Homeless in Rafah
23 December 2002
Afternoon and night with the ambulance teams of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Rafah, the border town of the Gaza Strip with Egypt. Two Israeli helicopters fly over the town throughout the evening. Everyone wonders what they are going to do. Today they just drop three sound bombs and fire three rockets into buildings at the airport. You probably do not know that Israeli planes, tanks and bulldozers destroyed Gaza International Airport a year ago but you have certainly known if Israelís Ben Gurion airport had been destroyed by Palestinians. When I was six I remember seeing British and German planes in combat over north London. There were two sides in the Battle of Britain; here the Apaches and F16s have the sky to themselves.
We hear that tanks have entered three areas of the town. The atmosphere at the ambulance station is tense. Four armoured bulldozers demolished three houses in Block J earlier today, under cover of fire from four tanks. Palestinian cameramen come to the station as one of them thinks his house may be blown up tonight. Block J is a kilometre away and there the Israeli army is clearing away houses within 100 metres of the seven-metre high iron wall, which they are constructing close to the international border.
I play ping-pong with one of the cameramen whom I will call Mahmoud (not his real name), but Iím not concentrating. Reminding me of Drake finishing off his game of bowls before setting sail to engage the Spanish armada, Mahmoud says: "Come on, letís have a good game as we might die tonight." No wonder he has a peptic ulcer.
At 22.25 there is a big explosion in Block J. Off go the ambulances and cameramen. Five houses have been blown up. The inhabitants were given a short warning to get out. We take two people to hospital, but fortunately their injuries are not serious. During the night the two ambulances fetch four women in labour from different parts of Rafah. One of the women, fully veiled, gives birth to twins within two minutes of arrival at hospital. The labour rooms are busy and the staff look tired. Normally these ambulances are called to one woman in labour every 24 hours. The head of the station says that they find that the tension and fear of attacks bring on labour.
At midnight we are back at the ambulance station. The other ambulance has gone out to someone who has been shot. Mahmoud tells me he is going to pray, to thank God that we have lived through another day.
There are two vehicles and many donkey carts near the demolished houses. Lots of people are collecting their possessions because the blast also damaged eighteen other houses, many of them severely, and a mosque. It is the saddest of sights. These people, many of them impoverished by policies which wreck their economy and take land, can do nothing against the inexorable destruction of their houses. I have seen it occurring here, in the neighbouring town of Khan Younis and in a nearby village, but these are just three of the many places throughout the Occupied Territories where it is happening day after day.
According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights based in Gaza, in Rafah and the surrounding district, Israeli forces have killed 202 people, 49 of them children, since September 2000 when the Palestinian uprising began. 1500 people have been injured, of whom 108 are disabled. 450 houses have been demolished, and a further 232 have been partially destroyed, making 3500 individuals from 550 families homeless.
The Israeli government would argue that all this is necessary for reasons of security, that the border with Egypt needs to be sealed off by a wall, and a broad swathe of cleared land inside it, so that the Palestinians cannot smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip. They would say that similar measures are needed to protect Israelis living in the settlements, though these are illegal, violating Israelís obligations, as an occupying power, under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Regular shooting of Palestinians of any age, and the destruction of their homes, induce profound antagonism to the Israeli government and military, particularly in young Palestinians. The seizure of large amounts of agricultural land for the building of the settlements and associated roads which only Israelis may use also causes great resentment. The settlers form 0.6% of the population, but the settlements, settler roads, and the additional cleared land amount to about 40% of the area of the Strip. Human rights abuses and other injustices suffered by the Palestinians render attacks on Israelis more, not less, likely.