The disastrous cycle of violence gripping Israel and Palestine receives plentiful news coverage. Largely unreported however, are the more insidious aspects of the conflict. Israel has committed a litany of atrocities during its occupation of Palestine, but the crimes visited daily upon the innocent civilians of Rafah are among the most heinous. Even in the wider context of the occupation as a whole, Rafah’s situation is particularly tragic, and the conditions imposed on its citizens increasingly desperate. There can be no doubt that Israeli policy in Rafah amounts to a process of ethnic cleansing, and, as has been so often the case throughout history, a humanitarian catastrophe is being allowed to continue unimpeded. The world sits idly by.
The most populous district of one of the most overcrowded regions on earth, the people of Rafah continue to find the land beneath them dwindling as repeated Israeli incursions systematically rob them of their homes, livelihood and dignity.
Formally one complete city, Rafah was divided in two following the Camp David settlement in 1978, with one half now part of Egypt. Since then, Israeli settlements have been established along the coast, cutting further into the already divided city. Today, the Palestinian half of Rafah is a disparate collection of squalid camps, hemmed in by a ring of steel, its infrastructure effectively destroyed and its people destitute. Unemployment in the area stands at over 80 per cent. Israel has conspicuously targeted the city’s infrastructure leaving sanitation in the camps in a deplorable condition.
On the fringes of the city, one row of houses after another has been erased, Israeli destruction moving at a pace that the crippled local infrastructure cannot hope to counter. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has helped rebuild 200 houses in Rafah, and the Palestinian Ministry of Housing has managed 34. But these figures pale in comparison to the 1,643 buildings demolished and 16,000 Palestinians left homeless by the Israelis.
Last week, Israeli occupying troops went on yet another destructive rampage on the edge of the city, demolishing 31 Palestinian houses and wounding 38 local workers in the process. This one raid alone has left over 400 people homeless. A neighbourhood mosque was also razed in the invasion, another clear symbol of the casual disregard in which the Palestinians are held.
As well as the demolition of property, the Israeli military grip on Rafah has also been steadily tightened to disastrous effect. Due to its position on the border with Egypt, Rafah is of vital strategic importance to the Gaza Strip’s impoverished economy. As such it has, in the egregious logic of the Israeli government, been a natural target for Israel’s flagrant intention to crush any semblance of economic self-government in the occupied territories. Local workers seeking access to their jobs in Egypt are repeatedly denied passage at the border, or refused re-entry to the city in the evenings. Likewise, access to other towns and cities in Gaza is frequently restricted, disrupting the local economy as much as possible.
With the available farmland rapidly disappearing, local produce is more and more scarce, with Palestinians increasingly forced to rely on Israeli imports. Meanwhile, the poverty rate in Rafah, established by the World Bank to include those living on less than $2 a day, stands at 75 per cent.
As usual, the Israeli army’s specious justification to the international community for the systematic degradation of Rafah has been the ongoing search for tunnels used by militants and smugglers extending from the city across the Egyptian border. The fact that Israel possesses ample equipment to discover and unearth these tunnels without resorting to widespread destruction and violence is conveniently ignored.
As the citizens of Rafah are crammed into a smaller and smaller portion of land, stripped of their homes, and enslaved in grinding poverty, the fallacy of Israel’s stated objectives is clear. The incursions into Rafah, as elsewhere in the occupied territories, are merely an ongoing land-grab masquerading as a justifiable security operation. New ground for settlement expansion is being prepared and Israeli control of the border is tightened. At some points in Rafah, the incursions have cut up to 150 metres into Palestinian-owned territory, widening the buffer zone along the border at no cost to Israel, but to disastrous effect for the destitute local population.
The deaths in Rafah last year of international peace activists Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, as well as the BBC cameraman James Miller, have caused ripples of concern across the international community and raised the media profile of the situation in Rafah and the occupied territories as a whole. Nonetheless, it remains a sad indictment of attitudes abroad that Sharon’s government has only been called to account when a foreign worker suffers the same tragic fate as the thousands of innocent Palestinians killed in the last three years. Tom Hurndall’s family has had the grace and dignity to acknowledge this, even at a time of unbearable grief.
The Israeli actions in Rafah are a crime; a reign of terror on innocent civilians. The world has looked on too many times when such crimes have occurred in the past, reacting only when it was too late. Now it runs the risk of not reacting at all as the Sharon administration, already steeped in blood, plunges the civilians of Rafah into further carnage. Alert to the growing “demographic threat” posed by an increasing Palestinian population, the ethnic cleansing has already begun. Unsatisfied with reducing the city to terrified penury, Rafah it appears is to be steadily eliminated. The world must respond.
The writer is secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative.