Bishops Rapped over Feeble Response to Holy Land Genocide

Motion by two Cambridge churchmen to Ely Synod requiring Bishops to issue a more robust condemnation of Israel's violations of international humanitarian law was passed 23 for, 15 against.

Are we seeing, at last, the beginnings of a revolution in the Anglican Church against its leaders’ cowardice over Israel’s genocide of Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land?

On 31 October the Church of England House of Bishops issued a statement on Israel’s genocide against Palestinians which two clergymen in Cambridge found”profoundly inadequate as a response to the indiscriminate devastation already being inflicted upon the defenceless civilian population of Gaza”.

On 13 December and again on 13 February the bishops had delivered stronger statements, but “these still fall far short of what is needed. Four months on from their first intervention, with Gaza now described by the UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths as ‘uninhabitable’, and with the Israeli assault ruled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to be ‘plausibly genocidal’, the bishops need to strengthen their stance substantially.”

So much so that the ‘Cambridge Two’, Dr. Jonathan Chaplin and Revd. James Shakespeare, proposed a motion calling upon the House of Bishops to address the issue again as a matter of urgency, and to issue a new statement specifically naming the illegality of the continuing Israeli military onslaught on Gaza, and fully recognising the historical context of sustained oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state.

Bishops ‘to think again and speak more robustly’

In his speech introducing the motion at Ely Diocesan Synod, Chaplin said that the three official statements of the House of Bishops since October were the most authoritative interventions on the matter from the national Church but they were found lacking.

While the bishops made clear their moral disapproval of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, they failed explicitly to call Israeli actions what they really were – violations of international law and war crimes.

Chaplin reminded his audience that in late October a letter from British lawyers, which now has 1100 signatories, made clear that there was ample evidence of multiple specific violations of many international laws by the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces). Since then the extent and severity of these violations has expanded massively, with the International Court of Justice in January ruling that Israeli military actions in Gaza were ‘plausibly genocidal’ and ordering Israel to take all immediate and effective measures within its power to protect Palestinians from further risk of genocide – “orders that Israel has ignored with impunity”.

Almost all Gazan hospitals are now destroyed or dysfunctional, said Chaplin. 80% of the population has been displaced and are surviving in catastrophically inhumane conditions while still under military assault; well over 50% of buildings in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed, meaning most Gazans will have nowhere to return to when the fighting stops. 90% of educational institutions, numerous churches and mosques and irreplaceable cultural sites have been damaged or destroyed, and there’s been extensive damage to agricultural land and to the environment generally.

“Many Gazans now face the immediate prospect of starvation due to continuing drastic Israeli restrictions on the supply of humanitarian aid – another war crime – and official bodies have reported that children are already dying as a result.

“None of this can remotely be justified under Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’. Israel is not bound by some iron necessity to inflict this level of devastating collective punishment on defenceless Gazans. International law demands that Israel find other ways to protect its citizens against Hamas and to retrieve its hostages.”

National Church must speak truth to power

He then came to the point:

“It is inadequate for the bishops merely to express moral disapproval of such criminal acts, because moral disapproval is easily set aside as a subjective judgment which can be legitimately contested…. These acts must be named as publicly verifiable and culpable breaches of international law, if what is happening in Gaza is to be truthfully described.

“The bishops’ statements fail to give an adequate recognition of the larger historical and political context of sustained Israeli oppression of Palestinians, since at least the 1967 illegal occupation…. There is ample verifiable evidence to support the bishops’ issuing a fuller and franker acknowledgement of the scale, intensity and recent harsh escalation of Israeli state oppression of Palestinians.

“Our aim is to urge our bishops to think again on this issue…. and to speak more credibly and robustly, into a calamity in which Britain is itself deeply implicated historically. As leaders of a church which continues to defend its status as a national church, our motion is an invitation to the House of Bishops to use that unique platform more courageously to speak truth to power on this question, and to send a much more powerful message of Christian solidarity to the people of Gaza, who feel alone and abandoned by many western churches.”

