The road to Rafah, Gazaâ€™s southernmost city, is a dangerous one. As we stop at the Gush Katif Junction, my Palestinian driver becomes nervous. â€œThey often shoot here,â€ he says. A group of 10-year-old Palestinian boys approach our car. My driver opens the door and lets one in. He then speeds past the armed Israeli watchtowers that guard the 200-meter checkpoint, stops the car, gives the boy a shekel (35 cents) and lets him out. He tells me the boys make money by helping drivers bring the total number of people in their cars up to three. Any less and Israeli soldiers will fire on the car, suspecting it of transporting explosives.
Thus began my journey to Rafah in November 2002, part of a photographic exploration of the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT). Rafah sits nervously next to the Gush Katif settlements, where 7,000 Israeli settlers with green lawns and swimming pools have illegally occupied 40% of Gazaâ€™s land, while 1.2 million Palestinians live in poverty on the remaining 60%. Tragically, it is off the radar of western media, even though it has suffered more death and injury per capita than any other city in the OPT in the 27 months of the Al-Aqsa Intifada: 206 dead, 2460 injuries and 800 life-saving operations, according to Dr. Ali Mousa, head of Rafahâ€™s Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital. (1)
Rafah is also the site of a serious breach of International Humanitarian Law and a potential war crime according to the Fourth Geneva Convention: Palestinian homes are being demolished daily by Israeli bulldozers under cover of sniper and tank fire to make way for a 6-meter high steel wall along the Egyptian border. The construction occasions daily gun battles and Israeli shelling which have left scores of Palestinian civilians dead and wounded. Demolition teams give little warning. Resisting occupants are ordered to leave by loudspeaker, then forced out by machine gun fire and tank shells. There is no compensation. According to Dr. Yousef Mousa, Deputy Chief of the Rafah Popular Refugee Committee, over 350 homes have been demolished, 500 partially destroyed and hundreds of others damaged by shelling. (2) The number of homeless is high, since Rafahâ€™s average family size is 11.
When I arrived in Rafah, people began pulling me into their homes in Block O, a neighborhood where demolitions occur daily. I entered one home through a large hole in the wall to find a mother feeding her 5 children. The hole had been created to allow for quick escape in case the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacks became too intense. In the neighboring home, whose southern wall had been destroyed, I stood with the occupants watching an armored bulldozer pass by. Beside me, the familyâ€™s grandmother wept.
I traveled next to one of Rafahâ€™s cemeteries where a funeral was being held for Hamed al-Masri, a 2-year-old boy who was killed while his family was escaping the IDF tank rounds striking their home in Rafahâ€™s crowded Block J. (3) After the funeral, I visited Asaâ€™ad Hassanâ€™s wife, Asmaaâ€™, in Rafahâ€™s hospital, where she was recovering from critical injuries sustained during the attack.
I spent my first evening in Rafah with Kamal Abu Shammala and his family in their new home far from Block O. Kamal had left Block O after his 10-year-old daughter had been killed while fleeing an IDF attack one month earlier, the day after construction of the wall began. According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, indiscriminate shelling of homes in Block O left 6 civilians dead and 39 wounded. (3) The IDF knew this could happen: 90,000 people inhabit less than 1 square kilometer in the Rafah refugee camp.
Following my stay with the Shammala family, I spent 4 days with a family of 10 in Block O, 75 meters from the new Israeli wall. Their house, which the father, Mousa, had built 7 years earlier, was riddled with bullet holes and surrounded by expanses of sand where houses once stood. Mousa had placed bricks in the dining room window to protect his family from the daily tank rounds. It was there that I became acquainted with what Palestinians call â€œthe background music,â€ the constant machine gun fire and explosions that rock their communities. On my third day in Mousaâ€™s home, a 2-hour gun battle raged between IDF tanks and Palestinian fighters trying to push back bulldozers, all in proximity to one of the most densely populated neighborhoods on earth. Later that day, as we were eating, two large rounds slammed into the back wall of the house. A third bullet came in through the bathroom window and smashed into the kitchen wall. That night, as locals accompanied me through one of Rafahâ€™s markets, IDF flares lit up the sky, unmanned spy planes circled the refugee camp, and red tracer bullets whizzed over the market.
What is happening in Rafah is happening daily throughout the OPT. During my three-week stay, the IDF conducted 90 military actions in 45 Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank and Gaza, leaving 25 dead, 92 wounded, some critically. Scores of people were detained and arrested, others used as human shields to carry out arrests and assassinations. 52 homes were demolished without compensation and 255 dunams of agricultural land were razed. (4) It is unlikely that any of this was reported in western mainstream media.
