Julia Pitner has spent the last week in the Middle East working to try to connect Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to the airwaves to give them information about humanitarian aid.
The territory has been bombarded by Israeli airstrikes for the last two weeks; nearly 1 million people are without electricity, and 750,000 are without water.
“It was just information poverty. Not only did they not have water and food and access to medical information, they also didn’t have information about what was actually happening,” Pitner said Friday morning in a phone interview from Ramallah in the West Bank.
Pitner is the head of Internews Network projects in the West Bank and Gaza. Since 2006, she has worked for the California-based nonprofit, which helps independent radio and television stations in the region establish themselves in communities.
The 1981 Lawrence High School graduate is a long way from her hometown in Kansas, where her mother, Barbara Pitner, lives. Julia Pitner earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from Kansas University, and she also formerly ran an organization called Consumer Affairs in Lawrence.
The conflict between Israel and Hamas has included Israeli airstrikes and ground forces moving into Gaza while rockets have been fired into Israel. More than 700 Palestinians had been killed near the end of Friday, and 13 Israelis also had died, according to The Associated Press.
The Hamas group won 2006 Palestinian elections and engineered a violent takeover of Gaza in June 2007. Hamas militants frequently fire missiles into Israel.
Pitner’s main focus from her office in Ramallah recently has been to make sure humanitarian information is broadcast from two radio station based in Hebron, also in the West Bank. The Palestinians in Gaza may need information about safe havens, road closures, food distribution and also just news about the conflict.
“What the whole media are doing here is really trying to create a more humanitarian outreach and creating a more positive message for what people can actually do to help people in Gaza,” Pitner said.
Even if the messages are making it onto the airwaves, that doesn’t mean the people can always hear them. Power failures in Gaza have affected televisions and radios. Batteries are also likely to run out soon.
So Internews Network plans to send in 540 donated radios that are solar-powered and also can be cranked by hand. The first shipment will be sent in with a United Nations convoy. The organization hopes to send hundreds more.
“These people need information because they have none. They are relying on family members to tell them what’s happening because they don’t have access to radio or television,” she said.
Pitner said she was staying safe in the West Bank while coordinating the effort.
“Out here people are working toward democracy, and as in any democracy, information is important, and having citizens to have information to make decisions is very important,” she said.
More information about the humanitarian efforts is available at www.internews.org.