Updated Aug. 17
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Israel and the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas continue to trade punches in a conflict that threatens to deepen into the first regional war in the Middle East since 1973. Israeli warplanes conducted strikes on Hezbollah targets near Beirut and in southern Lebanon Sunday while Israeli ground troops pressed operations inside of Gaza.
Continued violence by both sides will not result in a solution to the problem, said Lebanon native Tony Maalouf, assistant dean and professor of missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He said he is saddened because “leading powers in the region think that the show of force is going to bring security and peace.”
“Jesus said to Peter, ‘Whoever takes by the sword, by the sword will be taken,’” Maalouf said. “The cycle of violence in the Middle East for more than 50 years now is a vivid evidence of the truthfulness of the words of Jesus. There is no military solution to the conflict.”
The kidnapping of a Jewish settler and an Israeli soldier by Hamas at the end of June ignited the conflict and led to Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza, a territory it had withdrawn from last year as a concession to the Palestinians. Israel demanded the return of the kidnap victims, but the body of 18-year-old settler Elishu Asheri was later found in Ramallah. The Israeli soldier, according to the political wing of Hamas, is said to be alive and under heavy guard.
Conflict with Lebanon began only days later when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed several others. That prompted a massive Israeli response. Israeli aircraft and artillery destroyed key components of Lebanon’s infrastructure, including bridges, roads and portions of the Beirut airport. Hezbollah’s chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said his group would continue to attack Israel despite the Israeli response.
Caught in the middle of the conflict are Israeli and Lebanese Christians, an often-overlooked segment of society in both nations.
“Anytime there is a conflict in the Middle East, it makes it difficult for believers in the countries involved,” said Jim Sibley, director of the Pasche Institute of Criswell College in Dallas and a former Baptist representative to Israel. Sibley, who served in Israel 14 years, returned to the United States from a trip to the nation July 16.
Sibley said that Christians the world over should be praying for those who are threatened by the conflict, a mindset that was modeled for him during his most recent visit to Israel.
“I was in a Messianic congregation Sunday and they were praying for their brothers and sisters in Lebanon. That’s the posture we should be in, displaying a love for the brethren that transcends politics,” Sibley said. “We still have to make political decisions, but our love goes far beyond.”
Maalouf said Christians in the region and in the United States have the responsibility of being peacemakers while “having the Gospel in mind and putting aside controversial political agendas.”
“Violence greatly hinders missionary efforts and puts the lives of all Christian workers and believers in danger in various places. As wars are being waged in the heavenlies with their devastating consequences evident on earth, the church has to have a biblical perspective on things and engage the powers of darkness in a spiritual battle; that is, in prayer,” Maalouf said.
Samuel Shahid, professor of Islamic studies at Southwestern, said he would like to see the Middle East “dominated by peace and love,” but he said he recognizes that this will never happen until Christ returns.
“This will never happen because the people do not know the love of Christ. People cannot live together in peace without Christ,” he said. Nevertheless, Shahid, who was born in Palestine and lived in Lebanon, said that talk between the Palestinians and Israelis is far superior to more death and destruction.
“There is a great misunderstanding about these events, especially here in the United States where people see this as an isolated event. In reality, there is a long history of action and reaction. Both sides are ready to react. What they need to do is sit down together, to see each other as equals rather than as occupiers and occupied.”
Maalouf also said he advocates peace negotiations with the United States playing a lead role with an “unbiased approach.”
“The Middle East is a very complex area of the world and we cannot afford to deal with things simplistically there,” he said. “If world powers do not force somehow a cease-fire agreement, this conflict may spill into other countries.”
But the expansion of the conflict might be what the nation of Iran has in mind. Israel claimed last week that Iran had fielded as many as 100 troops along the Israel-Lebanon border. And weapons have for decades been funneled from Iran into Lebanon through Syria.
An Iranian diplomat denied allegations that members of its Revolutionary Guard were in Lebanon. He told the Iranian News Agency that the reports were “false and misleading” and a part of the “Zionist conspiracy” against the Islamic nations.
“By spreading such allegations, the Zionist regime is after escalating tensions in the region,” the diplomat, who refused to be identified, said.
“The Zionists think that they are the victims of Hitler, but they act like Hitler and behave worse than Genghis Khan,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad told to the Iranian News Agency. Ahmadenijad has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel. He called Israel a “usurper regime” founded on “lies and conspiracy.”
And there has been no shortage of support for Hezbollah from Iran, in spite of the fact that United Nations Resolution 1559 called for the disarmament of all “Islamic militias” in Lebanon.
Both Iran’s and Syria’s regional interests have made Hezbollah reluctant to give up its arms, and the group is deeply ingrained in the government of Lebanon.
“Many political parties in Lebanon were very concerned with Hezbollah’s maintaining its military power and at the same time becoming a significant political power in Lebanon,” Maalouf said. “Greater concern was caused by the fact that Hezbollah was mostly autonomous in making military decisions.”
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel would not halt its retaliatory strikes until the group complied with the Resolution 1559 and disarmed, a process that would be difficult with Hezbollah holding 23 seats in parliament.
Sibley said Christians should be praying for the leaders of the countries involved in the conflict so they might find a peaceful solution to the crisis and avoid civilian casualties. He said, however, that groups like Hezbollah, motivated by “Satanic forces,” will never live at peace with Israel.
“The terrorism of Hezbollah must be answered and it must be crushed,” he said. “We should not be so naive as to think they are seeking peace. They are seeking the destruction of Israel.”
Shahid agreed, citing Hezbollah’s loyalty to forces outside Lebanon. “Hezbollah has become the puppet of Syria and Iran. They are Lebanese, but their loyalty is not to Lebanon. They have the same policy as these people in Iran, and that is to destroy Israel.”