[Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part interview with Issa J. Kassissieh, Ambassador of Palestine to the Holy See and to the Sovereign Order of Malta.]

ROME – Palestine’s Ambassador to the Holy See has lauded Pope Francis description of the current war in Gaza as “defeat” and has called for both a ceasefire and an end to Israeli settlements, urging international leaders to do more.

Speaking to Crux in a wide-ranging sit-down interview at the Palestinian Embassy to the Holy See, Ambassador Issa J. Kassissieh, who serves as Palestine’s envoy to the Holy See and to the Sovereign Order of Malta, said Nov. 22 meeting between Pope Francis and a delegation of Palestinian families, who came from Gaza or have relatives there, gave the families hope.

“Hearing the stories of each individual about their sad stories because of the war on Gaza, I can say that the Pope was affected and was touched. As a result, when he then had a public audience, and as repeatedly he said, ‘war is a defeat,’” Kassissieh said.

In a public general audience that took place after that meeting, Pope Francis referred to the war in stronger terms, saying, “Let us not forget to pray for those who suffer because of wars, and let us persevere in praying for peace, for what is happening currently is not war, but rather terrorism.”

On the same day, also met with a delegation of 12 relatives of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas during their Oct. 7 surprise offensive on Israel, during which 1,400 were killed and 240 abducted.

Since those meetings took place, Kassissieh said that he observed “more engagement by the Holy See to try to reach a ceasefire.”

“His Holiness represents the highest stand of morality, and truly he represents our Lord on the ground,” he said, saying that in terms of the families, the pope “let them feel that he heard them, and he listened to their hearts and minds, and, he let them feel that he is well aware of their consistent suffering because of the unjust situation they’re in.”

Kassissieh also shared stories of some of the individuals that Francis met and he chastised the international community for enabling Israel by turning a blind eye to its expansion of “illegal” settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, calling Israel a “spoiled” child and urging a two-state solution.

Please read below for excerpts of Crux’s interview with Ambassador Issa Kassissieh:

Crux: Pope Francis recently met with families of people living in Gaza or who left Gaza due to the war. Can you explain what this meeting meant to those families and the people of Palestine?

Kassissieh: His Holiness is saddened to see the deterioration of the situation in the Holy Land. He wanted to express his solidarity to the grief of the Palestinians. We facilitated the visit in coordination with the Latin Patriarchate and the Higher Presidential Committee for Churches Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others, in order to show the disastrous situation at the humanitarian level as the result of the war. His Holiness wanted to meet the families on this basis, a humanitarian basis.

He listened to the grievances of the families, one of whom, Mohammad Halalo, his whole family was wiped out. Also, one Christian lady by the name Suheir Anistas with her daughter Zara Tarazi just left Gaza, and they were sheltering in the church, and they lived with the bombardment for 40 days. They described the difficult times they passed through because of the continuous bombardments, and they spoke about the hitting of the Orthodox church and the fatalities among the Christian families. One of them, was an employees of Caritas in Gaza. Viola Amash was killed with her children, her husband, her sister, and the husband of her sister. The only one who survived from this family was her mother. Imagine the mother living now her life without her daughters and (grandchildren).

Another story was a lady who was on the telephone with her mother until the telephone was cut. After 20 minutes, she knew that her mother with the family passed away. Khadija Darabeih, the pregnant woman who received the blessing of the pope, lost her entire family last week in a devastating Israeli airstrike on her family house. Ten of her family passed away, including her father, mother, sisters, brothers, and nieces. Fatimah Abu Muaileq, 11-years-old, was the youngest in the delegation to have the audience. So, you have all of these miserable stories because of this aggressive war on Gaza. Of course, such stories would have much (impact on) any human being, because normally we should live in peace and tranquility but not war, as simple as it is.

As a result of this meeting and hearing the stories of each individual about their sad and devastating stories because of the war on Gaza, I can say that the Pope was very touched. And when he then had a public audience, there he said that ‘war is a defeat,’ and ‘this is not war, this is terrorism.’ Consistently, His Holiness asks for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid, but I could tell that after hearing the voices and the stories of the families, he was personally so affected.

Since then, we see more engagement by the Holy See to try to reach a ceasefire. At one point, His Holiness was optimistic because of the temporary ceasefire, but as you see on TV, back to war and back to more casualties of civilians and more disastrous situations. The families who had a private audience with His Holiness mentioned also strong words about what is going on in Gaza, but I cannot quote him personally as an official, because I was not there, and it was a private audience with the families.

