ROME – A representative of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Monday urged Pope Francis and all political and religious leaders to continue building international pressure for the release of hostages abducted by Hamas.
Speaking during a Nov. 5 video conference on the war in Gaza, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lior Hayat said they are aware of Pope Francis’s repeated interventions on the war in Gaza and voiced his belief that “the pope and the Vatican hold an important moral stand in this case.”
“We expect him to be as loud as possible to talk about the release of hostages. This is a humanitarian catastrophe, a crisis. We call on every world leader and every religious leader to talk about it, to pressure everyone about it,” Hayat said.
He noted that Pope Francis and other Vatican officials have had phone calls with several international leaders, including United States President Joe Biden, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Referring to the pope and the Vatican’s engagement with Iran as “unfortunate,” Hayat said, “I don’t see the point of talking to the terrorist regime in Iran. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”
Pope Francis and Raisi spoke Sunday at the latter’s request, with much of the conversation, according to a statement from the Iran president’s office, focusing on the need for peace and a ceasefire.
Raisi during the call said it is the task of all Abrahamic religions, including Christians, to support “the oppressed people of Palestine” and contemned Israel’s ongoing military siege.
Israel launched a ground and air offensive into Gaza following an Oct. 7 Hamas surprise attack that left 1,400 Israelis dead and 241 taken hostage. Palestinian authorities claim that 10,000 people have died in Gaza as a result of Israeli strikes, including 4,000 children and 2,500 women.
Rachel Goldberg, a Chicago resident with Israeli citizenship whose 23-year-old son was abducted by Hamas militants during their Oct. 7 assault on the Nova music festival in Re’im in southern Israel, also spoke during Monday’s call, urging international leaders to do more for the release of the hostages taken by Hamas.
Goldberg said that she and her husband pieced together events by speaking with survivors, and that when Hamas militants first arrived and began shooting, her son, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, had initially tried to escape by car.
However, Hamas had blocked the roads and began opening car doors and pulling people out as others, including Hersh, got out and ran uphill to small underground bomb shelters.
Hersh, Goldberg said, crowded into one small shelter with 28 others as Hamas began throwing grenades inside, with the young people attempting to toss them back out as fast as possible. Yet despite their efforts, three grenades exploded inside the shelter, killing several of Hersh’s friends.
Hamas militants then opened fire inside of the shelter before entering and dragging out the few survivors and loading them onto a truck that went to Gaza. Hersh was among those loaded onto the truck, and half of his left arm had been blown off by one of the explosions.
Goldberg said she pieced together what happened by speaking with young people who survived the ordeal by laying underneath those killed by the grenades and pretending to be dead. She said she was eventually contacted by a media outlet that showed her footage of her son being loaded onto a Hamas truck, with a makeshift tourniquet on his arm.
“That was 31 days ago, and that’s the last that we know of our son,” she said, saying she and her husband have been speaking with media and local NGOs continually to try to raise awareness and to increase pressure for an update on the status of the hostages and their condition.
Noting that the hostages range in age from nine months to 88 years old, Goldberg complained that “the international community is doing nothing…no one is demanding proof of life, or access” to evaluate the health and status of the hostages.
“Why is there no pressure on international community to do their job?” she asked.
Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), also spoke on the call, saying their goal, as outlined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is to “remove Hamas as a governing institution” and that they will not cease military activity until this task is accomplished.
Lerner said the IDF has expanded their ground offensive and has successfully encircled Gaza City, which he said is “the beating heart of Hamas’s terrorist activities.”
The idea, he said, is to split Gaza between north and south, with most military action focused in the north, allowing civilians to evacuate to the south. He blamed Hamas for civilian deaths, saying they refuse to allow civilians to leave northern Gaza because they want to use them as human shields, hiding out in hospitals and schools.
In terms of broader regional escalation, Lerner said Israel is still being fired on by Iran-backed Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, and challenged members of the organization, saying, “Hezbollah must decide whether they are working for people of Lebanon or Iran,” and this will determine its future.
“Hezbollah is jeopardizing the sanctity of the south. The government must prevent attacks,” Lerner said, threatening to use the same force against Hezbollah that they are currently using on Gaza.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken just concluded a whirlwind visit to the Middle East in a bid to calm regional tensions and push for both the release of hostages and a temporary pause in hostilities to allow entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza.
Blinken made stops in Israel, the West Bank, Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan, where he met with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and voiced concern over Hezbollah’s actions in Israel.
Lerner in his remarks said there is no timeline for completing their mission, and he declined to offer a percentage estimate for where things currently stand.
“The goal is to rid the region of Hamas and make sure they never have the power to attack us again. It’s not a question of percentages, but a question of making sure Hamas can’t lead” further offensives and that events like the Oct. 7 attack “can never happen again,” he said.
While progress is being made, “It is not a quick fix, it is a very long road that we need to travel and it is going to take time,” he said.
Lerner said the IDF has demanded that the Red Cross be allowed entry into Gaza to evaluate the hostages and report back on their wellbeing, but said he is unaware if this has happened or not.
In terms of the humanitarian situation in Gaza, which Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken out about, condemning civilians deaths and calling for access to aid, Hayat said humanitarian assistance is going into Gaza.
“We know there’s food in Gaza, there’s water in Gaza, there is medicine in Gaza, and there is fuel, the problem is that it’s being held by Hamas. Hamas is preventing food, water, medicine, fuel from (getting to) its own people,” he said.
Hayat insisted that “Israel is not against humanitarian aid to the people Gaza, as long as it doesn’t get into the hands of the terrorist people of Hamas.”
He said the IDF refuses to allow the entry of fuel into Gaza, because fuel “is like oxygen for terrorism” and they believe it will be confiscated and used by Hamas to operate their underground network and launch more attacks.
“This is a war of our survival, but it is not just our war, it is a war for our entire western world,” he said, saying, “If we don’t win this war, the west will be next…we need time to do the job, to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip.”
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