Middle East & Africa
Hundreds of Homes Leveled, Thousands Dispossessed in Rafah Catastrophe
By Yasser AbuMoailek
Middle East Correspondent
Gaza City, May 17, 2004 — The large-scale Israeli military operation in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah resulted so far in the destruction of at least 117 homes and the dispossession of more than a thousand Palestinian, according to UNRWA. The Israeli operation came after five Israeli soldiers were killed in a roadside bomb near the Rafah refugee camp, close to the borders with Egypt. The Israeli forces then launched a wide razing of Palestinian homes in the area, giving the residents virtually no time to evacuate their furniture or personal belongings, eyewitnesses said. The Israeli government labeled this operation as a "security" one, but critics described it as retaliation for some of the worst Israeli military casualties of the Intifada. An Israeli member of parliament called the destruction a war crime. Hours after Ariel Sharon's security cabinet approved the demolition campaign, large armored bulldozers ripped through homes, apartment buildings and stores, as residents fled in front of the bulldozers, carrying nothing but blankets and little food.
|A Palestinian father evacuating his wounded child to the hospital in Rafah City, following an Israeli air strike that targeted an Islamic Jihad-run organization office. Courtesy AP|
Israeli military sources said the operation was meant to expand the Philadelphi Road, a narrow strip of barren land along the Egyptian border controlled by Israel. The Rafah refugee camp lies on the perimeter of this road. Over the past eight months, 600 homes have been razed by the Israeli forces in this camp, leaving thousands of Palestinians homeless. The destruction campaign came days after bloody gun battles erupted between invading Israeli troops and Palestinian militants, during which 11 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza City and Rafah, while 30 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed by the Israelis. Among the civilians, children aged 11, 12 and 14 were among the killed. A siege of the refugee camp came ahead of the demolition of homes, as Palestinian snipers killed two Israeli soldiers, while two more were killed inside the refugee camp. Many families were seen carrying makeshift white flags in fear of being shot by the Israeli tanks that occupied the camp's narrow roads. On the other hand, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) declared that during the first ten days of May, about 1,100 homes have been leveled in the city of Rafah, bringing the total houses demolished since the beginning of the Intifada to 2,100 homes that were inhabited by 14,882 peoples, including 7,769 children.
|Palestinian search through the rubble of demolished homes in the Rafah refugee camp. Courtesy AFP|
The Palestinian leadership denounced the demolition as a catastrophe and said it flew in the face of Sharon's stated desire to pull Israeli settlers and forces out of the Gaza Strip. A leading left-wing member of the Knesset, Yossi Sarid, described the mass demolition as a war crime. The people of Rafah were angered by the mass demolition of homes, as many rushed to help those who have become homeless, searching carefully among the rubble for possible killed or buried alive under the rubble of their homes. "They did not give us enough time even to evacuate our families," said Mos'ab Al Sha'er, 42, from Rafah refugee camp. "I'm still looking for my 80-year-old mother, and I fear that she might still be under the rubble," he continued in tears. Sami Al Gherbawi, 25, was still sitting in the local Abu Yousef Al Najjar hospital in Rafah, where his two friends have been killed by an Israeli combat helicopter missile. Seven Palestinians were killed in the same missile, as it hit a crowd of them gathered in a narrow road in Rafah.
|A Mother carrying her child and her daughter behind flee as Israeli combat helicopters fire missiles at homes and offices in Rafah City. Courtesy AP|
"I went home to get my stuff as friends told me that it was going to be demolished. On my way back to where I supposed to meet my friends, the electricity went off and then I heard an explosion and bullets flew everywhere. "After the situation calmed down a bit, I returned to the place where my friends were to find hands, heads and body parts scattered everywhere, with the nearby walls charred and stained with blood. Apaches fired a missile at them," Al Gherbawi said. "I'm still unable to believe my friends have died." Israeli "Apache" combat helicopters have fired several missiles at targets in the city of Rafah, including an officer run by Islamic Jihad senior leader, Mohammed Al Hendi, as well as several houses and shops.
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Yasser AbuMoailek, a journalist and feature writer working for the International Press Center in Gaza Strip. He contributes to many circulations inlcuding the Seoul Times, as well as monitoring the situation in the Middle East, especially the Palestinian territories.