12/01/2023, 21.10
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Patton: The truce in Gaza shows that negotiations are possible and should not stop

by Giorgio Bernardelli

The Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land talks about the situation between Israelis and Palestinians. Mistrust is growing between the two communities even in daily life. He fears a new Christian exodus when the war ends. Those in the international community who want to help should not take sides, but ought to “understand the suffering of both” in a war in which “we have all already lost.”

Milan (AsiaNews) – The truce that began seven days ago no longer holds in Gaza and southern Israel as of this morning. While the Netanyahu government and Hamas blame each other for breaking it, the truce negotiated with the mediation of Qatar and Egypt has broken down. When it was in place, Hamas released 105 Israeli and foreign hostages in exchange for about 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket fire have resumed. Meanwhile, mediators continue working on brokering another truce.

What did the last few days represent? How did the Christian communities of the Holy Land live through these weeks? What steps can be taken to overcome the deadlock? We asked these questions the other evening to Brother Francesco Patton, Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, in an interview during the meeting "Voices of Peace from the Heart of War" held in Milan at the PIME Centre.

“We were all afraid that once the truce was over, military action would resume,” said Fr Francesco Patton. “Still, the truce has shown that when those who work behind the scenes negotiate effectively, results can be achieved. I hope that negotiations will continue to be carried out in order to secure the release of all the hostages, and more significant results may be achieved for a stable ceasefire."

How are Christians living through these weeks in the Holy Land?

"It is a very difficult time for Christians, especially for those in Bethlehem and the West Bank; they are in a situation in which they are unable to work. At the start, teachers could not get to our schools; now it takes them three hours to travel a distance that normally takes 15 minutes. Without pilgrims, those who live in Bethlehem are literally going hungry.

“In Israel, coexistence is hard. Hamas’s attack on 7 October has created mistrust in society between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews, which is a real challenge for Christians, who are once again tempted to abandon their homeland. I fear that when the war is over there will be a new wave of emigration of Christians from the Holy Land.”

How does this mistrust manifest itself?

“People, for instance, are no longer able to communicate normally. This is what people tell me when talking about their workplace. Something is broken. But you can also see it on the streets; you are looked at with suspicion if you are not immediately identifiable as a member of your own group. The same happens in supermarkets; those who can, avoid the cashier of the other ethnic group. These are attitudes that affect people's real life on a daily basis."

And how do you, who have always worked to get people to meet, respond?

“We continue to work for coexistence and mutual acceptance. Our schools have essentially two groups, Christians and Muslims. But in our music school, the Magnificat, most of the teachers are Israeli Jews and most of the students are Palestinians, Christian and Muslim.

“In my opinion, this environment is a test of possible coexistence. Immediately after 7 October, there were difficulties, but professors and students managed to find at least some harmony and mutual acceptance that allowed both not only to do their work, but also to relate to one another.

“We continue to try to be close to people. We know that when emotions run high, on both sides, it is better to say little and listen a lot. You have to find room for your emotions to express themselves. As Ecclesiastes says: There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak. The time will come to go back to thinking in terms of values and not simply emotions.”

To speak saying what?

"We espouse the line of Pope Francis who speaks of being close to both rather than being equally distant from both. It is necessary to feel the suffering of both, to recognise the dignity of both sufferings. We, who are in some way a third party, less emotionally involved, can feel it. But it will be necessary, in the future, that both sides also recognise each other's suffering.

“This is what the hostages' spokeswoman said in an interview with L'Osservatore Romano: We must come to understand the suffering of the Palestinians and the Palestinians must understand our suffering as Jews. As long as we do not get there, we will simply continue to be afraid of the other and our suffering, instead of compassion, will generate a desire for revenge, hatred, retaliation, becoming a cancer that corrodes people and even societies from within."

What can the international community do to help Israelis and Palestinians break this deadlock?

“It is essential that it does not look at things with partisan eyes. This is not a football match where you win a cup. People die here; it is a tragedy. Everyone, from those with political responsibilities to ordinary people, must stop holding a partisan attitude and look at things like someone trying to understand the suffering of both. No one wins. There are so many dead that even if the war were to end today, we have all already lost. 

“Concrete steps can be taken to break the deadlock. With the truce, we have seen how important the pressure of the major powers is: the influence of the United States and some European countries on Israel, the pressure of Egypt and the Gulf states on Hamas. If we have succeeded in a little, I believe now we should dare do a lot.

“Today reconciliation is not possible. Before we get there though, many steps can allow us to save people, to prevent conflicts from being settled through terror attacks or airstrikes. The international community has a responsibility to help the process along. As we all know, in the end, there are only two alternatives: either we arrive at mutual acceptance between Israelis and Palestinians or we continue to seek the path of eliminating the adversary. This is an impossible way for it would mean theorising the possibility of genocide.”

Advent has just started and war is raging in the Holy Land. What do you expect from the faithful on this journey towards Christmas?

“Advent is a time of hope; believers ought to be those who, despite all sorts of adversities, continue to hope even against all hope that there is a way out.

“This does not happen overnight or in a superficial way. There are no magic solutions. Hope always needs people of good will who work in a certain direction. But if we Christians today do not believe that this is possible, it means that we no longer believe in the transforming power of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

“In addition to this, I expect two other things from Christians; above all, that they do not act as partisans. And we also need tangible solidarity.

“We are not angels; these brothers and sisters of ours today also need economic resources to move forward. For this reason, we must also pledge ourselves that, as soon as possible, we will return as pilgrims to the Holy Land, to give Christians living in the West Bank the opportunity to live from their work.

“As Christian organisations, when the war is over, we must find a way to help rebuild, restarting activities but also projects that educate people to accept each other, to accept coexistence. This is truly needed here.”

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