Congressional staff tried to protect Gazan churches by sending locations to Israel

The Israel Defense Forces has said
it did not deliberately target the facilities

, but that it is reviewing the Convent of the Missionaries incident as its forces were conducting an operation against Hamas near the building during the reported time of the shelling.

The emails, which are dated Oct. 14 through Oct. 26, show that Catholic Relief Services sent the coordinates of a number of buildings to Senate staffers, who forwarded them to the Israeli military. The congressional aides confirm in the messages that Israel received the list of coordinates for four buildings, including the two that were later struck, but the Israeli officials told them they “can’t guarantee” the safety of the dozens of civilians inside.

The emails shed light on the cracks in the international system through which aid organizations attempt to protect their buildings and staff from getting hit. They also raise questions about the alleged Israeli strikes given the IDF confirmed to the staffers that it had located the positions of the facilities on the list, including the two that were hit.

And the emails provide new details on the degree to which lawmakers have involved themselves in running interference with the Israeli government to help protect humanitarian organizations. The task is made all the tougher given the confusing situation on the ground in densely populated Gaza, where access to the internet or solid information is limited and where Hamas is known to intentionally embed its fighters and arsenal among the civilian population.

The IDF did not respond to a request for comment. The staffers at the senate and the aid organization were granted anonymity so they can continue to help protect civilians in Gaza without fear of retribution.

The emails contain frantic messages between leaders of the aid organization and congressional staffers as they attempt to help the Israeli military pinpoint the exact location of the churches.

“Israelis are reiterating the need for your group to move,” one of the emails from a congressional aide says. Representatives from the Christian charity said the organization could not move the people in the buildings because many of them were disabled and elderly.

Convent of the Missionaries of Charity “cares for 40 severely disabled children and 20 adults. It is impossible for them to move south,” one of the emails from the organization read.

One of the emails with congressional staff includes a document from the Israeli government with the title, “Marking of churches as sensitive sites at the request of the American Congress.” It contains aerial images of the four sites. The Israeli government sent the file to the aid organization via the congressional staffers for its review.

Church leaders had shared GPS satellite information with the IDF more than once, said Father Ibrahim Nino, a spokesperson for the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. “But what happened happened,” he said. “And we are sure of it because we have 648 witnesses inside the compound of the church.”

Religious and aid organizations have been sending coordinates to the U.N. and to Israel directly since fighting started in October. The
Biden administration has also been sending Israel the locations of aid organizations in Gaza

. Still, Israel has continued to conduct operations against Hamas in or near aid sites, including hospitals.

In past conflicts in Gaza, aid organizations have relied primarily on a U.N. system to send their coordinates. They’ve also shared that information directly with the Israeli government. But since the war started in October, humanitarian groups have come under increasing bombardment, forcing them to find alternative methods for “deconfliction,”
including through the Biden administration

and lawmakers.

Catholic Relief Services sent its coordinates to the U.N. as well as directly to the Israeli military. It used its connections at the National Security Council and on Capitol Hill as a stopgap, according to a senior representative of the aid organization.

The emails from October contain multiple back and forths between the Israelis and Catholic Relief Services, via the congressional staffers, as to the exact location of the four buildings the organization wants to deconflict.

At one point the Israelis claimed one of the buildings identified on the coordinate list presented by Catholic Relief Services was a mosque.

“We received feedback that the Handicap Children’s House is a mosque,” one of the emails from the congressional staffers says.

“They are incorrect,” a representative from Catholic Relief Services writes. “If there are discrepancies between the coordinates we shared and pins, we do hope they follow the coordinates.”

The Israelis also provided a list of aerial photos of the coordinates, asking the organization to identify the churches, according to one of the emails.

The aid group eventually decided to hand draw a map with the coordinates listed next to each building to ensure the Israeli military could correctly identify them.

Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.