West Bank Clergyman Calls on NZ PM to Oppose Israel’s War Crimes

Vice chancellor of Bethlehem University Brother Peter Bray says what he has witnessed is ‘close to genocide’ and is pushing NZ’s caretaker PM to speak out against collective punishment of Gazans, writes Mick Hall.

Bethlehem University vice Chancellor Brother Peter Bray says New Zealand leaders must speak out against war crimes being committed in Gaza as Israel prepares for a ground offensive. (Supplied/BethlehemUniversity)

By Mick Hall
in Whangarei, New Zealand
Mick Hall in Context, Substack

A prominent New Zealand clergyman and vice chancellor of Bethlehem University is calling on caretaker Prime Minister Chris Hipkins to ditch dangerous rhetoric and take a stand against Israeli war crimes.

Speaking to Mick Hall In Context from the Catholic co-educational institution in the occupied West Bank, Brother Peter Bray said what he had been witnessing amounted to “close to genocide” of Palestinians that must now be confronted.

He said Hipkins and other New Zealand leaders had so far failed to speak out about what is taking place in Gaza and that they must immediately do so.

Brays’s comments come after Israel ordered 1.1 million residents in Gaza to move to the enclave’s southern end as it prepares Israeli Defence Force (IDF) troops for an expected ground assault.

The United Nations has warned it is impossible for the population to do so, while some Israel officials have suggested Egypt open its borders to Gaza’s 2.3 residents, 75 percent of which are registered as refugees and over half are children.

Bray said Israel’s total siege of Gaza imposed last week, as well as the IDF’s catastrophic bombing of the 140-square mile coastal enclave, constituted war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.

The Israeli actions follow a brutal surprise assault on Israeli towns and settlements by Hamas after its fighters broke free from Gaza’s confines on Saturday, October 7. The attack left approximately 1400 dead, including soldiers and civilians, with an estimated 130 Israelis taken to Gaza as prisoners.

Collective Punishment a War Crime

The subsequent indiscriminate bombing of Gaza by Israel has so far killed at least 2670 Palestinians, including about 800 children, according to the latest Palestinian Health Ministry figures. That fatality toll is changing with grim regularity.

“One house I know had 15 people in it, an extended family, and it was bombed without any warning. It demolished and killed everybody,” Bray said.

“There are many people in Gaza who do not support Hamas and yet everybody in Gaza is being punished, with the cutting off of water, power, medical supplies, food and other essential supplies. Under international conventions, that’s a war crime.”

He wrote to Hipkins last week, before Labour’s comprehensive defeat at the polls at the weekend, briefing him on the fraught situation in occupied Palestine and urging that he stand against the Gaza onslaught.

In the run-up to the general election, Hipkins condemned Hamas’ operation, asserting that New Zealand “recognised Israel’s right to defend itself”. The comments repeated rhetoric used by other Western leaders, which offered tacit, carte-blanch backing of Israel’s military response.

In a statement released on Thursday, 12 October, a New Zealand foreign policy group warned political leaders to avoid reckless rhetoric that would pave the way for war crimes and further loss of life. 

Te Kuaka member, Max Harris, said:

“There is a pressing danger right now that claims about Israel’s right to self-defence are being used as cover for profound violations of international law, and the destruction of families and communities in Gaza.”

‘Incredibly Biased Towards Israel’

British Prime Minister with Hipkins outside No. 10 in May. (Alice Hodgson / No 10 Downing Street/Flicker)

Media outlets were also playing a complicit role, being “incredibly biased towards Israel”, making it easier for escalation to go ahead unchecked, he said.

As the battle for hearts and minds raged last week lurid, false reports circulated of multiple babies found with severed heads after Hamas fighters had left Israeli settlements.

The widely disseminated notion that Hamas’ brutal assault had been “unprovoked” was not one Bray shared either. He said:

“I wasn’t surprised by the attack by Hamas. I’m certainly opposed to the nature of it, but this has to be seen in the context of what has been happening here over the last 50 years. What I’ve seen is close to genocide. That’s the backdrop. What I think is happening is that there’s been an incredible build-up of frustration over the last year, particularly since Netanyahu formed his government. There’s been an increase of violent attacks from the Israeli military and settlers that happened during the Jewish feast, the provocations around Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the expansion of settlements, the constant harassment of Palestinians.”

Students Harassed and Traumatised

Bethlehem University was established 50 years ago by the De La Salle order and has 3259 Muslim and Christian students enrolled at its campus.

Bray, who has been its vice chancellor since 2008, said many of the students travelled past settlements to get to campus and faced attacks by settlers, as well as army harassment.

