Looking back at Lawrence: Feb. 10, 1956

The face of the Gaza strip is changing rapidly as borders open and the Palestinian Authority takes control of the land. This article, about two members of the Lawrence community who volunteered in Gaza in 1949-50, sheds some light on the early days of Gaza, as well as perception of Israeli-Palestinian tensions of the time.
As long as man can remember, the Near East has had its homeless-from the time a certain Baby was born to itinerant parents in a roadside stable 1,955 years ago to today’s refugee throngs from a holy, or unholy war.
It was to minister to the latter in the spirit of the former that Mrs. Charles Breunig and Mrs. Bruce Cronmiller found their separate ways to the Gaza strip five years ago, and now they have renewed their acquaintance as faculty wives at Lawrence college.
The Gaza strip, a desolate 20 by 25 mile rectangle of sand between the borders of Israel and Egypt was created to take care of 200,000 Arabs who fled their homes in Israeli territory in 1949.
When reports of the poverty and squalor of the strip reached the world, the United Nations sent a commission headed by Lawrence alumnus Gordon Clapp to figure out what should be done for the colony then living in tents rejected by the British army. But until the UN could get its agencies operating, it asked relief groups already working in that area, to manage the work until they arrived.
The American Friends Service committee was one group, and among their volunteer workers were the young women who now live in Appleton.
Mary Cronmiller had already been working in the Philadelphia office of the Friends for she had been engaged and religious and social work since graduating from Mount Holyoke. She was interested in the Palestine situation, and put in for a transfer, which came through at Christmastime, 1949. Two weeks later she was winging her way toward the strip.
Betty Breunig came the other way around the world to her Gaza shores. While still a student at Radcliffe, she was invited to spend a summer in Japan, working in a camp sponsored by the World Council of Churches. To make the trip financially justifiable, she got a job teaching English at Kobe college for the adjoining fall.
The summer’s work was building a playground, road, and plumbing system in a camp for Japanese repatriates from Manchuria, some of whom had been interned by the Russians and Chinese communists for 15 years. What can girls do on such a project? “Quite a bit of manual labor,” Betty smiles.
In the fall, Betty taught English and took Japanese schoolgirls on trips around the island. In December, her semester was over, and she set off for home the long way, stopping to visit a brother on the faculty of the American University in Cairo.
Her introduction to the Near East was not promising – she spent Christmas day of 1949 in quarantine for neglecting her choler shots – but when she heard that the Friends needed someone to work for a couple of months, she was off to Gaza.
The two young women found a group of internationalists working to relieve conditions in the strip – they were from America, England, Denmark, Switzerland, and France. They received no wages, only maintenance; and many were on temporary leave from their normal professions.
Mary Cronmiller worked in the office – a temporary building with partitions made from powdered milk cartons. “When someone was on the telephone, everyone in the office had to stop typing,” she remembers.
Betty Breunig was out on a milk station, at one of the seven food camps on the strip. Her job was to mix and distribute powdered milk to the refugees. “It was a real process of education,” she comments, “first to teach them that milk was good for them; then to get them used to the taste!”
Of all the refugees in the strip, the Bedouins remained aloof from the milk stations. Aloof until spring, that is, when they appeared in droves, with their buckets. A little cloak-and-dagger work revealed that they were getting the milk for the baby camels and horses. They also discovered that most cod liver oil ended up in an Arabian cooking pot.
The Friends crew enjoyed the comparative luxury of houses in the old fishing city of Gaza, but they were up at 5 every morning and at their stations by 7:30, to work until 2. After lunch they were free to explore.
Big event of each day was the arrival of the UN plane from Cairo or Beirut. The plane landed on a grazing field, and as it was circling, it was necessary to chase the Bedouins’ sheep away. Jeeps on the ground were parked in the direction of the wind and as an additional aid to the pilot, someone stood in back of the truck and waved a sheet.
Although there wasn’t much scenic beauty to behold, there was Near Eastern color in plenty. Veiled women wore the modest garb of Moslem tradition – until you looked at their feet, sportily clad in spectator pumps! More modish ladies wore the prescribed veils, all right, but in pink or blue to match their shoes. And long skirted gentlemen made quite a billow on they street on their bicycles. “You really feel the impact of western civilization on eastern,” the young women agree.
The Friends are not interested in a food dole, but in reconstruction and making the natives self-sufficient. They began a weaving program, and marketed the textiles abroad, until a loud protest came from the Jordanian weavers who felt that the Gaza strip refugees were cutting into their trade. The Friends ran public health clinics, mainly to combat eye disease, which flourishes in the fly-ridden country. They established schools for the children, the first formal education most of them received. With trained personnel so scarce, anyone with school experience was pressed into service. One school has a twelve-year-old girl as principal.
The Lawrence faculty wives agree there is no clear casting of “good guy” and “bad guys” in the Arab-Israeli drama. “The workers that were sent to Arabian lands were Arab; those who went to Palestine were Pro-Israel. I am glad that I had an opportunity to go to Israel at the conclusion of my job,” Betty Breunig comments. “It gives my much more balance.