Interview: Yvonne Green

A British ex-barrister who witnessed at first hand the effects of Operation Cast Lead reveals that reports of widespread Palestinian suffering have been greatly exaggerated

By Simon Round, March 19, 2009
There is little evidence of death and destruction in this Gaza market during the Israeli incursion in January

There is little evidence of death and destruction in this Gaza market during the Israeli incursion in January

During Israel’s recent campaign in Gaza, many Jews previously supportive towards Israel were appalled and shocked by the stories of wanton slaughter and indiscriminate bombing said to have been carried out against the Palestinian civilian population.

One British woman, prize-winning poet Yvonne Green, was so disturbed by what she saw on the news that she decided to travel to Gaza herself to bear witness to the civilian suffering. However, what Green discovered in Gaza was almost completely at odds with what the news reports said she should be seeing.

Having secured a press card and the services of a Palestinian guide, Green crossed into Gaza through the Erez checkpoint on January 28 — only six days after the Israeli withdrawal. She says: “I was terrified. I was told that I would be in danger, that my government would not be able to protect me. I suppose I felt I might write poetry about what I saw, but having gone in I knew that I had to defer the writing of poetry. I needed to convey information.”

Green, who practised as a barrister for more than 20 years before turning to literature, found the situation to be completely different from what she expected. She visited the United Nations UNWRA school at Al-Fakhora where it was alleged that 43 schoolchildren had been killed by an Israeli mortar. “That was a terrible day when everyone felt ashamed. But after visiting the site I could not understand how anyone could give that account,” she says. “There was no sign of the school being hit. It was visibly intact. The UN has now retracted the allegation. In fact, everything I found can be corroborated.

“The Palestinians I spoke to said that they had been told by the UN to run towards the school because it was safe. Subsequent to that, the Israelis had phoned and leafleted locals to tell them to keep away from the school because Hamas were shooting from the vicinity. Those I spoke to said 40 people ran towards the school and some were injured by a shell which landed in the road. A much larger number ran away. I fail to see how any reporter who went there could have reported the ‘massacre’ as fact.”

She was also surprised by the appearance of Gaza, considering the fact that hostilities had ceased a matter of a few days before. “When I arrived in the city of Jebalia I could see it was completely intact. The shops were full of vividly coloured dresses. I saw no walking wounded or anyone wearing so much as a bandage. The Israelis had taken out the Imad Akhel mosque. I asked the guide why it had been destroyed. He said the Israelis claimed it had been used as an arsenal. Was this true? ‘Look on YouTube at the secondary explosion,’ he said,” the implication being that there was evidence on the website that the mosque was used to store weapons. Apart from the strikes on Hamas buildings, the streets and houses were intact. The market was heaving with food. The quality of the produce was better than in Tel Aviv. There were huge carcasses of meat on sale and there were barrows heaped with grapes, melons, vegetables and radishes bigger than grapefruit.

“I said to the guide that no one would believe this. In England they think you’re starving. He laughed at that. He told me that all this produce was grown in Gaza.They are a very proud people.”

Green visited the Shifa hospital in Gaza City and found empty beds there. “I asked where the 5,500 [reported] wounded were. I was told most of the cases were being treated in Egypt and Jordan. However, I have found no evidence of so many wounded Gazans in foreign hospitals.”

She was also surprised to find no support for Hamas among the local population. “I gave my microphone to people a few times and asked them if they wanted to say something to the people in England. I expected that there would be people who would say something good about Hamas, even if only through fear. Nobody did this on tape. Off tape they were saying things like: ‘Hamas have got tunnels made of concrete and basements under the hospital. They had somewhere to shelter, whereas we had only our relatives’ houses to go to.’”

She was shown buildings, and in some cases whole Hamas compounds, which were completely flattened. “The ruins of the Ministry of Prisoners covered a couple of acres. I asked how many people were killed there. I was told six Hamas died. The Hamas National Forces compound was around five acres. It had also been completely destroyed. It was huge area, but I was told that ten died.”

The Palestinians Green spoke to said over and over again that the Israelis had given them telephone, leaflet and megaphone warnings to evacuate around 35-40 minutes before each attack.

This was the case, she says at the Abu Ayida family complex, which had been razed with the exception of one house.

“‘How many people died here?’ I asked the guide. “They told me that no one had died. Everyone was leafleted and telephoned.

“I asked how the Israelis came to have the phone numbers. They explained that they all had mobile phones and they all had identity cards. So the Israelis had obtained the numbers. They were also given between 35-40 minutes to evacuate.”

Green’s account of Gaza has not been received well. “Why do the politicians talk about wanton destruction and murderous attacks when the Palestinians themselves do not talk like that? I have no political motive for publicising this. I went because I wanted to see the suffering and face it as a Jew and as a human being. But people have said I have set out to justify the operation — that I am a liar.

“It’s very scary to hear these things, but this is what I saw. And I want it to be in the public domain.”

Last updated: 11:29am, March 19 2009