Relief workers describe squalor seen in Mideast

Abbie Vansickle

Many of the Palestinian refugees in the West Bank just want to live in peace, activists Kathy Kelly and Jeff Guntzel told a standing-room-only crowd that gathered Thursday night to hear first-person accounts from the region.

Guntzel and Kelly, a two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, spoke to a crowd of more than 200 people at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 616 Lake St., about their recent trip to the Middle East to bring relief to refugees from Jenin.

Guntzel said he hoped to change Americans’ views about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by showing U.S. citizens the poor conditions faced by many Palestinians.

“(Americans) understand the message, ‘We have to fight the terrorists,'” Guntzel said. “But it’s not just infrastructure that’s being destroyed, it’s peoples’ lives.”

The speakers, sponsored by activist groups Neighbors for Peace and Not in My Name, said they were among the first international aid workers to enter the camps in early April following the Israeli occupation of the area in March.

Kelly, a Chicago native who has been active in peace efforts for many years, said she was alarmed at the conditions in Jenin and at the treatment of women and children she observed.

She told several anecdotes to illustrate her point, including the story of the aid workers’ rescue of an elderly, paralyzed Palestinian woman who was trapped in her home by rubble. She said the workers had to pause in their rescue efforts because Israeli soldiers were pelting the workers and woman with crystal glassware.

In addition, she criticized international aid for the Palestinian children in the camp.

“It was so hard to see that there were all of these children who’d lived through traumatic experiences and the best the international community could come up with was finger paint,” she said.

Kelly also discussed the human rights violations she said she witnessed in Jenin, including young Palestinian men and boys who were used as human shields for Israeli soldiers.

As Kelly’s voice rang out across the room, several audience members wiped tears from their eyes.

Guntzel then detailed their attempts to enter the camp. He said they tried to get into the camp through the security checkpoints but ended up darting across the border when an Israeli soldier told him the alternative route.

He described the area surrounding Jenin as a “wasteland” and showed slides of the devastation, including houses destroyed by tanks and pro-Israeli graffiti along the streets. He also told about watching Jenin residents pick through the rubble to try and salvage their belongings.

One young woman spent hours pulling her university textbooks from the remains of her home, he said.

Kelly also questioned the actions of the Israeli soldiers who occupied the area.

She said the soldiers’ claims that they were just following orders rang hollow, and she compared them to German soldiers during World War II.

“You can never say, ‘I’m not responsible for my actions, I’m just following orders,'” she said she told the soldiers.