‘Israel ignores the ICJ’s orders for restraint with impunity’

“The bishops’ statements are deficient in at least two fundamental respects. (1) They fail specifically to condemn Israeli military actions as clear violations of international humanitarian law – as war crimes.

“Rightly, the October and December statements condemn Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel on 7 October; the October one calls it a ‘violation of international law’.

The October statement, however, does not condemn Israel’s counter-attack, calling on us only to ‘reflect’ on it. It calls on Israel to adhere to international humanitarian law, but does not charge it with already breaking such law…. None of the three statements yet explicitly call the actions of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) by their name, that is, war crimes.

“What has unfolded in Gaza is not, as the first two statements put it, a mere ‘humanitarian catastrophe’. It is the result of actions by the IDF that, as early as 26 October, were considered by leading legal practitioners and academics, in a letter to the UK government, to be serious violations of international humanitarian law.

“Such law emphatically excludes the kind of disproportionate and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian populations, and civilian infrastructure such as homes, hospitals, mosques, churches, schools and universities, that the IDF have been daily engaging in, not to speak of its ongoing drastic curtailment of essential supplies to civilians and its attempt to force the removal of half of Gaza’s population to the south while continuing to bombard that area indiscriminately as well.

“Today, as has been amply documented by UN bodies, by humanitarian organisations, and by the media, as a result of the continuing brutality of the IDF, the scale of civilian suffering is catastrophically worse than it was when the lawyers’ letter was first published. Today, Israel simply ignores the ICJ’s orders for restraint with impunity.”

‘Bishops are silent on Palestinians’ right of resistance and fact that Hamas attack did not happen in a vacuum’

“In their October statement, the bishops pre-emptively and uncritically affirm ‘absolutely’ Israel’s ‘right to defend itself’, repeating the latter phrase in December and February. But Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, has pointed out that a state cannot claim a ‘right to self-defence’ under international law – which refers to invasion by a foreign power – against a territory which it is belligerently occupying.

“In all three statements, the bishops are also silent on the Palestinians’ own right of [armed] resistance against illegal occupation, equally affirmed in international law. Nor do they acknowledge that all non-violent attempts to exercise that right of resistance over many decades have been met with brutal suppression by the Israeli state.

“The bishops’ continuing reluctance to charge Israel explicitly with breaking international humanitarian law in specific, indictable ways remains a serious failure of judgement and has been received by many Palestinian Christians as a dismaying betrayal of solidarity at their moment of greatest need. This omission is even more egregious since the IDF’s acts clearly violate fundamental just war principles to which the Church of England is itself officially committed, but which receive no mention in either statement.”

“(2) They fail to place the events of 7 October and beyond in the full context of decades of oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state. As the UN Secretary General said on 24 October, the Hamas assault, however repugnant, ‘did not happen in a vacuum’. It occurred against the background of decades of forced dispossession (1948-9), illegal occupation (since 1967), systemic discrimination and continual brutalisation inflicted on the Palestinian people by the state of Israel, all amounting to a suppression of their legitimate right to national self-determination as affirmed in international law. The bishops’ October statement is wholly silent on that overwhelmingly important history. The December statement briefly acknowledges it but only in the context of a reference to Israel’s security, noting that such security ‘cannot be achieved by continuing with a system of occupation that denies millions of Palestinians their rights and freedoms’….

“The February statement only expresses the hope that ‘All sides must begin to imagine a future beyond this conflict: for a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians. This war can’t result in the consolidation of a system of occupation that has for too long denied Palestinians their rights and freedoms’. But this still falls far short of a full acknowledgement of the breadth and depth of the systematic injustices practised by the Israeli state against the Palestinian people. Without such an acknowledgement, the latest outburst of violence cannot properly be understood, still less morally and theologically assessed.”

