Next year, the Vatican will release files pertaining to the church’s handling of the Holocaust, Israel becomes the first nation to digitize all its tombstones, a new prime minister for the Palestinian Authority and the weekly Gaza update in this week’s Israel news.

Vatican to Unseal Sensitive Holocaust Files

“The church isn’t afraid of history” said Pope Francis as he announced early this month that the Vatican would open the archives to reveal WWII-era documents on Pope Pius XII who has been criticized for his silence on the Holocaust.

The announcement came as a surprise since the Vatican usually waits seventy years after the end of a pontificate to reveal the connected files. The files of Pius XII, however, have come under unusual scrutiny considering the allegations that the then pope and Vatican were silent on the Holocaust. Additional pressure has been placed upon the Vatican to release the documents sooner while there are still Holocaust survivors alive, according to Ynet news.

Pope Francis said the records would be released on March 2, 2020 and noted that Pius' legacy has been treated with "some prejudice and exaggeration.”

The BBC reports that the “prefect of the Vatican’s Secret Archive said the opening would allow a more profound evaluation of a figure who had been subject to what he called ‘superficial criticism.’”

The strongest criticism has come from Jewish groups who have now welcomed Francis’ announcement—something for which they have lobbied for decades. Israel’s foreign ministry and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum representatives said they welcomed the decision and expected full access to the released archives.

Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, which has pushed the Vatican on this issue for years, said a historical analysis by Holocaust experts is imperative “to acknowledge both the failures as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the Shoah [Holocaust].”

The efforts made by the church during the Holocaust are a matter of controversy. Pope Pius XII, who led the church from 1939 to 1958, received much of the criticism for not publicly denouncing Hitler during the war, not signing an Allied declaration in 1942 condemning the Nazi extermination of Jews, and not protesting publicly at the deportations of Jews from Rome to Auschwitz. But the Catholic leadership has held that Pius behaved dutifully given the circumstances.

Pope Francis has publicly defended Pius before, once in 2014 calling Pius XII "a great defender of Jews" who had ordered the church to hide Jews in the convents in Italy, as well as the papal residence.

"One needs to see his role in the context of the time," he said. "For example, was it better for him not to speak so that more Jews would not be killed or for him to speak?"

The hope is that the release of the Pius XII files will clear up the issue.

Twenty members of the Vatican’s archives department have worked to organize Pius XII’s files for the past thirteen years, and the official release will include an estimated sixteen million pages of documents.

Israel Digitizes All Tombstones

Israel is the first country in the world to create an online record of every cemetery tombstone in the country creating a massive database to preserve history and aid in genealogical research.

In a joint effort by the MyHeritage online genealogy platform and the BillionGraves database, Israel has counted more than 1.5 million tombstones in 638 cemeteries, according to the Jerusalem Post. The tombs and graves are now easily searchable online or in an app, and even include geolocation to find the exact burial plot.

"This is an important tool for preserving the memory of the deceased and enriching the family trees with relatives who are no longer with us," said Ofir Abeslander, a spokesperson for MyHeritage. "Family members can be discovered several generations back, whose existence is forgotten and can be the first time to recite Kaddish for their graves."

The researchers called the project a race against time since many tombstone inscriptions suffer from deterioration that already renders hundreds of thousands of ancient graves in Israel mostly unidentifiable. The Mount of Olives cemetery, for example, is the oldest Jewish burial site in the world.

The database is currently in Hebrew but MyHeritage has plans to expand and to continue working with BillionGraves to digitize every cemetery in the world.

New PM for Palestinian Authority

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas appointed his longtime advisor Mohammed Ishtayeh as the new prime minister of the party tasking him with forming the coalition government.

Ishtayeh has a Ph.D. in economic development from the University of Sussex, was a public works minister, a past peace negotiator with Israel, and is currently head of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction. In the letter of appointment, Abbas wrote that the new government’s top priority should be “to support the decisions of the Palestinian leadership, which include restoring national unity and bringing Gaza back to the bosom of national legitimacy.”

The Jerusalem Post also reports that Abbas asked Ishtayeh to take all necessary measures to hold parliamentary elections in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and east Jerusalem as soon as possible. The announcement also puts Ishtayeh in charge of the day-to-day Palestinian affairs and is another sever to the ties between the feuding Hamas and Palestinian Authority parties. Not only is Ishtayeh a harsh critic of Hamas, but also he is a strong advocate for peace talks, the Associated Press reports. He participated in the last peace talks with Israel and is a longtime leader in the Fatah movement alongside Abbas.

The Hamas response, as expected, is confrontational. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman, told the Associated Press that they don’t recognize the new Ishtayeh government, which he says will “widen the division and separate the West Bank from the Gaza Strip fully, and won’t serve the interests of our people.”

After Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip from the PA in 2007, reconciliation attempts have failed and political division has deepened between the Palestinian factions. Under Abbas, the Palestinian Authority has dueled with Hamas for influence among Palestinians and focused most of their attention on the West Bank, a pattern Ishtayeh says is expected to continue.

Ishtayeh’s predecessor resigned in January after years of failure in reconciliation efforts.

Weekly Gaza Update

IDF jets struck several targets in the Gaza Strip on Saturday night hours after a rocket launched from Gaza into Israel.

The rocket landed in open territory and no injuries were reported, but the rocket launch and air strikes come after a tumultuous weekend at the weekly Gaza border protests.

Some 8,000 protestors clashed with IDF forces this weekend marking the fiftieth consecutive week of the March of Return protests, which started at the end of last March, nearly one year ago. Last weekend, the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health said that one twenty-three-year-old was killed and forty-eight others were injured by IDF fire, including two women and fifteen youths, according to the Jerusalem Post. Four paramedics and two journalists were also reportedly injured.

During the riots, two Palestinians were able to infiltrate into Israel from the Gaza Strip leading to the military closing roads and deploying troops to communities who were put on alert. The men were eventually arrested and were found armed with a knife and grenade, the military said.

As the protests near their one-year anniversary, there has been an uptick in incursion attempts, renewed balloon and rocket launches, and increased violence at the border riots that have left hundreds dead and thousands wounded.