Hamas attack on Israel a watershed moment for Holy Land, says NZ vice chancellor of Bethlehem University

New Zealander Br Peter Bray FSC – the Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University in the Holy Land – is not surprised by the Hamas attack on Israel at the weekend. He says his students and staff appear all to be safe.

“This is a watershed moment that could have long-term impact on life here in the Holy Land,” Br Peter says in a message to the New Zealand Catholic bishops.

“Please keep us in your prayers. All the Brothers are safe and well here in Bethlehem and I have not heard of any students or employees being injured. We are unsure what is going to unfold today and tomorrow.”

The university held an emergency council meeting overnight New Zealand time and decided to teach online today,

“It is impossible to get in or out of Bethlehem at present, so our students from Jerusalem -- about 40 per cent of our student population – are not be able to get here. However, the campus will be open and staff members from Bethlehem will be expected to be in their offices tomorrow.”

Taranaki-raised Br Peter moved from Wellington to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, in 2008 to take up the vice-chancellor role. His work as a teacher and education consultant has taken him around the world. He made a speaking tour of New Zealand for the bishops early this year talking about the Israel-Palestine issue.

Bethlehem University was founded by Br Peter’s De la Salle Bothers in 1973. It was the first registered university established in the Occupied West Bank territory of Palestine and is the only Catholic university in the Holy Land. It currently has 3259 students (Muslim and Christian), 17,282 graduates and 214 faculty members. It is celebrating its Golden Jubilee this year.

“I was not surprised by the attack on Israel by Hamas,” Br Peter said. “While I do not approve of violence as a response, given the ongoing and increasing violent attacks on Palestinians by the Israeli military and the settlers over recent months, as well as the provocative moves by settlers around Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during the Jewish feast, I can understand why the Palestinians reacted in the way they did.

“With the extreme rightwing government in Israel and the stated priority of the expansion of settlements in the West Bank the pressure on Palestinians has been enormous. There have been more Palestinians killed by the military and settlers this year than any year since 2006. It has been obvious that there has been a growing frustration among Palestinians that the international community has forgotten about them and let Israel do whatever it wants. The steady expansion of settlements and forcing Palestinians off their land or out of their houses, as well as the continued pressure on Palestinians with home demolition, has left the Palestinians very aware that they are being driven off their land. Many of the settlers make it very obvious that they want to take the whole land and do not want Palestinians around.

“The Palestinian Authority has not been able in any way to contain what Israel has been doing, so the Palestinian frustration has boiled over through Hamas, who claim to be defending what remains of the Palestinian land and its people.

“What happened was a major embarrassment to the Israeli military because Hamas fighters were able to take over several military bases and settlements near Gaza and capture soldiers and civilians as hostages. There are real fears now that the Israeli military will strike back with significant violence in retaliation. They began to do that today and who knows where that might lead. I think this is a watershed moment that could have long-term impact on life here in the Holy Land.”

Br Peter said the university will hold another executive council meeting on Monday (Middle East time) to decide what to do on Tuesday and the rest of the week, Depending on what information became available.

“So this is Palestine and we will see how things unfold and respond accordingly. Please keep us in your prayers.”

  • Read a letter from Br Peter received 14 October here. In it, Br Peter says one of the university's third-year students, Khaled Al-Muhtasib, has been killed in Jerusalem. Because checkpoints around Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been closed, the university has moved to online learning. The situation is tense and unpredictable. Br Peter asks: "Please keep us in your prayers as we navigate our way into this unpredictable future."
  • Br Peter was interviewed on RNZ's Morning Report on 20 October. Listen to the interview here.
  • Br Peter's final Christmas Message (image below) as Vice Chancellor of Bethlehem University is here in PDF format.