The following (amended) motion was passed 23 for, 15 against, 11 abstentions:

That this synod regards the House of Bishops’ three statements on the Israeli-Gaza conflict since October 2023 as seriously deficient, and calls on it as a matter of urgency to issue a new statement which, inter alia:

⦁ while reiterating its condemnation of Hamas’s attack on 7 October, condemns the military assault by Israel on Gaza since then not only as morally unacceptable, but as involving numerous egregious violations of international humanitarian law (as detailed in the UK Lawyers’ Open Letter Concerning Gaza of 26 October 2023 and the Order of the International Court of Justice of 26 January 2024);

⦁ affirms that an explicit recognition of the decades of forced dispossession, illegal occupation, systemic discrimination and continual brutalisation inflicted on the Palestinian people by the Israeli state, all amounting to a suppression of their legitimate right to national self-determination as established in international law, is essential for a proper understanding of the conflict and its resolution in a way that is conducive to a just and sustainable peace that must include independent Palestinian statehood.

Lesson in law

The UK Lawyers’ ‘Open Letter Concerning Gaza’ of 26 October 2023, referred to by the ‘Cambridge Two’, contains important lessons in international law (shown here in italics) which the Government in its statements and actions seems woefully ignorant of. Their full letter can be read here

Dear Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary,

We the undersigned legal practitioners, legal academics and former members of the judiciary, in the United Kingdom (UK), dedicated to upholding the rule of law both domestically and internationally, call on the UK Government to act urgently to fulfil its international legal obligations in relation to the ever-escalating conflict in the Middle East.

In doing so, we are deeply mindful that many people in the UK – including Israelis and Palestinians, and those in the broader Jewish, Arab and Muslim communities – have close ties to the region, and we express our sympathy to all of them, particularly the bereaved, and those whose loved ones are still in grave danger. We are moved to intervene because, in a region already accustomed to great suffering, the death and other harm visited on individuals, families and whole communities in the last 20 days has been truly terrible.

⦁ The commission by one party to a conflict of serious violations of international humanitarian law does not justify their commission by another party. That fundamental principle applies, whatever the nature of the armed conflict, and whatever “the causes espoused by or attributed to the Parties” (Geneva Conventions (GC), Additional Protocol I (API)).

⦁ It also applies where a party seeks to invoke the right to self-defence. Pursuant to the Geneva Conventions, Hamas’s war crimes cannot be justified by reference to any prior war crimes by Israel; neither do they justify further such crimes by Israel in its response, which must comply with international law (GCIV, Art 33; AP I, Arts 20 and 51(6); and customary law). As the UN Secretary General has made unequivocally clear, the “abhorrent attacks” by Hamas in Israel “can never justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people. International humanitarian law – including the Geneva Conventions – must be upheld”. International humanitarian law is not being upheld.

⦁ The UK is duty-bound to “respect and ensure respect” for international humanitarian law as set out in the Four Geneva Conventions in all circumstances (1949 Geneva Conventions, Common Art 1). That means that the UK must not itself violate international humanitarian law, as set out therein and that it must neither encourage, nor aid or assist its violation by others.

⦁ We also call on the Government immediately to halt the export of weapons from the UK to Israel, given the clear risk that they might be serious violations of international humanitarian law in breach of the UK’s domestic Strategic Export Licensing Criteria, including its obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty.

⦁ We recall that UK nationals responsible for aiding and abetting international crimes, as well as those committing them as primary perpetrators, are liable for prosecution in the UK pursuant to the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 and the International Criminal Court Act 2001.
Links to the UK Lawyers’ follow-up letters and the Foreign Office’s slippery, evasive replies can be found at

I noted that the FO repeats its well-worn lopsided two-state solution: “a secure Israel, living side by side with an independent and viable Palestinian state”. But in the space of just 14 days this changed to “a secure Israel, living side by side with an independent, secure and viable Palestinian state”. Such a belated admission by the UK Government that Palestinians are equally entitled to security is worth a cautious welcome.

Stuart Littlewood, after working on jet fighters in the RAF, became an industrial marketeer in oil, electronics and manufacturing, and with innovation and product development consultancies. He also served as a Cambridgeshire county councillor and a member of the Police Authority. He is an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society and has produced two photo-documentary books including Radio Free Palestine (with foreword by Jeff Halper). Now retired, he campaigns on various issues, especially the Palestinians' struggle for freedom. Read other articles by Stuart, or visit Stuart's website.