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Report from Rafah: Death of a town
( 2003-10-27 16:38) (Guardian)

The moment al-Brazil plunged into darkness, Amjad Alweda knew what was coming. He grabbed his wife and three young children and bundled them down a pitch-black stairwell to a room at the back of their small block of flats. And then he stopped and listened.

The sound of the tanks echoes along the streets around here so it seems they are coming from every direction at once and you never know which way to run," says the 32-year-old Palestinian man.

Minutes later an engine roared and tons of steel - he didn't wait to discover whether it was a tank or a bulldozer - came crashing into the front of Alweda's computer shop. He squeezed his children through a back window and told them to run as the clanking monster tore at his livelihood.

"The soldiers were calling over the megaphones for everybody to leave their houses but there was no chance for people to get out before they started shooting from the tanks. It was completely dark and there were bullets flying around," he says. "Usually, we try and stay in the house when the fighting starts but we knew the army had been everywhere else so it must be our turn."

A family member shouts, as relatives mourn around the body of Fatah militant Rami Elayan, 20, in his family house during his funeral in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Sunday, Oct. 26, 2003. Elayan was killed during a clash with Israeli soldiers while trying to infiltrate the Kfar Darom Jewish settlement in the central Gaza Strip Sunday, sources said. [AP]
For two weeks now, the Israeli army has been grinding its way through Rafah refugee camp in the southern tip of the Gaza strip. "Operation Root Canal" is ostensibly aimed at destroying some of the dozens of tunnels the military says are used for smuggling weapons under the border with Egypt.

As about 65 tanks, armoured vehicles and mammoth armour-plated bulldozers rolled into Rafah, the Israeli army said it had intelligence that surface-to-air missiles were being hauled through the tunnels. But there was no sign of them as dozens of Palestinians attempted to exact some kind of price for the attack with pistols, AK-47s and homemade hand grenades. By the time the Israelis withdrew to the fringes of the camp where the tanks and bulldozers are perpetually at work, 18 Palestinians were dead, including three children under 15 years old, and more than 120 were wounded.

Just three tunnels were found, and no weapons. But in the process, the military crushed or rocketed nearly 200 homes, throwing about 1,700 people onto the street. The army claimed it never happened, that just 10 homes were wrecked, and then sent back the bulldozers to grind the evidence that the houses ever existed into the dirt.

The raid was one of the largest of the past three years of intifada, rivalling the notorious levelling of the heart of Jenin refugee camp last year in the scale of destruction, if not loss of life. Yet there was barely a peep of protest from Britain or other European countries over the attack, and President George Bush defended the Israeli assault as a necessary part of the war on terrorism.

There is no such thing as a quiet night in Rafah. The shooting usually begins around dusk, punching the darkness with rapid machinegun fire and tracer bullets for minutes at a time. Most of the Palestinian fire is aimed at the concrete pillboxes and lookout posts planted every 50 metres between the edge of Rafah and the Egyptian border where Israel retains control of a narrow strip of land along the frontier known as the Philadelphi road.

The border is a tangle of wire, broken buildings and mud, bearing a resemblance to a first world war battlefield. Not far beyond are the Egyptian lookout towers, a tantalising reminder to Rafah's 145,000 residents that there is world outside the occupation.

Palestinian bullets rarely reach their intended target. Israeli fire is more effective. The results can be seen peppered over the front of the houses that face the border, and in the death statistics.

Palestinians in Rafah have killed three soldiers and one Jewish settler during the intifada. The Israelis have killed about 280 people in Rafah over the past three years, accounting for about one in nine Palestinian deaths during the uprising and making the refugee camp and neighbouring small town one of the most dangerous places in the occupied territories. One in five of the dead are children or teenagers.

The Israeli military has designated Rafah a war zone. In doing so, the military exempts itself from many of its own restraints and provides a ready justification for the "collateral damage" of civilian deaths.