“Forty percent of our students come from East Jerusalem and most of them come by bus. Those buses can be stopped by the Israeli military and the students can be taken off and interrogated, can be arrested, can have a gun put in their face.”

The Christian Brother said he witnessed the arrests of Palestinians outside the university at the weekend and that the militarised environment had created a terrible unpredictability and trauma for students.

“We here at Bethlehem University found out last night that one of our students was shot and killed in Jerusalem,” he said.

Details of the student’s death were still unclear. Bethlehem was for the moment cut off from Jerusalem, as occupied towns and cities in the West Bank are now isolated from each other by settler violence and military checkpoints.

“We try to create a peaceful, predictable oasis for them, to let them know they are loved and cared for,” Bray said.

Since the Hamas assault, at least 57 Palestinians have been killed by settlers and army throughout the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians Dehumanised

Bray talks painfully about gross misconceptions of Palestinians among some in New Zealand society. These became clear when the clergyman embarked on a speaking tour of New Zealand earlier this year, talking about Palestine on behalf of the NZ Catholic Bishops Conference.

“People were saying, ‘it must be awful being over there having so many terrorists around you’. It was disappointing. I’ve never once felt unsafe here. Palestinians are such a gracious people.”

This ignorance may blunt shock at home when Palestinians are dehumanised by the Israeli government. Last week Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallan, when announcing the total deprivation of the means of living for all in Gaza, said: “We are dealing with human animals and we will act accordingly.”

Bray warns about the consequences of such dehumanising words, on both sides, but also over talk that Hamas can be eliminated by carrying out a Gaza ground assault. He said attempting to do so would only bring further suffering and widen the conflict.

“Here in the West Bank, there are pockets of Hamas,” he said. “For example, at the university near Ramallah a Hamas student senate was elected in. If Israel goes after Hamas in Gaza there will be uncertainty about what’s going to happen here in the West Bank.”

There are dangers the conflict will spill over across the region too. The US has sent a second carrier strike group to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, as well as Air Force fighter jets, following the USS Gerald R Ford’s arrival off the coast of Israel last week. Britain has sent also spy planes and ships.

The Anglo-American allies said those actions were meant to deter Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon from intervening in Israel’s Gaza operation, a move that Bray finds both worrying and “appalling”.

This is Genocide – Minto’

Palestinian Solidarity Network Aotearoa spokesman John Minto says New Zealand is complicit in the war crimes of apartheid Israel. (Bryce Edwards)

Without the pre-election pressure of far-right Act party leader David Seymour, who criticised Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta for not repeating pro-war dogma in the aftermath of Hamas’ large-scale assault, Hipkins may be more willing to heed the Catholic educationalist’s message of peace with justice and drop US vassal-speak afflicting other Western leaders.

Bray said:

“Hipkins is in a position as Prime Minister to have the voice of New Zealand heard internationally. New Zealand has the respect of many people around the world and I’m just hoping he’s brave enough to take a stand for the people in Gaza and not promote and support what Israel is doing.”

However, under Caretaker Convention Hipkins will probably need to consult with the incoming government as well as his own Cabinet, and act on the advice, even if he disagrees.

As his university students this week attempt to avoid settler and state violence, while looking on in horror at apocalyptic scenes of Gaza’s destruction, Bray will hope New Zealand leaders across the political divide show courage and humanity.

Such attributes among politicians have been historically lacking and particularly so within the new right-wing coalition government of Act and National.

Palestinian Solidarity Network Aotearoa spokesman, John Minto, believes New Zealand has always been complicit in Israel’s war crimes and its illegal occupation due to the political and diplomatic cover governments have given the apartheid state.

The veteran campaigner said:

“The real problem here is New Zealand, along with the rest of the western world, has been refusing to call out Israeli’s myriad war crimes against the Palestinian people for over 75 years. That’s at the heart of it and that has emboldened Israel to believe that it can now conduct ethnic cleansing of Gaza. It’s not a war against Hamas. This is a genocide against the Palestinian people.”

The Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet was been approached for comment and did not respond by the time of publication. The Israel Institute of NZ was also invited to comment  and did not reply to questions.

Mick Hall is an independent journalist based in New Zealand. He is a former digital journalist at Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and former Australian Associated Press (AAP) staffer, having also written investigative stories for various newspapers, including the New Zealand Herald. If you appreciate his articles, please consider subscribing to his Substack page

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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1 comment for “West Bank Clergyman Calls on NZ PM to Oppose Israel’s War Crimes

  1. Kiwiantz62
    October 17, 2023 at 22:32

    This NZ Clergyman should confront the incoming PM Christopher Luxon whose a Born again Christian, he’d have better luck with him but somehow I doubt it because his Party, the incoming National Party is a sycophantic puppet of the West & the US as well!

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