By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Israeli authorities are to be commended for withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, a senior Vatican official said Tuesday, but they should have left the settlers' housing behind for returning Palestinian refugees rather than bulldozing it.
The comments by Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, come on the heels of a barbed diplomatic exchange earlier this month between Israel and the Vatican over Pope Benedict XVI's omission of Israel in a July 24 address in which he expressed sympathy for countries that had recently experienced terrorism.
Martino spoke at a news conference in conjunction with an annual meeting in Rimini, an Italian city on the Adriatic coast, sponsored by the Communion and Liberation movement. His comments on Gaza came in response to a reporter's question.
Contacted by telephone, the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, told NCR that the bulldozing was worked out in advance with Palestinian authorities, who have other plans for the vacated territories.
"The settlements were in violation of international law," said Martino, who for 16 years served as the Permanent Observer of the Holy See at the United Nations prior to assuming his present post.
"We have to recognize the courage of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon, who decided unilaterally to withdraw despite criticism from his own citizens. In effect, he gave back to the Palestinians what was theirs," Martino said.
At the same time, Martino said, "I'm disturbed by something."
"Why are the Israelis destroying everything?" Martino asked. "The Palestinians were forced to live for 38 years on land that was not their own. These structures could have been turned over to them, even sold or rented to them."
Ben-Hur, however, said that the bulldozing was in accord with Palestinian wishes.
"The Palestinians don't need those buildings. They want to build high-rises," he said. "Egypt has agreed to spread the debris in the Sinai desert so that it doesn't have any ecological impact."
"We would have been happy to hand the structures over, perhaps selling them, because they were nice houses," Ben-Hur said. "Unfortunately, the Palestinians didn't want them."
Ben-Hur said it may be just as well.
"It probably would have been psychologically difficult for some of the settlers to see Palestinians in those buildings," he said.
Martino said that the Israeli withdrawal was a matter of simple justice.
"In the Six Day War in 1967, one side won and occupied the territory of the other," he said. "Under international law, before a peace treaty has ended a conflict, it is illegal to make any changes on occupied territory."
Martino said the Vatican hopes the withdrawal will be the beginning of a lasting peace.
"We hope that the parties to the conflict can finally begin to dialogue," he said, "and that the peace may come which the popes have always invoked."
Martino's comments may nevertheless stir memories of the row over terrorism earlier in August.
In an usually strong response to those Israeli complaints, a document prepared by the Vatican's Secretariat of State said that in the past the Vatican could not condemn Palestinian terrorism without also condemning Israeli reprisals, which were "not always compatible with international norms."
The Communion and Liberation event is one of the largest annual public gatherings in Italy, drawing some 700,000 participants and the cream of Italian political life. Communion and Liberation is one of the "new movements" in the Catholic church; its origins date to 1954 and the work among youth of Italian priest Fr. Luigi Giussani, who died in February.
Communion and Liberation also made a statement Aug. 23 on the Israeli withdrawal.
"With a difficult operation from military, political and human points of view, Israel has concluded the evacuation of the colonies that it had located in the Arab territory of Gaza," it said. "The Meeting in Rimini, which has always followed the difficult path of peace in the Near East with interest, salutes this event with great hope and great esteem for both parties that have rendered it possible."
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR's Vatican correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 23, 2005, National Catholic Reporter