OPINION - These awful killings in a Gaza church show how Israel is losing the strategic war

Woman reacts at the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church which was damaged by an Israeli strike (REUTERS)
Woman reacts at the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church which was damaged by an Israeli strike (REUTERS)

Measured, is how you might describe the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pizzaballa, whom I’ve met twice now. He’s a clever, thoughtful Italian – a potential future pope – and the last person you’d expect to indulge in excitable hyperbole.

So when he said on Saturday that “a sniper of the IDF murdered two Christian women inside the Holy Family Parish in Gaza”, I believe him. “No warning was given, no notification was provided,” his statement said. “They were shot in cold blood inside the premises of the Parish, where there are no belligerents.”

He went on to observe that a rocket attack earlier that day on the Sisters of Charity convent inside the same Catholic enclave (which has been a recognised place of worship since the start of the conflict) destroyed the generator and started a fire which destroyed a home run by the nuns for 54 disabled residents. These poor souls now have nowhere to go, and some could die because their respirators won’t work.

Of the two women killed, one was elderly and was trying to get to the loo inside the parish compound when she was hit; the other, her daughter, was killed after she ran to help her mother. Seven other Christians, part of a vanishingly small community, were injured in the same attack.

The killing of the two women is the merest blip in the overall death count in Gaza since the Hamas atrocities on October 7 in which more than 1,200 Jews were massacred.

In the context of 18,000 estimated Palestinian deaths, two more are statistically insignificant. Christian lives are not more valuable than others.

Today there are reports that Israeli air strikes on the refugee camp in Jabalia killed 90 people. But what these two killings – or murders, as the cardinal puts it – show is that the Israeli Defence Forces are not telling the truth when they say that they are doing everything in their offensive to avoid civilian casualties and to respect places of worship.

Nowhere is safe in Gaza, not even if you are nuns from abroad

No one could look less like Hamas terrorists than the elderly Christian woman and her middle-aged daughter killed by the sniper. Nor do the Sisters of Charity – who are to be seen doing unobtrusive good work in every area of conflict – resemble jihadists.

The IDF claimed (without evidence) that Hamas had a base inside the compound. What the attack shows is that nowhere is safe in Gaza, not even if you are nuns from abroad, not even if you are disabled and helpless. The normal rules of engagement in war would have protected them; under what rules does the IDF operate?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s direction of the counter-offensive against Hamas means that the operation is being conducted in a way calculated to alienate Israel’s friends and those who felt intense sympathy for the country in the wake of the Hamas atrocities.

In Israel, there has been an understandably emotional response to the IDF killing of three Jewish hostages captured in the Hamas attacks, who, it is reported, were waving white flags when they were shot. Just what could have protected them, given these rules of engagement? To say as much is not to exculpate Hamas, which continues to fire rockets at Jerusalem and whose massacre caused this conflict, but Israeli forces must be held to account.

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Israel risks losing the strategic war through the tactics it employs. Saturday’s killings show exactly what that means in practice.