The Iona Community, about which I have written here before, is an ecumenical Christian fellowship in Scotland. Its headquarters are in Glasgow, but its main activities take place on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides, which is seen as a place for spiritual retreats. It has an international reputation for preaching love, a spiritual vocation, and fellowship among Christians. To me however it is also deeply anti-Semitic through its extreme hatred for the state of Israel and its one-sided support of the Palestinian narrative – according to the definitions of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and the US State Department.
The Abbey of the Iona Community, on the island of Iona, Scotland. (Image source: Akela NDE/Wikimedia Commons)
Earlier this year, Sammy Stein, chairman of Glasgow Friends of Israel, complained to the group about remarks made at a meeting addressed by Iona's Leader-Elect, Dr. Michael Marten. Marten had argued more than once that Israeli soldiers routinely and deliberately shoot Palestinian children, while knowing that they are children. In a reply to Mr. Stein, Marten and the Reverend Peter Macdonald, the community leader, asserted that Marten's statement had been true, and tried to back up their vilification by referencing a number of media and UN reports, including anti-Israel NGOs such as B'Tselem and Electric Intifada. I was asked to respond to their diatribe; the result is the letter below. Will Macdonald and Marten, take in what it says and find a more honest way to express Christian concern, not just for the children of Gaza and the West Bank, but for Jewish children murdered in their beds and at school by Palestinian terrorists?
Dear Rev. Macdonald and Dr. Marten,
Earlier this year, you co-signed a letter to Mr Sammy Stein, Chairman of Glasgow Friends of Israel, in which you cited sources and made statements regarding the belief that "Israeli military forces routinely attack children", regularly shooting and killing them. Mr Stein has asked me to respond to your letter, which I believe to be anti-Semitic under the most widely accepted definition of the term, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition, signed by and accepted by 32 countries, including the UK and the European Parliament, and therefore having force in the jurisdiction in which you live and act. I am not Jewish, but for most of a long life I have defended Israel as the only safe haven for Jews and Middle East Christians, faced on all sides by violent enemies and by the rapid recrudescence of vicious anti-Semitism across Europe as well as a centuries-old hatred of Jews across the Islamic world.
I would ask you not to make a knee-jerk dismissal of my arguments before you come to them, and I ask you to reflect on what I have to say and to pray about it. For I hope to show how far you stand as Christians from a fair, honest, and compassionate understanding of the sufferings endured by the people of Israel, whether they be Jews, Muslims or Christians. I say that because Israel is quite literally the only country in the Middle East and far beyond that provides freedom of religion and equal rights for all its citizens. As a former lecturer in Arabic and Islamic Studies, a Middle East historian, and the holder of a doctorate in Iranian Studies, I make that statement in the firm understanding that it is true.
The limited sources you cite in evidence of routine attacks on Palestinian children include several, such as B'Tselem and Electric Intifada, that are notorious as anti-Semitic and unreliable in the extreme. As an academic, I would not touch them with a bargepole. It is also vital to ask why you do not cite a single Israeli or pro-Israel source in an attempt to seek a balanced approach to the issue. When you wrote your letter, I believe you had already made up your mind and showed no interest in a more informed examination. Three of the sources you cite are dated from 2014, from the time of a war that was started by Hamas, disseminating information that was even then unreliable.
Yes, Palestinian children are often killed. The real questions are: why are they killed, who kills them, and whether the Israeli army, the Israel Defence Force (IDF), has a policy that leads to routine killings. Before going further, I assure you that no such policy exists or has ever existed. As I shall show, the exact opposite is true. I also want to ask why you do not once mention the frequent deaths of Jewish children by Palestinian terrorists. I shall return to that later, but I would like to know why your reported compassion for dead children recognises only Palestinian children, not Jewish boys and girls who have had their throats cut while asleep in bed or blown to pieces by suicide bombers seeking paradise by slaughtering Jews. Do you care about them at all? How far does Christian love extend?
In 2015, a body known as the High Level Military Group (HLMG) visited Israel six times in the wake of the 2014 war with Gaza, to which conflict several of your sources refer. The HLMG is made up of eleven former senior military personnel who issue reports on conflicts between democratic armies and terrorist organizations. These officials had held top positions in the US, British, German, Spanish, French, Indian, Australian and Colombian defence forces and were, they said, afforded a level of access to the Israeli military that was "undoubtedly in excess of what our own countries would afford in similar circumstances." They included a former chairman of NATO's Military Committee, Klaus Naumann, and sometime commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kemp. All were from NATO and other democratic countries. Unlike yourselves and the commentators you cite, these are individuals of deep experience in warfare and in the command of soldiers in combat. Like yourselves, I am not a military expert, so I have a high appreciation of their insights into the IDF. I trust that you too will show respect for their conclusions.
Their 80-page report on the Israel Defence Force and its third war with Hamas in 2014 should surprise if not shock you with information that calls into question your portrayal of Israeli soldiers. It will only have such an import however, if your minds and hearts are open to the possibility that your judgement may be grossly distorted. You may also like to read and ponder on an article by this author, asking whether Israel committed war crimes in that war – an allegation which all the evidence, confirmed by the HLMG report, disproves.