The government's view is summed up by a declaration signed by several cabinet ministers at an international summit in Jerusalem earlier this month that states "the war on radical Islam is a righteous cause. The state of Israel is, symbolically and operationally, on the frontline of the battle to defend civilisation."

The latest battle was fought in al-Brazil, a civilian neighbourhood of Rafah refugee camp. The tanks moved in after dark, and the bulldozers tore down power lines. Among those fleeing as the tanks blasted away at Palestinian fighters was Naja Abu Neima, a 55-year-old grandmother. When she returned three days later, there was nothing left of her home. Today she is camped on an island of broken bricks and concrete under a makeshift shelter with a carpet on top and twisted metal sheeting against two sides.

"This tent represents all that is left of my house. All of our furniture, clothes, fridge, everything is destroyed," she says. "They killed my son a few months ago, and now they have destroyed my house. The Israelis claim we are terrorists. What do you see with your own eyes?"

Palestinian boys watch militants from Hamas dressed as suicide bombers pray during the funeral of Tariq Abu Hussein at the Al Awdah Mosque in the the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, Saturday Oct. 18, 2003. Hussein was killed during clashes with Israeli troops during an incursion in the Salam neighborhood Saturday. [AP]
Most of the casualties ended up at Rafah's only hospital. The director, Dr Ali Mousa, is resigned to the parade of corpses but he was unprepared for those of a couple of young children. "Their bodies arrived here without any heads. Can you imagine how two children - 12 and 15 years old - come to be without heads? They were hit by a tank shell. What could they have done to tanks?" he says.

"This is the worst attack of the past three years because they closed Rafah from all sides. The attacks on the refugee camps on the border are taking more and more time. It used to be they came in for a few hours at a time, but now it's for days."

Dr Mousa faced a daily battle to get the wounded out of the battle zone and to move the serious casualties on to better facilities elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. One of his medics was shot in the chest as he helped move a man with a gunshot wound to his head.

"Many people tell us about pregnant women trying to get to hospital by moving from house to house, trying not to get shot," says Dr Mousa.

After smashing in the front of Alweda's store, the army decided that his home, two floors above the shop, would make a good sniper's nest. The flat has a view across the open ground in front of the buildings and up each of the approaching side streets. The snipers broke up the floor tiles in the hallway and packed the fragments into sandbags. The military also destroyed much of the furniture and Alweda's small computer store where dozens of machines lay among the rubble. "I work as a teacher in a refugee school. We are not highly paid. I earn $630 (370) a month. It cost me $5,000 to set up my shop," he says.

The soldiers stayed in al-Brazil three days and demolished a couple of dozen homes without finding any tunnels. Their final victim of the raid was 15-year-old Shadi Abu Elwan who went to help a friend recover furniture from under the rubble.

"There was gunfire and Shadi's friends found him lying on the floor bleeding from his head," says the dead boy's distraught father, Nabil Abu Elwan. "His head was completely broken by a bullet. He lived for a few minutes more, but then he died.

"When his friends looked they saw a tank parked close by, on the same side where the Palestinian homes were destroyed. My son was no threat to the tank, he was just helping his friends. I believe the Israeli soldiers in the tank like to kill people because they don't think of the Palestinians as people, they think of us as animals. Even the women and children are animals to them. It's sport, hunting. What can one boy to do them in their tanks? What threat was he?"

The army's claim that tunnels exist is not in doubt. Some of those uncovered are quite sophisticated, with wooden panelling, lighting and even phone lines linking the two ends. The tunnelling began back in the early 1980s under the domination of two Bedouin families who made a small fortune charging fixed fees to smuggle people, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol into Rafah. Even today, a packet of cigarettes is noticeably cheaper in Rafah than in Gaza city.

But the military says their main use of the tunnels today is to shift weapons. "This operation is the inevitable cost that the people of Rafah are paying for the tunnel industry. The trouble is that when no one else is practising law and order, we have to do it ourselves," says an army spokeswoman, Major Sharon Feingold.

