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A Night in Rafah

Kristen Ess
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004
    Israel’s process of ethnic cleansing in Rafah in the occupied Gaza Strip is going along without much of a hitch, despite UN condemnation, illegality under international law, and rampant violations of human rights standards. Kristen Ess reports.

Bilal Mosque cries out the call to prayer, despite its blackened top floor gutted by Apache helicopter fire during one of Israel’s daily attacks on the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah. The 53-year old father of Ahmed and Mohammed Al Sha’er lives just down Al Quds Street from the mosque in Tel Al Sultan neighborhood. The asphalt is torn up. The house behind his is completely destroyed. The Sha’er father, Jasser, says most the houses in Tel Al Sultan are now uninhabitable. “The Israeli soldiers know what they’re doing, destroying the houses, the infrastructure, electricity and telephone. They do it on purpose. The Israeli leadership told them, ‘you are in a central neighborhood, many people, a crowded place.’” His 26-year old neighbor, Ali Al Mughair, says many of the houses are flooded with sewage since Israeli occupation forces targeted the water supply and sewage facilities. “It’s coming in the people’s houses.” Al Mughair says the newly homeless are sleeping in the UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) elementary school. “Girls and boys are sleeping in the same place because there’s no solution; men, women, and little kids all together. Lots of people sleep in the playground and some rent the commercial stores. Lots sleep in the central mosque.” Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes rendered 5,000 people in Rafah homeless in the last two weeks of May alone, according to PCHR (Palestinian Center for Human Rights) statistics. They also estimate Israeli occupation forces killed 57 Palestinians in the same two-week period in Rafah. On May 18, Sha’er’s sons were walking to the mosque for early prayers when Israeli Apache helicopters fired two missiles into the neighborhood. Their parents watched 20-year old Ahmed, and 18-year old Mohammad run to help save the injured, but lost sight when their boys had to dodge a third missile fired into the mosque. Sha’er speaks slowly, directly. “At 4:30 in the morning Abu Yousef Al Najjar Hospital called and asked, ‘where are you?’ I felt something strange in my heart. I suspected one of my sons is killed. And he told me, ‘One of your son’s was killed.’ He said, ‘His name is Mohammad.’ His mother heard a few of the words I spoke with this man, but I tried to protect her from what he said. His mother insisted, ‘Please tell me what happened.’ I told her, ‘our son Mohammad was killed by the Israeli soldiers.’” Israel’s process of ethnic cleansing in Rafah is going along without much of a hitch, despite UN condemnation, illegality under international law, and rampant violations of human rights standards. Sha’er catches his breath and continues plaintively. “After I heard this horrible news, after 20 minutes, there was another call from the hospital. They told me also my son Ahmed is dead. This time I couldn’t tell their mother. She asked about Ahmed. I told her maybe he went to his friend.” Official invasion Israel offered an official intention to attack Rafah for the week of May 17 through 24, giving it the pet name “Operation Rainbow.” This seemed to help sell it to the Americans who were footing the bill, and to divert attention from the fact that Israeli invasions in Rafah are a daily occurrence. In a short two-day period, 13-15 May, before the official invasion, Israeli occupation forces killed 14 people and rendered at least 880 homeless. From the eastern point of Rafah where Israeli F-16s destroyed the Palestinian airport years ago, heading west and at least 200 meters north into the town and refugee camp from the border with Egypt, Israeli occupation forces have spent more than two years destroying homes and land. Hi Salaam and Al Brazil are barely inhabitable. UNRWA Commissioner-General Peter Hansen said Al Brazil neighborhood looked as if it had been hit by “an earthquake.” During his visit, Israeli soldiers shot two bullets into the neck of 4-year old Rawan Abu Ziad, and one into her head, while she walked to a nearby shop to buy chips. West of Al Brazil are Kuschta and Al Sahar neighborhoods near Salah Adiin Gate, the Gate area itself, Block O, Yibna Camp, Block J, including Al Sha’out neighborhood, Block K, Tel Al Sultan, and the permanently closed Mawasi area whose residents cannot pass Israeli soldiers to come or go. Piles of cement rubble, strewn with clothes, bed frames, personal belongings line the edges of neighborhoods that have become the latest borders. With each row of houses they destroy, the Israelis empty the demolished areas of all signs of life. The extensive destruction of civilian property, carried out wantonly and unlawfully, constitutes a grave breach of Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and is a war crime as defined in Article 85.5 of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, to which Israel is a High Contracting Party. Israeli bulldozers turn the piles of demolished homes under the dirt to reemphasize the popular myth of ‘a land without a people for a people without a land.’ It really looks as if no one ever lived there and as if nothing grew on the 1,000s of dunams of bulldozed farm land, lined only by the 8 meter high, 10 meter deep Israeli steel wall dotted with sniper towers. Clearly “Operation Rainbow” was not the beginning, and it is not the end. Israel demolished nearly 15,000 Palestinian homes in Rafah since the beginning of the second Intifada on 28 September 2000, according to conservative UNWRA accounts. And Israeli Prime Minister, General Ariel Sharon, says he plans to demolish 2,000 more to build a moat between Rafah, Egypt and Rafah, Gaza in the coming months, as reported by the Israeli press and the United Nations. The UN’s Special Rapporteurs of the Commission on Human Rights (SRCHR) issued a statement of condemnation on 28 May 2004, calling on “the Government of Israel and the Israeli occupying forces to refrain from the further confiscation of Palestinian land and resources…,” to no avail. Photographer Mohammad Omar, whose family home in Rafah’s Block O was demolished last year while the Israelis built a section of the wall through his neighborhood, says breathlessly, “There’s a massacre coming for this trench. They will demolish hundreds more homes. People are really scared now.” Different reality The 17 block Rafah Refugee Camp was established in 1949 on Palestinian lands to house 41,000 Palestinians kicked out of their homes by the creation of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948. In keeping with the sentiment of Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz’s statement, published by the right wing Israeli Jerusalem Post (5/17/04), in order “to create a different reality,” Israel built the settlement bloc Gush Katif. The idea of creating new facts of the ground is part of Israel’s ‘land without a people for a people without a land’ myth-making process. The settlement and military installation blocks Palestinian access to the Mediterranean in the West, while the Morag Settlement closes in Rafah from the north. Regardless of their rampant existence, all Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, as stated in Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” An interview with an Israeli military official ran on the television news in May. It showed a Rafah refugee banging on a tin roof with a small hammer. The Israeli military official was saying that people in Rafah destroyed their houses themselves for the money. UNWRA reports, “Some are currently housed in makeshift shelters in municipal sports facilities in the town or in tents provided by UNRWA or the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross]. Most of those affected by Israel’s policy of house demolitions have received only small emergency grants or aid…This aid usually consists of some basic household items, food stuffs or small cash sums.” Families from Block O rendered homeless in October 2002 waited in white tents lining the street for a UNRWA representative who was rumored to be coming to bring each family 50 dollars. An elderly woman, whose house was flooded with sewage and then demolished, left her tent for an hour and missed her chance. If Israel ever does withdraw the illegal settlements and occupation soldiers, what will be left? A nearly empty swath of land surrounded by the same Israeli-controlled borders, with the addition of a moat in the south, which will reinforce the notion that Palestinians cannot govern themselves, cannot develop a sustainable economy. For ‘rebuilding’ efforts after the proposed withdrawal, Israel has insisted on the World Bank over all other agencies because, as a Bank employee said on condition of anonymity, “The World Bank is US-led with offices in Washington.” Due to destruction of property, shops, agricultural land, olive groves and closures, unemployment in Rafah is around 80 percent now. But the Sha’er father says, “The most important thing we ask all the people is not about things for our daily lives, but about our freedom because freedom is the most important thing.” Of Rafah’s roughly 145,000 residents, more than 90,000 are registered refugees. Many are originally from what is now the Tel Aviv area. Many are refugees three times over. Sha’er says that when Bilal Mosque calls out for prayer, the neighbors who remain in Tel Al Sultan still go, in spite of the Israeli Apache missiles that started the mosque on fire and killed his sons. “Our home is stolen and also our freedom stolen. We are already refugees from Karatia Village when Israel stole our home in 1948. Now they’re stealing this one too. The fire is up, but the people are still going to pray. We are seeking freedom.” When the Israeli military announced it would only allow three people per family to attend funerals for the dozens of bodies overflowing the morgue into vegetable refrigerators, the families resisted by refusing. “We told them no for seven days,” Sha’er says, “before the Israeli soldiers permitted everyone to attend the funerals.” Ahmed’s funeral But Israeli soldiers never did allow Sha’er’s neighbor, Ali Al Mughair, to attend his little brother and sister’s funeral. Israeli occupation forces imposed one of the weapons frequently used against the Palestinian people. They declared curfew. This means no person is allowed in the streets 24 hours a day until the Israelis decide to lift it. “They imposed curfew on us in Tel Al Sultan. Only our relatives in Yibna Camp could go to Asma and Ahmed’s funeral.” The Mughair’s father, Mohammed, says, “We didn’t know there were snipers on Abu Jalala’s house. Asma and Ahmed went upstairs to the roof. Asma went to bring the laundry in from the