In its report, the HLMG states:
We can further be categorically clear that Israel's conduct in the 2014 Gaza Conflict met and in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations' militaries. It is our view that Israel fought an exemplary campaign, adequately conceived with appropriately limited objectives, displaying both a very high level of operational capability as well as a total commitment to the Law of Armed Conflict. The IDF not only met its obligations under the Law of Armed Conflict, but often exceeded these on the battlefield at significant tactical cost, as well as in the humanitarian relief efforts that accompanied its operation. (p. 11)
On the other hand, they say the following about Hamas, an internationally identified terrorist group that started this war as it did two earlier conflicts:
Hamas in turn not only flagrantly disregarded the Law of Armed Conflict as a matter of course as part of its terrorist-army hybrid strategic concept, but rather it abused the very protections afforded by the law for military advantage.
Embedding its entire military machinery in civilian locations and sensitive sites, including those of the United Nations, Hamas indiscriminately targeted Israeli civilians throughout the conflict with extensive rocket fire and willfully sought to draw the IDF into battle in a prepared urban stronghold amid the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza, for which it located its operational headquarters in Gaza's main hospital.
It is important to note that Hamas's strategic concept actively seeks the death of its own civilians as an advantageous reinforcement of its strategy aimed at the erosion of Israel's legitimacy. (p. 11)
So high were Israel's standards that even the HLMG's rapporteur, Davis Lewin, was concerned that "Some of the precautions were so extensive they worried that they could become norms in international law in terms of having to fight their own battles elsewhere." It is Israeli policy to warn enemy civilians of impending attacks by dropping thousands of leaflets, making telephone calls, sending text messages, and even dropping projectiles called "knocks on the roof" to give residents advanced warnings to evacuate the premises. This practice alone makes Amnesty International's accusation of "callous indifference" to civilian deaths utterly indefensible. Giving advance warning of attacks is disadvantageous for the Israeli Air Force in two ways: it warns Hamas fighters and rocket-launching teams that they have been spotted and designated as targets, and it allows Hamas to order civilians to remain in buildings or go onto flat roofs to dissuade Israelis from firing. This policy of warning civilians of a coming attack is stated clearly in Israel's Manual on the Rules of Warfare (2006).
Hamas does the exact opposite, not just with its indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli civilian centers, but in its callousness regard for its own civilians, including children. There is overwhelming evidence that Hamas used human shields in various ways. Children have been used to protect fighters, who physically hold them or open fire right next to them. Numbers of civilians have been ordered onto roofs, to remain in homes that may be targeted. Hamas places rocket launchers inside or directly next to civilian sites. There is much evidence that Hamas military structures, rocket launch pads, and command centers have been situated directly in or next to civilian dwellings, a church, hospitals, mosques, and schools. Even the UN has admitted this. If you will take the care to watch the videos I have linked to, you will see stark evidence of those crimes.
Does it not shock you to learn that Hamas fired rockets from 31 UN facilities, 41 hospitals, 50 children's playgrounds, 85 medical clinics, 248 schools, 331 mosques, and 818 other civilian sites. One report reads that "Hamas uses UN facilities, schools, children's playgrounds, water towers, mosques and countless other active civilian facilities as launching sites for rockets and attacks. In this operation [2014 war] alone, Hamas has launched above 1,600 rockets from civilian sites."
This is historically a deliberate Hamas policy, as is clear from a 2008 video of a speech by Fathi Hammad, the Hamas Interior Minister:
"The enemies of God do not know that the Palestinian people have developed their methods of death and death-seeking. For the Palestinian people, death has become an industry, at which women excel, as do all the people living in this land. The elderly excel at this, and so do the mujahidin [i.e. the jihad fighters] and the children. This is why they have formed human shields [duruq bashariyya] of the women, the children, the elderly, and the mujahidin, in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine. It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: 'We desire death, just as you desire life.'"
Read that again -- "they have formed human shields [duruq bashariyya] of the women, the children...." -- and you are outraged that Palestinian children are killed, and blame that on soldiers in an army that goes morally far beyond any other army in the world, and that puts its own troops' lives in danger in order to avoid hurting enemy civilians?
In your letter, you say nothing about Hamas or the Palestinian Authority which carry out or condone terror attacks, frequently inciting their own children to carry out stabbings or teaching them to become suicide bombers. As far back as 2014, Hamas killed 160 Palestinian children used to build terror tunnels, some of which ended under Israeli kindergartens. You say not a word about any of this.
It is a matter of record that Islamic terrorists use children from an early age as fighters and suicide bombers, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Syria, Iran, and elsewhere. Iran used children to explode landmines during its war with Iraq, and is still calling for young boys to fight in Syria. ISIS has used around 1,500 children (as young as seven) as fighters, suicide bombers, and executioners, putting them in harm's way and causing severe mental illness for any who may survive.
These things are well known across the world. I do not doubt that you condemn this. But Hamas, whom you do not condemn, is part and parcel of the international Islamic terrorist campaign against the West. Their use of children falls into the same category as that of the Taliban, ISIS, and other murderous criminal enterprises. Yet you criticize Israel whose soldiers fight to defend their people from this evil.
