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June 2, 2010

Presiding bishop responds to Gaza ship convoy incident


Expressing regret for the deaths and injuries that resulted when Israeli military forces intercepted a ship convoy seeking to deliver humanitarian goods to Gaza, Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, called for "a full, international and independent investigation into the matter," in a June 1 public statement.

At least 10 people died after the ships were intercepted in international waters May 31. The ships were carrying humanitarian goods to Gaza from Cyprus. The mission was also intended to draw attention to the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and a number of activists were said to be on the ships. Video images showed Israeli soldiers rappelling from helicopters onto the ships, and showed the soldiers and passengers fighting.

Israel has restricted the flow of goods in and out of Gaza since Hamas gained control in 2007, primarily to control the smuggling of weapons. It said it had warned for days that it would not allow the ships to reach Gaza. Israel also said its troops opened fire in self-defense.

The United Nations Security Council expressed regret at the loss of life and injuries resulting from the Israeli military operation. It also "condemned those acts which had killed at least 10 civilians and wounded many more," according to a Security Council statement.

Speaking on behalf of the ELCA and the Lutheran World Federation, which he serves as president, Hanson expressed "my deep sadness" regarding the operation. He noted the ELCA and the LWF are engaged in the Middle East and are committed to Lutheran Christians and all people living in the region.

"We deeply regret the deaths and injuries that resulted when Israeli forces intercepted the boats," Hanson wrote. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the wounded and the families of those killed or otherwise harmed during this incident. We note that this tragic incident occurred on the first day of the World Council of Churches' World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel."

The incident raises many questions that must be answered, Hanson said in his statement. "We therefore call for a full, international and independent investigation into this matter," the presiding bishop's statement said.

"While we condemn all violence in the resolution of political disputes, this incident raises a number of questions related to the just use of force. It is not clear that, in this incident, all alternatives were explored prior to the use of military force. One tenet of the just use of force is proportionality, a principle I raised during my meeting with the chief rabbis of the State of Israel during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza which lasted from December 2008 to January 2009. This incident provides an example of how proportionality is an ongoing concern related to Israeli military action against civilians, both Palestinians and internationals," Hanson wrote.

Hanson's statement said the attempt to deliver humanitarian materials to Gaza via the ship convoy calls attention to the ongoing blockade of Gaza and the consequences for the 1.5 million people living there. The presiding bishop said Israel's blockade "must be fully lifted, in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860."

Though some aid does get to the people of Gaza, Hanson wrote that the economy, particularly the agricultural and fishing sectors, has been devastated. Basic goods such as seeds and seedlings, plastic piping, irrigation supplies, fishing nets, engine spare parts, veterinary drugs and cement are restricted, he wrote.

Hanson also wrote that the World Health Organization has documented the serious deterioration in Gaza's health system.

"This tragic event demonstrates the urgency of achieving a just peace. One role of religious leaders, including the churches, is to strengthen those voices working for peace, rather than yielding to the clamor of extremism, as we seek a just peace beneficial for all persons in the region," Hanson wrote.

"We urge that this incident not interrupt the proximity talks now being conducted through the Obama administration. Instead, we expect that this incident will intensify on all sides the commitment to serious negotiations that will lead to a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," the ELCA presiding bishop's statement concluded.

In addition, Olav Fykse Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran theologian and general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, called the events that occurred May 31 "deplorable."

"We condemn the assault and killing of innocent people who were attempting to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza, who have been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007. We further condemn the flagrant violation of international law by Israel in attacking and boarding a humanitarian convoy in international waters. We pray for all those who are affected by the attack, especially the bereaved families," Tveit's statement said.

Statements:

Read Mark S. Hanson's statement at the ELCA website.

Read Olav Fykse Tveit's statement at the World Council of Churches website.

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