Though fighting has escalated between Israel and Palestinian militants based in the Gaza Strip, a Catholic Relief Services spokeswoman has stressed that the agency still aims to advance peace in the region. “This conflict has dimmed the prospects for peace among Israelis and Palestinians, but as a Catholic organization, we are called to be peacemakers,” Liz O’Neill, Catholic Relief Services’ communications officer for the Middle East region, told CNA July 17. “We continually advocate for our leaders in Washington to take concrete steps to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict and reach out to Catholic communities in the United States so they can learn about the situation and pray for peace.” O’Neill, speaking before the Israeli military started its Thursday night ground offensive, noted the conflict’s effects on both Israel and Palestine, saying violence is “inescapable” in Gaza. “Drones constantly hover overhead, incoming airstrikes, mortars, tank shells, and naval bombardment are unrelenting, and there is nowhere to run. Entire families have been annihilated in an instant.” In Israel, she said, “warning sirens disrupt daily life, and in the south, families must regularly take refuge in bomb shelters. Fear and uncertainty are a constant feature of daily life.” Since July 7 Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip have fired more than 1,300 rockets on Israel, and the Israelis have responded with nearly 2,000 airstrikes. The recent escalation in violence between Israel and Hamas followed the June kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens and the July 2 killing of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem. Thousands of Israeli soldiers invaded the Gaza Strip July 17 in an effort to destroy Hamas’ weapons arsenals and their tunnels into Israel. Earlier that day, 13 Hamas militants attempted to enter Israel through one tunnel, only to be stopped by an Israeli military strike. O’Neill lamented the violence. “The current round of violence has once again definitively highlighted that the status quo is not sustainable, and that the only way out of this cycle of violence is a just, secure, lasting negotiated solution to the conflict,” she said. “The full extent of the humanitarian crisis will depend on how long this goes on.” Israeli attacks since July 8 have killed more than 270 Palestinians, at least 75 percent of whom were civilians and 20 percent of whom were children. Another 1,400 Palestinian civilians have been injured, and some 40,000 have become displaced, according to the U.N. Hamas' recent attacks have killed one Israeli civilian, and severely injured several. Before the ground invasion, Catholic Relief Services had planned to distribute essential supplies to 500 families whose Gaza homes had been damaged or destroyed. “We’re also planning to distribute vouchers to farmers who can no longer grow food because their land has been damaged by Israeli airstrikes,” O'Neill said. The Catholic relief agency, which is the U.S. bishops' international relief and development agency, temporarily closed its Gaza office due to the violence. The agency has been working in the Holy Land since 1961. Its initial focus on emergency response, food distribution and vaccination programs has now shifted to developing economic and social opportunities. “Currently, we help plant the seeds for peace by working with grassroots organizations to enhance their ability to advocate for themselves, to hold government accountable and transparent and to give marginalized groups a voice,” O’Neill said. “All of our work in the Holy Land is geared towards laying the foundation for a peaceful two-state solution and creating the conditions for a viable Palestinian state.”   O’Neill said the agency aims to carry out the U.S. bishops' “long-held position promoting a just, secure and stable two-state solution for both Israelis and Palestinians.”