There was some debate over what the pope said, and whether he used the word ‘genocide.’ Even if you can’t quote him, what was the sentiment that the families felt? What message do you think they received from the pope?

One of them told me that truly His Holiness represents the highest stand of morality, and truly he represents our Lord on the ground. He told them that war is a defeat. In other words, war is a sin. So, he let them feel that he heard them, and he listened to their hearts and minds, and he cares much about the Palestinians, and he is aware of their consistent suffering because of the unjust situation they’re in.

You said the pope and the Vatican’s engagement in pushing for a ceasefire had increased since the meeting with the families took place. How have you seen this engagement increase?

As you know, he’s in constant contact with the parish, checking on the families there and he’s in constant contact with the leaders of the world. Furthermore, each Wednesday with the public audience and each Sunday with the Angelus prayers, he mentions the situation publicly, praying and requesting a truce, a ceasefire. The Holy See is also in touch with church-related organizations like Caritas, the Pontifical Mission, the Latin Patriarchate, the Apostolic delegate, the Franciscans and so on, to extend their hand to help as much as possible.

The families said to me that they felt His Holiness was well-informed of the situation there, and truly almost on a daily basis he calls the parish there in Gaza and he is worried about the dire situation there, because of the lack of pure water, food, electricity and medicine, and now diseases. He’s making his voice heard, and I hope that the world leaders and mainly President Joe Biden as a Catholic president, would truly hear the voice of His Holiness and give his voice a respect. His Holiness deserves that his voice is heard by the world leaders, not just by Biden, but also by the European leaders, because what is going on in the Occupied Palestinian Territory is a real blow for those who always advocated for human rights human values, and international humanitarian law.

I believe that the world order is currently in a real crisis due to the double-standard positions. You cannot talk about the illegality of occupation on one side, while legitimizing the occupation on the other side. If those leaders care about the future of Israel, no doubt they should recognize and defend Israel within its borders, but not defend Israel with its oppressive measures against other people. If I am a father and I have a spoiled boy, I don’t continue to pamper him. Rather, I take him in the right path so I’m sure that when he grows up, he’s in the right direction. Western world leaders have to take this path and not the other path. Actually, the path of spoiling the boy and making him above the rules of the house and above the rule of law will not make (him) good. Trust me, this policy is hurting more Israel and the Israelis than anyone else.

(Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu had a unique opportunity to make real peace with the Arab world if he recognized, and if the Israeli side endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, which was endorsed by the Arab and Muslim countries. You’re talking about 57 countries who were ready to have a real peace with the state of Israel, provided that the latter would pull out or deescalate toward ending the occupation based on international legitimacy. This did not happen, so also the ones to be blamed are the international community. They have seen the deterioration of the situation in the occupied territories, and no one showed any real political will to stop the escalation and change the dynamics to a positive one. The Abraham Accords are a recipe to avoid doing the real homework and to solve the Palestinian Question.

Q: What about the October 7 attack? Do you think that was the result of pressure building up and boiling over as a result of the ongoing situation?

Our president said clearly many times, we are against hurting any human being, all human beings are a reflection of the image of God, but I hope that the Israelis for the first time would do their homework and not run from their duties and allow the spoilers to continue spoiling and poisoning the atmosphere and start seriously dealing with the roots of the problem. The basic principle here is: ‘live and let live.’

You have your state, you achieved your national aspirations, and the other side is struggling for many years for their very rights and for their national rights. The time has come for both sides to exchange the right of their birth certificates so that we give to each other the legitimate birth certificates in order to live and coexist together and to prepare the ground together for the future of our children and to put hatred and discrimination aside and work to strengthen the moderate forces, and not to allow the extremist forces to control the scene. Unfortunately, this is what is going on at this moment.

Our president Mahmoud Abbas himself said many times at different forums that the political status quo is not sustainable, and the situation on the ground is deteriorating. He was complaining about the unprecedented violation of the settlers, and he was warning all the time about their illegal acts and practices and the illegal and unilateral continuation of the expansion of the settlements in the heart of the occupied territories.

Furthermore, living and tasting on a daily basis the humiliation, the oppression; negating your basic very rights, negating you as a human being, looking at you from a point of supremacy, arrogance, not dealing with you as an equal human being, would result at the end to falling to the dark spot. This situation went on for the last 75 years, generation after generation and war after war, but at the end, maybe this ugly chapter would be, with all its miseries, a waking moment, or an alert for the Israelis as well for the international community, that occupation does not make good for anyone and that the course of logic will prevail and not the logic of might.

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