The newly homeless in Rafah question what the destruction of their houses has to do with unearthing the tunnels. "Any house used to shoot at the (Israeli) force immediately lost its immunity and was destroyed," says Feingold. "This was partly the reason for so many houses being destroyed. There was a lot of resistance at the beginning of the operation."

When Israeli troops go in to Rafah, they rarely have an easy time of it. "Our main duty is to block any attack using all kinds of local made weapons we have," says one of the fighters in the camp, who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Abed. "There is no balance between the force we have and the occupation army. We know our simple weapons can't affect their forces, but we want them to know there is a price to pay when they come."

Abu Abed waves a pistol and one of his comrades fiddles with the pin on a hand grenade until he is asked to stop. "I think this resistance is one of the reasons the Israelis don't try and reoccupy all of Gaza like they have done with Jenin and Nablus and those other places," he says.

But "the resistance" is not always welcome. Few want to talk about it, although Alweda was unusually frank: "Sometimes we kick the resisters out of our areas. We don't want to get stuck in the crossfire," he says. Abu Abed admits as much. "We face lots of trouble with the Palestinian civilian population and it happened several times that we clashed with them because they don't want us. When we face a problem, we call our leaders and they usually order us to withdraw," he says.

For the governor of Rafah, Majid Ghal, the claims about tunnels and resistance are all nonsense. He says the demolitions are yet another grab for Palestinian land. "What they are doing is to carve out a buffer zone between Rafah and the border. The Israelis have always said they do not want Palestine to control its borders or to have borders with other countries. They are trying to drive people out," he says.

The army denies any such motive. But a clue to Israeli intent can be found in comments made on Israel radio a year ago by the then head of the military's southern command, which has responsibility for Gaza. Colonel Yom Tov Samya said house demolition was a policy and an end in itself, not a by-product of a search for tunnels. "The IDF (Israeli Defence Force) has to knock down all the houses along a strip of 300 to 400 metres. It doesn't matter what the future settlement will be, this will be the border with Egypt," he said. "Arafat has to be punished, and after every terrorist attack another two or three rows or houses on the Palestinian side of the border have to be knocked down ... This is a long-term policy. We simply have to take a very extreme step. It is do-able and I am happy it is being done, but it's being carried out in doses that are too small, I regret to say. It has to be done in one big operation."

Last Tuesday, nine young Rafah men in ill-fitting, rented shiny black suits had other ideas. All were to be married later that day, and all came from families whose homes were bulldozed a few days earlier. But first there was a bus tour under a banner with mangled English spelling but a clear enough sentiment: "Wedding among destuton despit the pans".

The nine grooms placed flowers stuck in makeshift vases fashioned from discarded Israeli shell casings on the remnants of their homes. "It's to send a message to our enemies that we will go back to our homes," says Younees Abu Jazaar, a fresh faced 20 year old who married a cousin. "We feel the pain but life can't stop. We are kind of happy to be getting married but kind of sad because we no longer have homes. But why should we allow them to wreck everything for us?"

Next stop was Gaza International Airport, a monument to Yasser Arafat's vanity, but also a source of some pride to the residents of neighbouring Rafah. The Israelis put the airport out of business at the beginning of the intifada by bulldozing craters into the runway, but the staff still turn up for work.

The bridegrooms posed beneath posters of "martyrs" - suicide bombers, fighters and innocent Palestinian civilians killed - before moving on to the arrivals hall for photographs next to the luggage carousel.

"We are very proud of our airport," says Abu Jazaar. "Look at how beautiful it is. This is our hope, that all life can be as beautiful as this airport. Except the runway. Right now our life is like the runway."

A few hours later, the nine were married in Rafah stadium where most of their parents are once again living in tents half a century after their families were driven to Gaza by Israeli independence.

Through the holes : Palestinian children look through a hole in the wall of their house in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip. [AFP]

(by Chris McGreal)

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