Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. author Alice Walker says a catastrophe has befallen the Gaza Strip and that she hopes she and others can make President Barack Obama more aware of it.
Walker, best known for her novel The Color Purple, toured Gaza this week, including an area destroyed in Israel's recent war on the territory's Islamic militant Hamas rulers.
Several neighborhoods along Gaza's border with Israel were leveled by the Israel Defense Forces during the three-week offensive, which ended Jan. 18. Israel says Hamas is to blame for the destruction because its fighters used civilians as shields and operated from crowded areas. About 15,000 houses were destroyed or damaged, displacing thousands of Gazans.
Walker, 65, said in an interview Tuesday that she encountered widespread devastation.
"Lots, and lots and lots of houses of just ordinary people have been completely and utterly destroyed, and people are living in the rubble," she said, speaking in the garden cafe of her Gaza City hotel. "Some of them are struggling in tents, and some are just sitting in what remains of their homes."
Walker said her decision to visit Gaza, along with members of the U.S. anti-war group Code Pink, was spurred by the recent death of an older sister. She said she felt a connection to Gazans who lost loved ones in the war. "I wanted very much to be with them and to bear witness to what is happening to them, this horrible, catastrophic, terrible thing," she said.
Israel says it launched the Gaza offensive to halt rocket fire from Gaza at Israeli border towns. Some 1,300 Gazans were killed in the war, according to Gaza human rights groups and medics. Thirteen Israelis also were killed.
Walker said she believes Americans have mostly been exposed to the Israeli narrative since the establishment of the Israel in 1948 and know little about the plight of the Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled their homes at the time.
"We were indoctrinated to the song in that film Exodus, you know, 'This land belongs to us, this land is our land,' meaning the Israelis, the Jews, and for so long, we were told that nobody lived here, that it was a land without people, for a people without land," she said.
Walker said she hopes she and others can make Obama more aware of the plight of Gaza.
"Believing that he [Obama] is a decent person, and I do believe this, our job then is to help him see what we see, and then he can decide how he will behave and it's on his soul, it's not on my soul."
Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, visited Israel and the West Bank last week. Clinton said she would work vigorously for a peace agreement that includes the formation of an independent Palestinian state, but gave no indications she would try a new approach. Many Palestinians and other Arabs view U.S. policy as lopsided in Israel's favor.
Walker did not respond directly when asked whether Hamas - classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel - should be held responsible for Gaza's hardships.
"I think all of us have an opportunity here to just say what we believe, which is we think killing is wrong, we think stealing land is wrong, we think abusing people is wrong," she said.
Gaza's borders have largely been sealed by Israel and Egypt since June 2007, when Hamas seized control of the territory by force, ousting troops loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Walker, who is black, grew up in segregated Georgia, an experience reflected in some of her work. She won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for her 1982 novel The Color Purple, which was later turned into a movie and a musical.
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