Photograph by Anas Alahmed

Bloomington High School graduate Evann Smith discussed her experiences in the Gaza Strip during an Aug. 13 presentation. Smith is a doctoral student at Harvard University and went to the war-torn Palestinian Territory under a UN program.

About 50 Bloomington-area citizens learned about life in Occupied Palestine through a local woman's presentation on her time in a UN-sponsored student delegation to the Gaza Strip in May 2009.

"Every single person in Gaza has a war story," Evann Smith told the audience in a soft and sometimes quavering voice. "There is no single person in Gaza who has not had a direct experience with Operation Cast Lead. ... Everything there was destroyed." Operation Cast Lead was Israeli codename for its war against Gazans launched Dec. 27, 2008, a month before President George W. Bush left office.

Smith, a Bloomington High School South graduate and doctoral student in political science at Harvard University, spoke Aug. 13 at the Monroe County Public Library. Her speech and slide presentation was sponsored by the Bloomington branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.

Smith stayed for a week in Gaza along with five other women under the age of 25 (four Americans and one Canadian). She met with UN officials, government representatives, university students, fishermen, camp residents and other Gaza residents as she toured the land.

Cement is not allowed, Smith explained, so "nothing in Gaza's rebuilding has advanced beyond first response."

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The Gaza Strip is a Palestinian Territory sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and Israel. It is 25 miles long and six miles wide at its widest point, with 1.5 million residents. Most live on half of the land mass with a population density of 20,000 per square mile. Three-quarters of the population are refugees from the 1948 or 1967 "wars."

"The Gaza Strip is a Palestinian Territory sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and Israel. It is 25 miles long and six miles wide at its widest point, with 1.5 million residents."

The Territory has been in ruins since last December when Israel attacked and killed more than 1,500 Palestinians. Smith noted that only 13 Israeli soldiers had died during the operation, four of them by "friendly fire."

She showed slides of the House of Parliament, which was destroyed by bombing. The American School in Gaza City was also leveled. Another picture showed the Alquds Hospital in ruins. "In Gaza, it was utterly overwhelming, the proportion of destruction," Smith said.

Sixty-five percent of Gaza Strip's population is under 18. Seventy percent suffer from malnutrition. Smith noted that "Israel has always controlled Gaza's borders, but after Hamas came to power, the siege was tightened drastically."

Hamas is a Palestinian political organization that won control of the Strip in a 2007 general election.

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Smith visited the coast and met with some fishermen. Prior to the siege, Gaza Strip fishermen were allowed to fish up to 20 nautical miles. Now they are limited to three nautical miles of shore.

The fisherman fish for sardines, and Smith showed a photo of the catch. "As you might be able to tell, these are baby sardines, which means that the future fishing in this area is going to be very much diminished," she said. "Since fish is a large part of the diet, and since the lack of mature fish has already had an impact in food supply, when the fishing decreases even more due to harvesting baby fish. ... This is going to have horrific implications for the future food supply of Gaza."

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Smith said the UN School in Gaza was destroyed by bombing, but citizens there still seek education. "Despite 40-50 percent unemployment, and no prospects for jobs, Palestinians continue to go to schools because education is incredibly valued," she said.

Even though Smith was in Cairo studying Arabic and therefore near to Gaza, during Operation Cast Lead it was difficult to know what was going on. "Israel had forbidden journalists into Gaza during Operation Cast Lead," she said. "The war did get some media attention, but stories grow old, people get tired, people get distracted by other events."


Photograph by Anas Alahmed

About 50 citizens attended Smith's presentation in the Monroe County Public Library.

Her goal for entering Gaza was not "war tourism," she added. "My generation of people in Gaza is being raised in complete isolation from the rest of the world, and I wanted to have exchange and dialogue with them."

Smith explained that even prior to Israel's attack, "Gaza already was under a siege -- a siege of material goods, which also prevents information from going in, and getting out. I wanted to know what happens when you have a complete isolation from the outside world."

One thing Smith learned is that no gasoline has entered the Gaza Strip since the latest siege. "This has disastrous and devastating effects on sewage treatment, electricity output, medical capabilities, transportation, and all aspects of life," she said.

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During Operation Cast Lead, Israel moved the border inward 300 yards and announced that anyone in this 300-yard "buffer zone" would be considered an enemy combatant and killed. "In a country where there are 20,000 people per square mile, a lot of people were affected by this and had to move," she said.

She saw a stand selling T-shirts saying, "Welcome to Gaza, the largest prison in the world," Smith told the audience, "One person told me, 'When you imprison an entire country, you can only expect a prison mentality to develop, and this is not a good indication of the future of this conflict.'"

"She saw a stand selling T-shirts saying, 'Welcome to Gaza, the largest prison in the world.'"

