Hope crumbles in Rafah as
homes are ground to dust
Chris McGreal in Rafah, Gaza
Wednesday March 10, 2004
Just a few months ago Zakia Abu Alouf's flat, built with her life's savings from teaching in Saudi Arabia, stood in the middle of her street. The end of the row was marked by the towering metal wall the Israeli army built where the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza runs up against the Egyptian border. Between the Israeli gunposts and Mrs Abu Alouf's finely decorated home stood about a dozen houses and low-rise apartment blocks with tobacco stores and workshops.
But that was until the Israeli army turned its attention to the area of Rafah known as Block J.
"There was a three-storey building right there," said Mrs Abu Alouf, pointing at a mound of pulverised brick and cement a few metres from her home. "There's nothing left but that little pile. Next to it, that other pile - that was a two-storey building. That twisted metal over there was a Coca-Cola store. The bulldozers pushed it all the way up the road. There were shops and a carpentry workshop. It's all gone bit by bit."
The first homes were crushed by the monster armoured bulldozers in a wave of destruction in October when the military wrecked about 200 homes in Rafah in what was ostensibly an "anti-terrorist" operation in search of tunnels used for smuggling weapons across the border.
Nearly 2,000 people were driven from their homes, according to the UN. Many were forced into tents just as their parents and grandparents had been when they first fled to Rafah during the brutal upheaval of Israel's birth 56 years ago.
There was a murmur of criticism from the west at the scale of the destruction, but it evaporated amid Israeli insistence that it was part of the "war on terrorism" and because Rafah, isolated on the southern tip of the Gaza strip, was far beyond the world's gaze.
Nothing has been heard since, even though the bulldozers have ground on and the Israeli army continues to kill Palestinians at a higher rate in Rafah than anywhere else in the occupied territories.
Over the past four months, as many homes have been wrecked as during the October raid. A further 210 have been bulldozed, forcing another 2,000 people from their homes on the edge of the ever-widening Philadelphi Road, a five-mile strip along the border under Israeli military control. The scale of the devastation is now far beyond that which the town of Jenin saw two years ago.
With the destruction have come dozens of deaths. Three weeks ago, in Rafah, an Israeli soldier shot dead a 10-year-old boy and wounded three of his friends for being "suspicious figures". Rarely a night passes without persistent Israeli gunfire into Rafah that often appears to be random and frequently pumps bullets into ordinary homes.
Mrs Abu Alouf has still got her flat but most of her side of the street has vanished, with the exception of a couple of battered, abandoned buildings and a six-storey block of flats pancaked by an Israeli demolition squad. The bulldozers returned to grind to dust many of the wrecked homes. Now, Mrs Abu Alouf's flat is the frontline, facing the Israeli watchtowers 200 metres away.
"That's what makes me afraid. Mine is the last home in the street now and it's everything we have. I have begged them not to destroy it. They know there are no tunnels here, but I don't think it is about that at all. Do they really believe that every house in my street had a tunnel under the border?" she said.
Mrs Abu Alouf's four children no longer sleep in their bedrooms because Israeli bullets periodically crash through the windows. The entire family is confined to a single inner room at night and has built an inner wall right next to the toilet after one child was nearly shot while sitting on it. Her 12-year-old daughter has taken to sucking her thumb again.
For Palestinians, the continuing destruction flies in the face of Ariel Sharon's pledge to pull all the Jews out of Gaza. The Israelis say that a proposed withdrawal at some ill-defined date is no reason for them to let up their efforts to "combat terrorism". The Palestinians suspect that the Israeli prime minister's promise has only made more urgent the army's desire to assert its grip over a wide swath of the border with Egypt. "It's not a matter of tunnels or terrorists," said Yusuf Ashair, another man made homeless in Block J. "They want us out of here, they want us to flee. They don't care if it's a school or a house they destroy. They know that if they destroy it all people will leave."
The destruction is not just in Block J. In December, the army bulldozed 33 homes in the al-Brazil area of Rafah. In the Yibna district 96 homes were destroyed.
Mazeb Agha, 14, lives in the wreckage of his house with his family because they have got nowhere to go. "I know that staying here could cost me my life," he said. "Most of the neighbours left when their houses were destroyed. But we have no money for rent to move somewhere else. This is our only home. So we stay on the other side of the house and we never go upstairs. It's too dangerous."
Mrs Abu Alouf teaches at a neighbourhood school where the "School Vision" statement at the main entrance includes the right to a "secure environment". Much of the front wall and gate were ripped out by a tank last month but the school got off relatively lightly compared with a nearby school that had its classrooms wrecked.
The headteacher, Subhiya Silawi, said: "We were lucky because none of our pupils was hurt in their homes this time. We had a 10 year-old student, Hani Radaiya, killed by an Israeli bullet in front of his house in November and another child shot in the foot a few weeks ago. This is the hardest thing to accept."
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