Israel will not “stand by” in the face of Hamas attacks, President Reuven Rivlin told Pope Francis in a meeting Thursday at the Vatican, vowing that the Jewish state will protect its civilians.
“Israel does not want escalation or to hurt innocent civilians, but will not stand by while Hamas undermines stability and our civilians are harmed,” Rivlin said, according to a press statement from his office.
The president also accused Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza, of “cynically exploiting” residents of the Palestinian enclave.
Rivlin’s comments came just days after a major flareup in Gaza that saw Palestinian terror groups fire over 460 rockets and mortars at Israeli territory — more than twice the rate at which they were launched during the 2014 war.
In response to the rocket and mortar attacks, the Israeli military said it targeted approximately 160 sites in the Gaza Strip connected to the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups, including four facilities that the army designated as “key strategic assets.”
Israel and Hamas have since reached a ceasefire agreement to end the fighting, which came amid Egyptian and United Nations efforts to broker a long-term truce between the sides.
Rivlin told Francis that Hamas must return a pair of Israeli citizens it is holding, as well the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers killed during the 2014 Gaza war, before any future agreement can be sealed.
He also praised Francis’ condemnation of anti-Semitism, saying, “Your absolute condemnation of acts of anti-Semitism and your definition of such acts as anti-Christian are a significant step in the ongoing fight to stamp it out.”
It was Rivlin’s second meeting with the pope. The two met in 2015 at Francis’ invitation.
Rivlin and wife Nechama reviewed the Pontifical Swiss Guard before meeting Francis at the Apostolic Palace.
Rivlin also told the Catholic leader Israel “has full freedom of worship for all religions in all holy places” and said Jerusalem serves as a “microcosm of our ability to live together.”
A statement from the Holy See said the two discussed creating conditions for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian and peace talks and the “Jerusalem question, in its religious and human dimension for Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as the importance of safeguarding its identity and vocation as City of Peace.”
The city’s status is one of the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel captured East Jerusalem — which includes important religious sites in the Old City — from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.