During his Wednesday audience, Pope Francis lamented the latest violence in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, expressing his distress that the region is “increasingly moving away from the path of peace, dialogue and negotiations.”
More than 100 Palestinians protesting at the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel have been killed by Israeli soldiers in the past six weeks, according to Palestinian officials. Some 10,000 more have been injured.
The Vatican has long supported a two-state solution established via peaceful negotiations. When the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to recognize the State of Palestine in 2012, the Holy See began referring to Palestine as such. Saint John Paul II first opened Vatican diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1994, and met with PLO leader Yasser Arafat on numerous occasions.
Most recently, during a United Nations debate on “the Palestinian question,” the Holy See representative, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, reiterated the Vatican’s support for a two-state solution, calling it “only viable way of fulfilling the aspirations for peaceful co-existence among Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
“Every Israeli and Palestinian has the right to live in peace and security,” continued Archbishop Auza.
“To have the best chance of success, peace talks must take place in an atmosphere free from violence. The ongoing violence simply underlines how overdue a just and lasting resolution is,” Auza said in the UN Security Council open debate April 26.
Palestinians in Gaza had been protesting on a weekly basis since March 30. These protests culminated May 14 when tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied near the fence dividing Gaza from Israel. Palestinians were reported to have hurled explosives and flaming kites at Israel, and rushed at the fence. They were met by Israeli army sniper fire and tear gas.
More than 60 people from Palestine were killed and thousands injured. It was the largest death toll in a single day in the ongoing conflict since 2014.
One official of Hamas, the Islamist organization which governs the Gaza Strip, has said that 50 of the 62 Palestinians killed May 14-15 were members of the group.
In an emergency security council meeting May 15, the U.N. human rights office acknowledged Israel’s rights to defend its borders, but said that Israel’s use of lethal force violated international norms. It suggested that Israel arrest any protester who reached the fence.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said May 15 that “An attempt to approach or crossing or damaging the fence do not amount to a threat to life or serious injury and are not sufficient grounds for the use of live ammunition.”
“This is also the case with regards to stones and Molotov cocktails being thrown from a distance at well-protected security forces located behind defensive positions,” he continued.
Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton and Christopher Chessun, the Anglican Bishop of Southwark, said in a May 15 joint statement that “The terrible loss of life in Gaza caused by the Israeli army's use of live fire against civilians is to be condemned unequivocally.”
“Israel has a right to defend itself but also has the moral and legal responsibility not to use disproportionate force and not to prevent the injured from receiving medical treatment,” they continued.
They concluded by calling for a “peaceful two state solution with Jerusalem as the shared capital.”
Pope Francis reacted with sorrow for the dead and the wounded, and publically prayed to Mary, the Queen of Peace, asking “all the parties involved and the international community to renew their commitment so that dialogue, justice and peace prevail,” in his May 16 General Audience.
May 14 was a significant date in both Israel and Gaza. It marked the 70th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel. For Israelis, this day gained added significance with the U.S. embassy opening in its new location in Jerusalem, which Israel has long viewed as its capital despite the absence of international recognition.
Palestinians remember this anniversary as “Nakba Day” on May 15, a pained remembrance of the refugee crisis created by the 1948 founding of Israel, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted from their homes, either fleeing or being forced to leave.
Following President Donald Trump’s December announcement that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy, Pope Francis issued an appeal that the international community respect the “status quo of the city, in accordance with the relevant Resolutions of the United Nations,” on December 6.
The U.N. had previously proposed that Jerusalem should eventually become the capital of the two states of Israel and Palestine.
U.S. bishops also wrote a letter to the then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January urging that the U.S. embassy remain in Tel Aviv, expressing their concern that the move would erode the U.S. commitment to the a two-state solution, which “USCCB has long supported.”
“Only the emergence of a viable and independent Palestinian state living alongside a recognized and secure Israel will bring the peace for which majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians yearn. This two-state solution enhances Israeli security, preserves Israel as a Jewish majority democratic state, gives Palestinians the dignity of their own state, allows access to the Holy Sites of all three faiths, promotes economic development in the region, and undermines extremists who exploit the conflict,” wrote the U.S. bishops in a previous 2015 statement outlining their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The ongoing conflict assaults the dignity of both Palestinians and Israelis, with the suffering people in Gaza carrying a particularly heavy burden,” continued the bishops’ statement.
1.8 million Palestinians live in Gaza, where Monday’s violence occured. It is a densely populated Palestinian strip of land surrounded by Israel and currently under Israeli blockade. The impoverished area often experiences power cuts, and it is difficult for goods to get into or out of Gaza due to its restricted access.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster spoke with a Catholic parish priest in Gaza, Father Mario da Silva, May 16, who told him that life is hard and “everyone is desperate with shortages of water and other basic necessities.” The Gaza priest also said that he was encouraged to hear that people were praying for the people of Gaza.
Gaza is governed by Hamas, an Islamist group recognized as a terrorist organization and which has called for the destruction of Israel. The group has repeatedly used rockets and suicide bombings to attack Israel since its founding in 1987. Hamas in Gaza is split from the PLO, which governs the West Bank, further complicating any potential peace negotiations with Israel.
The Holy See and Catholic bishops continue to advocate for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict urging recognition of the human dignity of the people caught on both sides of the conflict.
The previously mentioned U.S. bishops' statement continued: “The path to peace in the Holy Land requires respect for the human rights and dignity of both Israelis and Palestinians. People of good will on both sides of the conflict want the same thing: a dignified life worthy of the human person.”