Rafah Reports

Two to a box (May 20, 2004)

RAFAH – Suddenly there was a shout from outside: “Leave everything. The Jews have fired missiles at the demonstration. Lots of casualties. Send ambulances.” The man shouting ran into the small hut in the hospital’s yard from where the ambulance drivers leave.

It was around two in the afternoon. A few bleary-eyed ambulance drivers and male nurses dashed out of the hut to their ambulances. As they were leaving, other ambulances that had been in the town, their sirens blaring, tore into the yard where crowds had formed. Everyone was pushing everyone else away, trying to clear a path.

The first ambulance parked and six people ran to take out a little boy on a stretcher, his clothes covered in blood. Others ran to another ambulance forced to park outside because there was no room in the compound.

For some 20 minutes, ambulances with loud sirens were either reversing out the yard or trying to enter and off-load the wounded – many of them children, some unconscious, one conscious and crying, and all the youths helping to carry them also had blood- spattered clothes.

Back and forth the ambulances came, spewing out the wounded. Soon they were joined by private vehicles and taxis, from which the crowd pull out the casualties, some on stretchers, others on their shoulders.

The morgue is at the far end of the yard. Slowly it filled up. It can take only six bodies. Since dawn on Tuesday, 15 Palestinians have been killed in the Tel Sultan neighborhood. Some of the bodies were put two in a box. Then they were taken to a large refrigerator used for storing potatoes.

Tel Sultan is under curfew. The parents call the head of the hospital and make him swear he will wait for them before burying the dead. Who knows how long the curfew will last and when the army will let them out … Another four people were killed there yesterday, including a 13-year-old boy. It is still not clear under what circumstances. They were taken to the potato fridge and then there was more room in the morgue.

Some of the youths carrying the casualties made a mistake and sent two children straight to the morgue. Someone noticed the mistake and the “bodies” were removed and sent hurriedly to the hospital. Ten minutes later, one of them, his head hanging, was put back in the morgue.

Then the families started arriving. Slowly the names and numbers became clear. Eight dead – four of them children, aged 10, 11, 13, and 14. The other four were 18, 20, 20 and 31. There were 62 wounded. Sixteen of them were children under the age of 18.

At around 1 P.M., after the midday prayer, people started gathering in the Shabura refugee camp to march the two kilometer-plus route to Tel Sultan, for a solidarity demonstration. The camp is cut off by tanks and sandbags.

En route, more and more people joined in. A fire engine carried symbolic quantities of water and food to the besieged quarter, which has very little water left and no electricity. People left their houses and joined the marchers. Estimates vary from several hundred to two thousand.

The children marched up front. “The collaborators with the IDF, who tell them about every little lane where there is a gunman so that they can fire a missile, could tell the Shin Bet [security services] that there were mostly children and youngsters in the march, that there were no armed men and that it was a demonstration of the people,” someone said.

After a kilometer and half, the marchers reached a square where the road turns left. From there it is about half a kilometer to Tel Sultan. The children marched forward and saw the tanks. The older people were behind them. They saw the tanks moving slightly, turning their turrets toward them. A helicopter or two were overhead. Nothing unusual.

A. who was marching in the middle of the road, saw the choppers shoot what is called in Rafah “a heat balloon.” Then something hit the electric pylon next to him. There was an explosion and he fell. Others around him fell too. He still remembers raising his head and then there was another explosion. The steel doors of the shops were torn apart. His mother saw him fall from a distance and “nearly died of fright.”

A. is sure the first explosion came from a tank. Others say there were missiles. Large numbers of demonstrators were hit in the first explosion. Many ran to rescue them and were hit by the second. Three hours later, the square was still filled with blood.

A young boy tried to approach the twist in the road, to see the tanks. A journalist was alongside him. They wanted to determine how far the tanks were from the square: half a kilometer, 600 meters. One sharp shot from the direction of the tanks told them it was not worth taking the risk.

One step ahead of the bulldozer (May 21, 2004)

RAFAH – Palestinian families who live close to the Egyptian border learned the lesson years ago: They keep small bags filled with important documents, some cash and a few sentimental items always ready. Whenever bulldozers plowed toward them, or whenever tank shells crashed nearby, or whenever helicopters hovered above – as happened as recently as May 12 – they grabbed their bags and fled.

But, feeling secure in a relatively quiet part of oft-battered Rafah, members of Wa’il Mansur’s family, like those of his parents, grandparents and neighbors, never bothered to pack such bags. They live in the Brazil neighborhood, some 700 meters from the border. A few rows of houses used to stand between their residence and the border. Two such rows have already been razed. Nonetheless, members of Mansur’s family reasoned that their residence was far enough from the border to be out of harm’s way.

Then, at 8:30 A.M. yesterday, they relate, a huge bulldozer rumbled over neighbors’ houses; neighborhood residents fled for their lives. Some ran in their bare feet. Others left behind identification documents, driver’s licenses (Mansur is a taxi driver), money, clothes, books. The bulldozer crushed Mansur’s cab; it also plowed up a small “zoo” that a neighborhood resident set up two years ago to amuse local kids.

Fortified Israel Defense Forces vehicles, supported by helicopters, set up shop in the Brazil neighborhood at 10 P.M. on Wednesday. Mansur’s parents, together with 13 other people, live in a house with an asbestos roof. Mansur’s own house, which holds 17 residents, is built of concrete and asbestos. Mansur feared for his loved ones’ lives: A bullet could penetrate through the houses’ flimsy walls and kill someone. And, fearing for their lives, “women and men and children” from both homes huddled in two rooms in Mansur’s house Wednesday night, hoping that the IDF’s Operation Rainbow would go somewhere else soon.

Wednesday night, nobody went to sleep in Rafah. Helicopters hovered close to rooftops; missiles whistled through the air; gunfire could be heard everywhere. Like everyone else in Rafah, the 31 members of Mansur’s family waited in the two rooms, hoping that things would calm down in the morning.

At 7:30 A.M., when the women prepared breakfast, family members had hopes that it would be a normal day. But an hour later, all hell broke loose. Mansur recalls that he heard neighbors crying in fear and anguish. He says that he raced out to help them, only to find, to his amazement, that the bulldozer was already set to plow away his own home, and that of his grandparents. Mansur says: “I begged him [the bulldozer driver] to stop, to let us get out of the house. He blocked the entrance. Sitting behind glass, the driver never heard us … We were just a second away from being killed – 50 persons, children, the elderly, women, all of us with our backs to the wall, with the bulldozer plowing toward us. The driver never heard us. The destruction happened quickly, faster than anything that could be said to stop it.”

The Mansur family was saved by an iron ladder that led to the courtyard of a neighbor’s house. Mansur: “First we had the children climb the ladder, then, with great difficulty, older people used it. They were afraid to go up, but fear forced us to push them. Just as we all got to the neighbor’s house, the bulldozer started to raze it as well.”

Mansur relates that members of his frightened family were instructed by a soldier in a tank to raise their arms as they fled this second demolished home. “We saw that everything in the area was in ruins. The stores were destroyed, asphalt was churned up, electric poles had collapsed. We raised our arms and started to wander past the tanks, as they were firing. My grandfather, 85, cannot walk. I carried him on my back. I walked slowly. The soldier in the tank yelled at me – `faster, faster.’”

The IDF Spokesman responded: “As part of the IDF’s war on terror infrastructure, army forces are operating in the Brazil neighborhood. In this activity, some damage was caused to the outer parts of buildings in the area. The only building that was demolished by IDF forces was an abandoned structure used by terrorists who fired at IDF troops. Claims made by local residents about the demolition of houses are not correct.”

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