Smith said the use of white phosphorous against civilian population is prohibited by international law. White phosphorous is an incendiary agent used in battle to create smokescreens and mask movements. She showed pictures of a residential community that had been "bombed and then completely burned out by white phosphorous."

Operation Cast Lead destroyed not only schools and residential areas but also medical centers. Smith showed photos of the Alquds Hospital in Gaza, which had also been bombed and blackened by white phosphorous. The attack happened "while people were in the hospital getting treatments from wounds incurred during Operation Cast Lead."

Smith said their UN guides would not accompany them into the hospital because they did not know the "possible effects on humans of a building which had not had the white phosphorous cleaned off of it."

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Smith recounted how the current Israeli siege on Gaza affects all aspects of commerce. There is no defined list of humanitarian supplies, and that what is restricted in Gaza can change daily. She and her group brought in soccer balls, "which were greatly enjoyed by the children we met."

When Smith described how she was treated in Gaza, she noted, "While in Cairo, every third man would harass me (sexual comments, etc). In Gaza I was never once hassled. People there were incredibly polite, incredibly peaceful."

"Smith showed photos of the Alquds Hospital in Gaza, which had also been bombed and blackened by white phosphorous."

Smith explained that the people she met in Gaza were interested in knowing what the American people think and actually know about Gaza. She was asked whether Americans supported Israel and whether Americans supported what was happening to them in Gaza. "They wanted to know if Americans even knew of Operation Cast Lead and if any U.S. Congressmen actually visited Gaza to see what was happening."

Smith explained to the audience, "I feel that some congressmen actually avoid visiting Gaza, because once you visit Gaza, you could not deny your responsibility to do something."

As several members of the audience recoiled in horror, Smith recounted an anecdote of one of her interactions. "One time while I was in Gaza, a little boy, around the age of 6, brought to me an unexploded shell. I did not photograph it, as I was afraid it might explode. He wanted to point out to me that on the shell it said, 'Made in the U.S.A.' I felt that the people there wanted to hold me, and every American responsible -- which is sort of unfair, in my opinion -- for the fact that this shell was made in America, that we were supplying this weapon to Israel."

One Palestinian told Smith, "If we follow the path of democracy, we are punished."

She told the audience, "This is not a good indicator of the future of this conflict."

***

After the presentation, audience members asked Smith several questions. She had said, "There was a battle for power in Gaza in 2007 and Hamas won and took over officially." When it was pointed out that Hamas had won an internationally monitored election and thus came to power, Smith countered, "There is a big difference between winning an election and actually coming to power."

IU Professor Emeritis of Arabic Salih J. Altoma asked, "These pictures you have shown, I wonder if any human being who witnesses them would accept this destruction?"

Smith hesitated and answered with emotion, "I wish I had an answer to that. Remember, no journalists were allowed in during Operation Cast Lead. The war did get some media attention, but stories grow old, people get tired, people get distracted by other events."

"In Gaza I was never once hassled. People there were incredibly polite, incredibly peaceful."- Evann Smith

Linda Stewart asked why Smith used the word "conflict" and not "war crimes."

Smith replied, "I use the word conflict rather than war because, although the Gazans did fight back to some extent, the lack of proportion in weaponry is such that to describe it as a war is not correct. I do not call it a war crime because we don't have enough information. The UN is busy attempting to determine all the facts, and I trust that the UN will make a determination at some point in time. I have also found that if I use this phrase of war crimes that some people close their ears and do not listen."

Kadhim Shaaban, who had moderated the questions and answers, stated, "It is important for Americans to realize that this issue of Palestine and Israel has been unresolved for the past 60 years and that all events in the Middle East are inter-connected. The solving of the Palestinian crisis is crucial for future peace."

Elsa Marston implored attendees to contact their representatives and let them know that this issue is important and that a just peace should be enacted.

David Keppel pointed out that Republican Sen. Richard Lugar was a relative moderate on this issue, while Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh was "one of the leading hawks in Congress on this issue."

Even organizer Rima Hanania said hosting the Gaza lecture was not an easy decision for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. "The issue of Gaza is important but not well-covered in the media or in public, so this talk seems very important to help fill the information gap," she said. "Gaza as a topic is not an easy decision to make. It is difficult to discuss this issue in public. When our membership discussed this event, there was some hesitation on whether to present it or not, but finally we did it."

Bloomington resident Shawkat Abdelhaq, who noted that "there was a huge difference in the way that CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera had reported the events of Operation Cast Lead," summed up the event by saying, "It was very informative, a very reasoned and non-judgmental picture of what is happening in Gaza. It is obvious that the siege must be taken out. Israel must make a peaceful response to the offers of peace that have been made by Hamas and the Arab States in the region."

Anas Alamed and David Stewart can be reached at aalahmed@indiana.edu and daestewa@indiana.edu.