Ask to be directed to the latest wave of Israeli destruction in Rafah’s al-Brazil neighbourhood and many fingers point towards the zoo.
Amid the rubble of dozens of homes that the Israeli army continued yesterday to deny demolishing, the wrecking of the tiny, but only, zoo in the Gaza Strip took on potent symbolism for many of the newly homeless.
The butchered ostrich, the petrified kangaroo cowering in a basement corner, the tortoises crushed under the tank treads – all were held up as evidence of the pitiless nature of the Israeli occupation.
“People are more important than animals,” said the zoo’s co-owner Mohammed Ahmed Juma, whose house was also demolished. “But the zoo is the only place in Rafah that children could escape the tense atmosphere. There were slides and games for children. We had a small swimming pool. I know it’s hard to believe, looking at it now, but it was beautiful. Why would they destroy that? Because they want to destroy everything about us.”
The systematic demolition of homes was revealed yesterday as Israeli forces partially pulled out of al-Brazil on the fifth day of an operation officially to hunt down Palestinian fighters and weapons-smuggling tunnels running under the border from Egypt.
More than 40 people have been killed in the assault, about a third of them civilians, besides targets of the operation such as the Hamas military commander in al-Brazil who was hit by a missile.
About 45 buildings were razed by the army in the area it pulled back from yesterday, some of them two or three storeys high and housing several families.
The military says the houses were wrecked by Palestinian bombs planted to attack Israeli forces, or accidentally by tanks turning in the street. But Palestinians consistently gave similar accounts of armoured bulldozers arriving at the door and giving the residents just minutes to get out, at best.
“The bulldozer started hitting the house,” said Juma Abu Hammad sitting on the remains of his eight-bed-roomed home that housed two families with 15 children. “I grabbed the children. We did not take a single thing with us, even very important documents like birth certificates. I was just worried about the lives of the children.”
Aziza Monsour, 54, pointed to the remains of a yellow taxi tossed by a bulldozer on the top of what remained of a neighbouring house. “That taxi was our only living,” she said. “My husband drove it. It provided for everyone who lived in this house.”
But there is no house any more.
“The blade of the bulldozer hit the room we were sitting in,” said Mrs Monsour. “I waved my white headscarf at the soldiers as we pleaded with them to let us go. We were running between the tanks and the shooting and counting the children as we went to make sure they were all still with us. This is revenge, absolute revenge, for the seven Israeli soldiers killed in Rafah.”
None of the homes left destroyed yesterday is close to the “Philadelphi road” security strip under Israeli control along the Egyptian border, and is therefore un-likely to have been used to dig weapons-smuggling tunnels.
It is unclear whether other homes, next to the border, have also been demolished as Israeli forces retain control of that part of al-Brazil.
The army said that after five days of searching, “the beginnings of a tunnel” had been found, although not in the area of the mass demolitions. The military also denied it had deliberately destroyed homes.
“We did not destroy any houses in al-Brazil,” said a spokeswoman who identified herself as Eli. “There was damage to buildings from fighting. The terrorists activate explosive devices under the road or next to the buildings. These bombs that destroy tanks can easily destroy a house.”
But, aside from the accounts of Palestinians who fled their homes, the destruction is not consistent with individual explosions. Off al-Imam road, nearly 20 houses in a row were wrecked. There was no sign of a massive explosion, such as a crater in the road or damage to houses standing next to the wrecked buildings.
Opposite, bulldozers had torn up an olive grove belonging to a well-known family in the area, the Qishtas.
The demolitions in al-Brazil are the third time the Israeli army has misrepresented its actions in Rafah this week.
On Tuesday the military dismissed accusations that an Israeli sniper shot two children in the head, claiming they were blown up by a Palestinian bomb. But the bodies of both children were later shown to each have only a single bullet wound to the head.
On Wednesday the army said armed men made up the majority of 10 people killed when an Israeli tank fired into a peaceful demonstration. In fact half of the victims were children and television footage showed no weapons among the demonstrators.
The army also initially denied that soldiers deliberately wrecked the zoo that provided Rafah’s children with virtually their only contact with live animals, even ordinary ones such as squirrels, goats and tortoises.
Among the zoo’s more popular exhibits were kangaroos, monkeys and ostriches, which children could sit on.
The destruction was comprehensive. The fountain and its tiles were a jumble of rubble in one corner. There was no sign of the swimming pool.
One of the ostriches lay half buried in the rubble. Guinea fowl and ducks were laid out in a row. Goats and a deer struggled with broken legs.
Some of the animals were still on the loose, if not buried under the debris. One of the two kangaroos was missing; the other was cowering in the basement. A snake and three monkeys were unaccounted for. Mr Juma accused Israeli soldiers of stealing valuable African parrots.
The army’s explanation evolved through the day. At first it said it had not destroyed the zoo, then it said a tank may have accidentally reversed into it.
By the end of yesterday, the military said its soldiers had been forced to drive through the zoo because an alternative route was booby-trapped by Palestinian explosives.
Finally a spokesman said the soldiers had released the animals from their cages in a compassionate gesture to prevent them being harmed.