clothesline, and Ahmed went to feed the pigeons.” Asma Al Mughair was 16 and her little brother Ahmed, 14. On the neighbor’s roof, 150 meters away, journalists later found and photographed an empty box. It read in Hebrew, “20 rounds 7.62 mm ammunition for use of snipers.” Their father keeps repeating that he did not know snipers were on Abu Jalala’s roof. “While Asma got the clothes and Ahmed fed the pigeons, the Israeli snipers shot Asma in the head. When Ahmed saw his sister fall down he shouted and tried to escape. When he started downstairs they shot him and people saw his brain go out from his head.” Fifteen family members live in the three-story Al Mughair family home in Tel Al Sultan near Bilal Mosque. Palestinian medical sources report Israeli soldiers shot the children with a single bullet to each head on May 18, the same day Sha’er’s sons were killed. Mughair defers to his eldest son, Ali, after saying, “When we heard the sound of bullets we tried to go upstairs, but the Israelis started shooting without looking if there were people or anything.” Ali Al Mughair was able to reach his siblings and bring them inside. Asma died instantly and Ahmed a few moments later. “When I held my brother his spirit went out through my chest.” In direct contravention to the Fourth Geneva Convention and existing international humanitarian law, Israeli tanks would not allow Palestinian ambulances to reach the house. While the kids were lying dead on the floor, their father spoke with Gaza City radio. He said, “They are right here, between us.” He called on anyone to help. The family spoke with Red Crescent, a local Red Cross affiliate, and several human rights organizations. No one was allowed to pass for 4 1/2 hours. For two days after that, the family negotiated with the Israelis to be allowed to attend their children’s funeral. The Israelis refused. Also on the same day, Israeli soldiers killed one of their cousin’s in Rafah’s Canada neighborhood. Activist photographer Mohammad Omar is another cousin. He says plainly, “I lost five relatives that week.” Omar, also a hopeful college student, is exhausted. “The Apaches are always over my head and the tanks are shelling. How could I ever sleep? But anyway I have to go everywhere and take pictures. I have to show the people what’s happening here to my community.” He publishes a website when the Israelis have not cut the electricity, called Rafah Today ( He marks many of his photos with, “warning, graphic pictures.” After the attack on Bilal Mosque he photographed several of the injured and dead in Abu Yousef Al Najjar Hospital. “Others,” he says, “arrived in the hospital in pieces.” That same night, 14-year old Mohammad Mawafi lit a fire near his family’s rented house next to the hospital. The Israeli military destroyed his father’s, uncle’s, and grandfather’s houses. He no longer wanted to be indoors, and said he had to help the people. He built the fire and made tea for journalists and medics, and for neighbors who were transporting the injured and dead to the hospital. Transport the dead Omar says, “I have a picture of the man in the donkey cart who came by at 4 or 5 in the morning and gave Mohammad eggplant to cook. I photographed the man at this time and it was very beautiful.” While Mawafi made tea to keep everyone going his 17-year old brother, Hani Kufa, was one of those helping to transport the dead from the streets to the hospital and neighboring shops’ vegetable refrigerators after the morgue filled up. Omar was nearby with his camera. He speaks urgently, “His brother Hani was transporting people quickly and there wasn’t much light. But then he got into the light of the refrigerator and began screaming, screaming, screaming. It was his brother. My camera stopped photographing when they killed Mohammad. I got dizzy. Everyone in the hospital just then, doctors, nurses, everyone, cried for him because it’s just all too sad.” Thousands of Rafah residents walked west on Sea Street toward Tel Al Sultan neighborhood at 2 o’clock the next day in protest of the Israeli attacks. An Israeli Apache helicopter fired a missile into the demonstration, while Israeli soldiers opened fire from a nearby sniper post and fired tank shells at the crowd. Ten Palestinians died in that attack, four of whom were children. Omar describes a woman holding her son’s hand, crying, “My son isn’t dead.” All she had was his hand. He was blown into parts. A little boy was hit and cried, “I don’t want to die. I want my mother.” In his condemnation of the Israeli attack, the UN acting High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “There is no such thing as a license to kill.” The Israelis offered their usual sort of excuse that some of the demonstrators had guns as if that would make it okay, despite the fact that under international law an occupied or invaded population has the right to defend itself. But even the UN and Amnesty International report that no one was armed. The people of Rafah are living for freedom, as the Sha’er father says. Ali Al Mughair says his little sister Asma, “memorized half of the Koran. She was excellent in school and wanted to be a doctor to treat the injured children.” He said his little brother Ahmed, “liked to feed the pigeons. He loved riding a bicycle. He would like to be like the pigeons, or like a dove, to fly without any restrictions.” ABOUT THE AUTHOR For more of Kristen Ess' diary entries, visit the Electronic Intifada's collection of eyewitness accounts from Palestine.