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ROME – With rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians reaching new heights over the past week amid a spat of fresh killings, church leaders in the West Bank have condemned the violence and called for a lasting resolution that respects international law.
In a March 1 statement from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, regional church leaders said they were “saddened by the latest escalation of violence in the Holy Land.”
They pointed specifically to an incident last Sunday, Feb. 26 in which dozens of Israeli settlers “rampaged” through the Palestinian town of Huwara near Nablus, killing one man and injuring dozens of others “with metal rods and tear gas, and torching scores of buildings and cars.”
Sunday’s rampage in Huwara, they said, was a retaliatory act after a Palestinian gunmen killed two Israeli settlers in the same town, an act which in itself was a response to the killing of eleven Palestinians in Nablus a week earlier.
The Huwara incident came at the end of a rare meeting between Israeli and Palestinian authorities in Aqaba, Jordan, during which Israel said it would halt settlement expansions in Palestinian territory in a bid to end what church leaders called “a spiraling and senseless escalation” of violence.
Violence in the West Bank has surged in recent months, particularly after general elections in November brought in Israel’s most rightwing and nationalistic coalition to date, composed of hardline parties many fear will become increasingly radical, causing further violence.
Over the past year, Israel has reportedly conducted near-daily raids, leaving hundreds of Palestinians dead. 66 Palestinians have been killed so far in 2023 alone.
In the latest escalation of tensions, the Palestinian town of Huwara was attacked by Israeli settlers, setting cars ablaze and throwing stones just hours after two Israelis were shot dead as they drove through the town, located in the northern West Bank.
Following the incident, described by some Palestinians as a “pogrom,” Israel’s far-right Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, said that Huwara should be “wiped out.”
The remark was met with enormous backlash, including rare criticism from the United States, a key ally of Israel.
In further violence, despite the recent summit in Jordan, an Israeli American motorist was shot and killed Monday, and on Wednesday, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man while searching for suspects in the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp near Jericho.
Since Israel’s new government took office at the end of last year, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDFs) have so far conducted three large-scale raids in Palestinian cities, including a Feb. 22 raid in Nablus that led to the death of 11 Palestinians, the largest Palestinian death toll in a single IDF operation since 2005.
With tensions increasing by the day, there are fears of further escalation before the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and the Jewish feast of the Passover in just a few weeks’ time, prompting the United States, Jordan, and Israel to appeal for calm.
In wake of this most recent wave of violence, United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk described Smotrich’s remark calling for Huwara to be “wiped out” as an “unfathomable statement of incitement to violence and hostility.”
“The situation in the occupied Palestinian territory is a tragedy, a tragedy above all for the Palestinian people,” he told the UN Human Rights Council Friday, presenting a report on the status of the occupied territories.
Turk said his report found that within the reporting period, “lethal force has been frequently employed” by Israeli forces “regardless of the level of threat and at times even as an initial measure rather than as last resort.”
He said his report has also documented hundreds of killings, including several of unarmed citizens, and numerous instances of violence on either side.
“The occupation is eating away at the health of both societies on every level, from childhood to old age and in every part of life. For this violence to end, the occupation must end. On all sides, there are people who know this,” Turk said.
On Friday, Sven Kuhn von Burgsdorff, the European Union’s envoy to Palestine, called for justice in wake of the Huwara incident and accountability for the perpetrators, as well as compensation for damaged property.
In their statement, the church leaders of Jerusalem said the “painful developments” over the past week “make it ever more necessary not only to immediately de-escalate tensions in words and deeds, but also to find a more lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
This solution, they said, must be modeled “in accordance with international resolutions and legitimacy.”
“With all people of good will, we pray to the Lord for peace and justice in our beloved Holy Land, where all have been tormented by this painful, long-term conflict,” they said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen