The Israeli commando attack last week on a pro-Palestinian flotilla 80 miles from Israel's coast that resulted in at least nine civilian deaths and 30 wounded has drawn a moral critique from global Baptists.
The Mavi Marmara, seen here leaving for Gaza in May, was part of a flotilla of ships delivering humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip that challenged the blockade of the Gaza Strip. (Photo: Free Gaza Movement)
"What is abundantly clear...is the damage that this has done to Israel's international standing and to the peace process," wrote Mark Woods, editor of Britain's Baptist Times, as his paper went to press.
"The Palestinian people of Gaza and the West Bank deserve liberty," said Raouf Halaby, a native of Palestine, a naturalized U.S. citizen and a member of First Baptist Church in Arkadelphia, Ark. "[O]nly then will peace come to that region of the world."
Halaby, an English and arts professor at Ouachita University, a Baptist school, pointed out that activists in the flotilla with humanitarian supplies were attempting to draw global attention to the dire conditions of "the starving people of Gaza."
"We need many more peaceful flotillas to break the siege," said Hanna Massad, pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church, who told EthicsDaily.com that living in Gaza was like living in prison.
Massad said Christians are commanded "by the prophets in the scripture to stand with the oppressed, defend the one who [is] not able to defend themselves, help those who could not help themselves."
Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches-USA, released a statement on Friday, noting that the "unresolved situation" in Gaza "is a driving force in unrest in other parts of the world."
For three years, Israel has maintained a blockade of the Gaza Strip. Bordered by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea, it stretches about 25 miles in length and is from 4 to 7.5 miles wide. Some 1.5 million people are crammed into the Gaza Strip with many living in poverty and despair.
Halaby told EthicsDaily.com that "Gaza is the world's largest open air prison and has the highest population density in the world."
A flotilla of cargo and passenger boats from Turkey "were carrying 10,000 tons of goods, including school supplies, building materials and two large electricity generators," according to BBC News.
The violence began when Israeli commandos attacked one of the ships, the Mavi Marmara, before sunrise. All nine deaths of humanitarian activists resulted from gunshot wounds. Five victims died from gunshot wounds to the head.
On Wednesday, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to justify the attack with deadly force in a televised address, claiming the assault was needed to keep Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza, from smuggling "thousands of Iranian rockets, missiles and war material" into Gaza.
"There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza," asserted Netanyahu.
He claimed the Israeli commandos acted in self-defense in their attack on the Mavi Marmara and accused the civilians on the ship of being "a vicious mob" and "members of an extremist group."
"This wasn't a love boat, this was a hate boat," said Netanyahu, who said that Israel faced "hypocrisy and a biased rush to judgment."
Netanyahu and anti-Palestinian pundits have made numerous charges against members of the flotilla, painting them as violent extremists, all in an attempt to justify Israel's disproportionate use of force.
Halaby warned EthicsDaily.com about this dynamic in an email. He said that "in an attempt to win American public opinion, Israel and its American apologists in Congress and the media, have attempted to link the activists to terrorism and to Al Qaeda."
Under independent scrutiny, some of those accusations have fallen apart, further damaging the credibility of the Israeli government.
The Israeli Defense Force retracted a claim that some 40 flotilla passengers "are mercenaries belonging to the Al Qaeda terror organization," after being challenged to substantiate its claim.
IDF also admitted that it doctored an audio recording of flotilla passengers making the anti-Semitic statements "shut up, go back to Auschwitz" and "we're helping Arabs go against the U.S., don't forget 9/11."
But with IDF's correction, questions remain about IDF's information about the radio transmission and events.
While the British Baptist editor called the flotilla "a publicity stunt," he wrote, "the very obviousness of the tactic allowed Israel all the time it needed to work out a non-violent response. The protestors could have been contained and their cargo impounded – if that were really felt to be necessary – with no loss of life, if a little more imagination had been shown."
Woods said that the Gaza blockade "is regarded almost universally as a humanitarian and moral disaster."
In the war between Israel and Hamas, it is the children, women and elderly of Gaza who are suffering, said Massad.
He said the blockage contributed to premature deaths from the lack of medical treatment, resulted in high unemployment and played a role in drug abuse.
Massad thought that people in the West are beginning "to wake up and realize the reality of the siege."
American Baptist leader Medley said the "deadly confrontation" underscored the need for "a just and peaceful resolution to the situation between Israel and Palestine."
He said, "American Baptists have long been on record in support of the two state solution. One that guarantees the right of both Israel to exist secure and the right of the Palestinians to a homeland and their right to security as well."
As Jesus rejected in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) the "an eye for an eye" cycle of retaliation, surely goodwill Christians should voice opposition to the increased pattern of 100 eyes for 1 eye and speak for peacemaking initiatives. A just peace is the only way to break the addictive cycle of violence in the Middle East.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.