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Gaza Baptist Church’s building sustains damage in Israeli air strike

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–An Israeli air strike at Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip seriously damaged Gaza Baptist Church on New Year’s Day. The Israeli offensive — launched Dec. 27 after a week in which more than 200 rockets struck southern Israel from the Gaza Strip — illustrates the failure of the “land for peace” strategy in the Middle East, say two Israeli commentators. A leading Southern Baptist observer called the situation a “human tragedy” and “squandered opportunity.”

Windows were blown out at Gaza Baptist Church when Israeli aircraft attacked a police station across the street, according to a report from the BosNews service. In 2007, the six-story church was commandeered by fighters with the Palestinian Fatah faction as a lookout station during the civil war in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas.

More specific information on the building and church members is not yet available. The church’s pastor, Hanna Massad, was forced to flee Gaza after the Hamas takeover. Another Baptist leader in Gaza, bookstore owner Rami Ayyad, was kidnapped and murdered in October 2007.

Israel followed several days of aerial bombardment on Hamas target with a ground invasion Jan. 2, cutting the Gaza Strip in half and digging in around Gaza City. The Israeli offensive has focused on gaining control of high-rise buildings outside Gaza City and destroying buildings that serve as Hamas command centers or weapons caches, according to news reports out of the region. Israel also has attacked tunnels in southern Gaza used to smuggle weapons.

While Gaza health officials said the death toll of 537 included at least 200 civilians, Israeli officials have countered that civilian deaths are inevitable when Hamas military sites and operations are based in urban areas.

“If Hamas chose cynically to use those civilians as human shields, then Hamas should be accountable,” Israeli military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told the Associated Press. “Civilians will probably continue to get killed, unfortunately, because Hamas put them in the first lines of fire.”

Middle East commentator Daniel Pipes said the “land for peace” concept that has driven Middle East peace proposals since 1993 is in jeopardy.

A Dec. 31 column at danielpipes.org quoted former Israeli general Yaakov Amidror as saying, “The historical lesson … proves that with every concession, every territory we leave is used for attacks against us.” Hamas rockets can now reach as many as 1 million Israelis and Israeli intelligence now believes Lebanon’s Hezbollah militias have rockets that can strike Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, Pipes said.

The Hamas fighters in Gaza, like the Hezbollah militias in Lebanon, are proxies of Iran’s government, which has declared its intention of destroying the state of Israel, said author David Dolan.

“Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, called upon Muslims everywhere to rise up and defend the Arab residents of Gaza ‘in any way possible,'” Dolan wrote in a Dec. 29 column at ddolan.com. “Iranian volunteers are already being recruited to join the battle on the ground. This comes as several Islamic clerics around the world declared the situation a ‘jihad’ that obligates all Muslims to come to the aid of Hamas.”

Dolan noted that, while Israel tries to avoid civilian casualties, Hamas deliberately targets civilians with its rocket attacks. Dolan quoted Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak telling an emergency session of the Israeli parliament that Israel was engaged in “all out war” with Hamas and its radical Islamic allies.

“I want to remind the world that Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip more than three years ago,” Barak told the lawmakers. “We gave a chance for a new reality and all we’ve seen in return is the Hamas government firing rockets and missiles on our citizens and carrying out attacks against Israel.”

“The situation in Gaza is a human tragedy,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Hamas could have used the opportunity provided by Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 to begin to construct a real Palestinian state by providing basic services to its people and building desperately needed roads and infrastructure. Instead, Hamas, a terrorist organization committed to the annihilation of the Israeli state, chose to squander that historic opportunity by committing the meager resources of the Palestinian people to turning the Gaza strip into a terrorist base and a launching pad for thousands of rockets aimed deliberately at the civilian population of southern Israel.

“Instead of attempting to protect and serve their civilian population, Hamas deliberately uses Palestinian civilians as shields in an attempt to deter Israeli military action against rocket factories and launching sites,” Land added. “One has to ask, what other country in the world would have waited as long as Israel has to respond in force to such murderous acts against its civilian population? It may be that it is even more important for the Palestinians’ future than the Israelis’ that Israel defeat Hamas, thus providing a more hopeful, peaceful and positive future for both Palestinians and Israelis. We should all pray that the ‘peace of Jerusalem’ should come sooner, rather than later to the Holy Land.”

President-elect Barack H. Obama has yet to comment on the crisis, sticking to his previous statements that America has only one president at a time. An Obama aide told Reuters Jan. 4, “During this transition period, we are not engaging in any action that could send confusing signals to the world about who speaks on behalf of the United States.”

But during the Democratic primary and the general election campaign Obama and Hillary Clinton — now his secretary of state-designate — made multiple comments that were viewed mostly as pro-Israel.

Asked at a press conference in July about the tension between Israel and Hamas concerning Gaza, Obama said, “I don’t think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens.

“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” he said. “And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing. In terms of negotiations with Hamas, it is very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation state, does not recognize your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon, and is deeply influenced by other countries.”
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.

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