Fr. Patton: Reconciliation in Holy Land means recognizing other’s suffering

The Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, reiterates the need for a long-term political solution to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict that recognizes the right to the existence of both peoples.

By Amedeo Lomonaco and  Lisa Zengarini

The four-day humanitarian pause between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and the exchange of prisoners and hostages after 50 days of relentless fighting are a glimmer of light, says the Custos of the Holy Land.

Fr. Francesco Patton calls is an encouraging result because “it means that negotiations are possible”.

The truce, brokered by Qatar and Egypt, is set to end at midnight on 28 November, after four days of relative calm meant to facilitate the exchange of 50 Israeli hostages held in Gaza for 150 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

It is the first halt in the Gaza war since Hamas launched its vicious cross-border raid on 7 October, killing 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages. Three groups of hostages have been released so far under the agreement. On Sunday, 26 November, 17 hostages were freed, including 14 Israelis and 3 Thai nationals.

The suspension of the fighting has also allowed for desperately-needed humanitarian aid to enter the Strip and offer some respite to civilians trapped there. So far, the war has cost the lives of nearly 15,000 people in Gaza, 40 percent of whom are children, according to Palestinian authorities.

Speaking to Vatican News’ Amedeo Lomonaco, Fr. Patton expressed his hope that the truce may continue to hold, and that all the hostages held by Hamas may be released.

He underscored the important role played by the international community, especially of the countries that mediated the agreement.

Negotiation is possible

He noted that the agreement shows that “a path other than that of weapons” is possible “if there is the will to do so.” The release of hostages and prisoners, he said, is a first step that should pave the way toward a wider political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the “mutual acceptance of the right to exist of both Israel and Palestine.”

The Italian-born Franciscan friar went on to note that in the dramatic context of this conflict, the humanitarian aspect is fundamental.

Without the comforting and consoling humanitarian voice, he said, we cannot move forward because everything is reduced “to calculation, to a balance of interests, and to the use of violence.”

Christians can be a bridge

Asked about the role local Christians can play, Father Patton said they represent “a bridge” between Israelis and Palestinians, because they belong to both communities. “We have Christians in Israel, in Gaza, in the West Bank,” he said, saying this why they can have a “significant albeit limited role.”

The Holy Land needs a leaven that makes the voice of conscience grow both in Israeli and Palestinian society, which need authoritative voices “not only among Christians but also among Muslims capable of proposing a path not only of moderation but of reconciliation,” said the Custos. underscoring that this applies to both sides.

Fr. Patton acknowledged that it’s still early to speak about reconciliation in this highly emotional moment. However, he said, once this phase is over, people may be able to reason in a different way.

The Custos insisted that the important thing at the moment is that the truce holds, that the hostages are released, that the lives of civilians in Gaza too are safeguarded, and that the pause allows the various influential international actors in the region to continue to work so as to move from a truce to an armistice.

Right to existence of both peoples

Then the international community must find “a political solution,” otherwise “the same situation” will arise again in the future, he warned. 

Fr. Patton noted that the war has once again brought to the fore “the underlying problem” of the unresolved Palestinian question, which is closely linked to the Israeli question.

Both people have suffered greatly throughout history, and this should lead them “to the recognition of their mutual suffering, remarked the Custos, recalling the words of Rachel Goldberg, the representative of the families of the hostages. In a recent interview with L’ Osservatore Romano, she said, “We must learn to recognize their suffering and they must learn to recognize our suffering.”

Only in this way, said Fr. Patton, can the region move forward. Instead, focusing on one’s side suffering will only lead to “further hardening.”

“There must be a solution that recognizes the right to existence of both peoples, in which each part recognizes the suffering of the other and also the dignity of that suffering.”

The role of the international community

In conclusion, Fr. Patton stressed the need for “external support” from the international community, that is, the United Nations, but also world and regional powers backing one or the other side.

This, he said, would have to be a process of “progressive accompaniment” that includes a transition phase, in which both Israeli and Palestinian political leaders will have to change their approach.

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Growing pressure for a truce extention

Meanwhile, as the truce comes to an end, international pressure to roll over the deal is growing. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pushed on Monday for a full humanitarian ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militant Hamas instead of a temporary truce, as the “humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza is getting worse by the day.”

“The dialogue that led to the agreement must continue, resulting in a full humanitarian ceasefire, for the benefit of the people of Gaza, Israel, and the wider region,” Mr. Guterres’ spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement. “The United Nations will continue to support these efforts in every possible way,” he said.