Three Palestinian cities â€“ Hebron, Bethlehem, and Nablus â€“ were put under indefinite 24-hour curfew, a fact probably mentioned in the press, since these measures were preceded by Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers. The journalistic emphasis on Israeli suffering is unfortunately inversely related to reality: Palestinian casualties more than triple those of Israelis. In addition, attacks by Israeli soldiers or settlers are carried out with near impunity. By contrast, when Palestinians fight back or initiate attacks (â€œterrorismâ€), they are arrested or killed, their homes destroyed and families made homeless, their cities encircled, put under 24-hour curfew, the inhabitants subjected to nerve-wracking house-to-house searches and their institutions rendered ineffectual.
Collective punishment is illegal and the destruction of homes and agricultural land a war crime without military justification. According to Bâ€™tselem, the leading Israeli human rights group, the IDF defends its â€œclearingâ€ policy, saying it needs the land and walls as â€œsecurity stripsâ€ to protect Israeli settlements and military outposts from Palestinian attacks. (6) The 205 Israeli settlements, perched on the best Palestinian land and twice as populated since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, already constitute a serious breach of international law and are a root cause of the attacks the IDF wants to prevent.
The present Palestinian reality resembles former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barakâ€™s successful 1999 election platform: â€œPeace Through Separation: We Are Here; They Are There.â€ As Sara Roy notes, â€œBarakâ€™s vision of separation was to be achieved through the construction of checkpoints, walls, fences, trenches, bridges, canals, and tunnels.â€ (7) Already in 1999, Palestinians were living in 227 separate enclaves surrounding by Israeli settlements and roads. (8) As Roy points out, â€œThe physical division of the West Bank has become so pronounced that families living in the northern region do not want their children to marry spouses from the southern region because they fear they will not be able to see them (even though the distance between the north and south West Bank is no more than forty miles).â€ (9) In addition, over 2 years of closure of Palestinian borders have driven the unemployment rate past 50% and the poverty rate up to 70%. Not surprisingly, in 2001, the World Food Program announced that Palestinians were among the poorest people on earth. (10)
Human rights violations, however, are not new in the OPT. Human rights groups have compiled lists since 1967: 50,000 Palestinians tortured, 1500 deported, illegal transfer of 400,000 Israeli civilians into the OPT, and pillage of Palestinian natural resources, including water. A US-led attack on Iraq will worsen the situation. Recently, 800 US academics publicly warned of a possible â€œfull-fledged ethnic cleansingâ€ of Palestinians should the â€œfog of warâ€ in Iraq blind the world to Israeli actions in Palestine. (11)
Israel continues its repressive policies because it can. Until Camp David in 2000, the Palestinian Authority signed all agreements, legitimizing this state of affairs, a tragedy for the Palestinian people. (12) The mainstream media focuses on context-deprived accounts of Palestinian attacks. Editorial pieces resemble fairy tales. The National Post in Canada recently published a speech by Izzy Asper, who owns half the shares in the newspaper and runs one of Canadaâ€™s largest media corporations, Canwest Global Communications. In the speech, Asper lauds Israel as â€œa symbol and teacher of excellence for all of humankind.â€ (13)
The facts on the ground present a very different reality. People interested in improving this situation can do some reading outside the mainstream, pressure their elected officials to speak out, and support the initiatives of organizations already working for Palestinian rights. International pressure will be a central factor in ending the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.
1. Interview conducted November 23rd, 2002, in Rafah.
2. Interview conducted November 22rd, 2002, in Khan Younis.
3. â€œWeekly Report On Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 07â€“ 13 November, 2002,â€ Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, http://www.pchrgaza.org/.
4. â€œWeekly Report On Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 17- 23 October, 2002,â€ Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, http://www.pchrgaza.org/.
5. Combined statistics, PCHR Weekly Reports, 09 November to 29 November 2002.
6. â€œDemolition of Houses and Fields in the Gaza Strip,â€ Bâ€™tselem, http://www.btselem.org/English/Statistics/index.asp.
7. Sara Roy, â€œDecline and Disfigurement: The Palestinian Economy After Oslo,â€ The New Intifada: Resisting Israelâ€™s Apartheid (New York: Verso, 2001), p. 102.
8. Ibid., 94.
9. Opcit., p. 99.
10. Allegra Pachecho, â€œFlouting Convention: The Olso Agreements,â€ The New Intifada: Resisting Israelâ€™s Apartheid (New York: Verso, 2001), p. 196.
11. Nigel Parry, â€œ800 American professors sign document warning of coming Israeli ethnic cleansing,â€ The Electronic Intifada, December 18, 2002, http://electronicIntifada.net/v2/article989.shtm.
12. For a full discussion, see Allegra Pachecho, â€œFlouting Convention…â€.
13. Izzy Asper, National Post, October 31, 2002.