5, “Faithful Few;” “Gaza Christians protest forcible conversions,” Diaa Hadid, Jul 16, 2012, Associated Press; “Gaza Christians long for days before Hamas canceled Christmas,” Phoebe Greenwood, December 23, 2011, The Guardian; “”Christians must accept Islamic rule,”” Aaron Klein, June 19, 2007, YNetnews; “The Hamas Enterprise and the Talibanization of Gaza,” Khaled Al-Hroub, Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), October 11, 2010. Translation by the Middle East Research Institute, October 22, 2010.
[13] Are you really fact-checking this claim? Really. You didn’t see the movie?
About the Author
My name is Kovi Skier. I was raised in a small Ultra-Orthodox community in Milwaukee, and made Aliya at the age of 18. I volunteered in the IDF and continue to serve in the reserves. Today I work and research in the field of law, while enthusiastically pursuing my hobbies of historical and political research and discourse. I am a husband and father of two. I see it as my civic duty to strengthen and contribute to my society in any way that I can.
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