Israel builds bomb shelters to protect its civilians, including children, from Hamas rocket attacks. Most Israelis have a small shelter in their homes: "In 1951, three years after the State of Israel declared its independence, the country instituted a civil defense law requiring all homes, residential buildings and offices to be equipped with shelters or 'safe rooms'." In Sderot, however, close to the Gaza border, Jewish children have a mere 15 seconds to run from playgrounds to shelter. On July 2, 2016, in Sderot, a Hamas rocket landed directly in an early childhood development center. A 2012 study showed that almost half all pre-teen children living in Sderot suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Writing in Arab News in 2014, journalist Abdulateef Al-Mulhim asked a simple question:
"Why Gaza does not have bomb shelter[s]? Hamas took control of Gaza Strip in 2005 following Israeli withdrawal. However, hostilities never ended. In one of the conflicts around 1,500 Palestinians lost their lives and the Israeli side sustained few casualties. Undoubtedly, Israel is militarily more powerful than Hamas. Had Hamas built bomb shelters, the causalities would have been reduced. It seems Hamas does not pay much attention to the number of dead Palestinians
You do not even refer to these facts or mention other places inhabited by children, and instead blame Palestinian children's deaths on Israeli soldiers. This is morally irresponsible and reprehensible, and I do not hesitate to call you out for this transparent obliquity.
I mentioned above the many deaths of Israeli children at the hands of Palestinian terrorists who deliberately set out to take innocent lives. Allow me to mention just a few, and then to ask you why, to my knowledge, you have never condemned your Palestinian friends whose schools, television and radio broadcasts, political speeches, and religious sermons encourage their fellow citizens to go out to kill Jews, telling their own children that they should regard murderers as role models and aspire to carry out similar attacks once they are old enough.
In May 1974, three armed members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine entered Netiv Meir elementary school in Ma'alot in the Western Galilee and took over 115 people hostage. The victims were male and female student visitors from a religious high school together with escorts. Of the 115 hostages, 105 were children. The siege lasted two days, with demands made for the release of 23 terrorist prisoners. When IDF soldiers stormed the building, 25 hostages, 22 of them children, were killed, while 68 were injured. In the struggle, the terrorists killed children with grenades and automatic weapons. (For a full account of the massacre, see here.)
Between 2000 and 2005, the Second Intifada -- an outbreak of senseless violence targeting Jewish civilians -- hundreds of children were murdered in suicide and bus bombings, car shootings, and sniper fire. See Here for some of them. In March 2011, five members of a religious Jewish family, the Fogels, were slaughtered in their beds in Itamar by Hakim Awad, an 18-year-old Palestinian. He cut the throats of the father, and the mother, then proceeded to do the same to 3-month-old Hadas, 4-year-old Elad, and 11-year-old Yoav. Three other children, who were not at home, survived but were mentally scarred for life.
Last year, a 13-year-old Israeli girl, Hallel Yaffe Ariel, was stabbed to death while sleeping in her bed after a 19-year-old Palestinian man broke into her family home. Her mattress and the floor of her room were covered in blood.
Israeli soldiers do not set out to kill Palestinian children – the moral qualities of the Israeli military have been made clear above. Palestinian terrorists, however, knowingly and with malice aforethought, shoot, blow up, and slit the throats of Israeli children. You come from a Christian community, yet you appear to show compassion only for Palestinian children. If you do have feelings for Jewish children, you never say so.
Israeli children are never taught to hate and kill Palestinians. Their schools inculcate peace-making and the Jewish ethic of tikkun olam, "repairing the world," making it a better place. No international body has ever shown otherwise. But there is a vast body of evidence showing that Palestinian teachers and leaders do the exact opposite. British and other foreign aid money paid to the Palestinian Authority goes "into Palestinian schools named after mass murderers and Islamist militants, which openly promote terrorism and encourage pupils to see child killers as role models." Last summer, "a Gaza kindergarten graduation ceremony sponsored by the Islamic Jihad, featured children dressed in military fatigues, holding toy weapons, acting out attacks on an Israeli army base, firing mortar shells, planting explosive devices, kidnapping soldiers and even delivering mosque sermons that praise martyrdom." In 2012, senior Hamas commander Zaher Jabarin told Hamas' Al-Quds TV that Hamas labors "day and night" to educate Palestinian children in Gaza to become suicide bombers. In 2013, Gaza's Hamas-run al-Aqsa TV showed children singing the virtues of suicide attacks, and wishing to blow themselves up to "liberate" Jerusalem and Palestine.
You have close connections to the Palestinian people and ought to have influence on them, to preach a Christian message of love and brotherhood. Are you willing to tackle them on their destructive use of children as cannon fodder and their educational system that turns little boys and girls into Jew-hating fanatics? Will you have the humility to apologize to the Jews of Israel for your unjustified accusations, to speak with them, to meet senior officers in their military, and to learn first-hand how they work for eventual peace, however many times their efforts to bring it are thwarted by Palestinian rejection? I think you owe them that. Surely, that is what Jesus would have done.
Dr. Denis MacEoin
 Cited in private letter by Mr Stein and in letter signed by Marten, shared with author.