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June 4, 2004

Rafah under the rainbow

From: Radio Netherlands, Netherlands - Jun 4, 2004

by Eric Beauchemin, 4 June 2004

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Friday morning sacked two hardline cabinet members who oppose his plan to pull out of the Gaza Strip, giving him a slim majority to pass the proposal.

Before withdrawing from Gaza, the Israeli army has conducted a massive operation aimed at destroying tunnels being used by Palestinians to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip and creating a buffer zone.

The toll of the operation, codenamed Rainbow, has been high: since early May, the Israeli military has demolished 450 buildings in the southern town of Rafah, leaving over 5500 people homeless. On Thursday, Israel destroyed another 18 houses in Rafah, where the offensive left more than 40 Palestinians dead late last month.

In this wasteland on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip, people are rebuilding, hoping against hope that their home will not be the next one to be demolished. They should know better: the Israeli military has levelled most of the buildings around them. Israel is gradually creating a buffer zone of about half a kilometre between Gaza and Egypt, says Rene Aquerone, the director of UNWRA, the United Nations agency responsible for dealing with Palestinian refugees.

"This has been a progressive operation since the beginning of the intifadah. One row of houses, two rows of houses, etc. The houses that used to be five or streets away from the border are now the ones closest to it because all the ones in front of them have been destroyed in the last four years. It doesn't explain of course why the houses inside the city have also been destroyed."

The bulldozers came at night
Many of the children in a nearby school are among those who lost their homes.

14-year-old Souman Angili and her family were woken up in the middle of the night last Friday by the sound of tanks from the Israeli Defence Forces, the IDF. She tells us that the IDF ordered people out of the house and started bulldozing it.

"My young brothers – 5, 6 years old – screaming, shouting and so on, but the IDF in the tanks could not hear. Father had run away and they had followed him to the main street. Then they suddenly find the other tanks in front of them."

The family managed to escape to another house. They stayed for more than 2 hours there, waiting to see what might happen. Afterwards they went back to the house. But all they saw were rubbles. They did not find the house. Nothing had been left.

Temporary shelter
UNWRA has cleared four of its schools to provide temporary shelter to people who have lost their homes. 500 to 600 people are living in this school, including Omar Ibrahim Abushar and his family of 10. Their house was demolished last Thursday.

"We hope God can change this to a better situation where we can find shelter to live in. We don't know how long this will take," sighs Mr Abushar.

UNRWA director Rene Aquarone acknowledges that conditions in the school are very basic:

"Of course it's certainly not luxurious, but at least they have a sheltered place where they can sleep. Warm meals are prepared. There is water. And it's as good as it gets, I'm afraid, as far as temporary shelter is concerned. These people obviously can't stay here for a very long time. That's clear. I mean, a school is not meant for this type of thing. We hope to be able to find alternative housing for them, either with their own families or in rented accommodation. We will be supporting them financially. And we are currently in this phase where we are trying to take stock of all the requirements in order to respond to their needs.

School for the deaf
It's not only homes that have been demolished. The only school for the deaf in Rafah – a city of over 150,000 people - has also been partially destroyed. It lies on the edge of the buffer zone the Israelis are creating. School officials expect it will soon be razed. Charles Clayton, the new country director of the Christian charity, World Vision, which helped finance the school, vents his frustration.

"Having just come for the first time to Rafah, I'm really appalled to see what has happened to this classroom and this school of children, 130 children. Fortunately they weren't here when it was struck, but we need to get them into a place of safety. And I'm very shocked to find this happened to children, especially deaf children. They have enough to struggle with. They have enough to cope with, but now they have to cope with destruction of their school and their environment."

Paying a high price
Many people in the area have been without water or electricity for days. Bulldozers are now moving back and forth, trying to find the pipes and cables that have been destroyed. Up to a kilometre away from the buffer zone, buildings here and there have also been reduced to rubble. Rene Aquarone is one of many who question the rationale behind all the destruction:

"Sometimes we're told a militant was living in one of the houses and then all the houses around it are destroyed. Sometimes we're told it's just security. Sometimes we're told it's got to do with tunnels. Also you wonder what the relationship is between the price and the prize. The price you pay as a military operation and the destruction you wreak and the prize you are getting from it. What is the result of all of this?"

© 2004 Radio Netherlands