***image1***Among the ruins of his two buildings, Sheikh Salah Abu Taha, 53, sits surveying the damage. The two buildings contained 30 apartments, and both were dynamited to the ground during an Israeli army invasion in the Yubna area of Rafah last December. Thirty families, including the Tahas, were left homeless.
“I was surprised when the soldiers entered my house and ordered me and my family out. They said they were looking for an underground tunnel, something I had no idea about,” he says
The officer ordered everyone in the buildings to evacuate in ten minutes.
“I could not get anything from the house, not money, or the women’s jewelry or furniture. It was all buried under the rubble.” Abu Taha says the army put dynamite in the corners of the building and then blew it up from the inside.
Rafah is often described as a disaster area because of the continuing house demolitions. According to Rafah governorate statistics more than 1,600 houses have been destroyed by the Israeli army since the start of the Intifada. Until the end of December 2003, 1,767 families – 9,567 people – have lost their homes. Six hundred homes have been partially demolished, and Israeli shelling damaged 3,520 homes.
According to UNRWA statistics, in the entire Gaza Strip some 14,850 people have had their homes destroyed by the Israeli occupation forces in the last three-and-half-years.
The house demolitions in Rafah are concentrated in the border strip area separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt, which is about six kilometers long. Today, the area adjacent to the border strip is completely vacated of houses and has become an area controlled by Israeli forces over which a number of military watchtowers have been erected along the two walls that physically separate Egypt from Gaza. The strip that was subsequently created is known as the Philadelphi strip, and will, according to the withdrawal plan of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, remain under Israeli control.
Majid Al Agha, Rafah’s governor, says Israel has created a buffer zone that extends 150 meters along the strip. Israel claims its goal behind demolishing homes is to stop arms smuggling from Egypt through underground tunnels. In statements to the press, Israeli army spokesperson Sharon Val-Blod justified what is happening in Rafah by saying, “we do not demolish houses for nothing. This must be clear. We only demolish homes when there are tunnels.”
Agha denies these claims and says Israel does not need excuses to justify its aggression. “Attacks are happening continually throughout the homeland as a means of escaping political obligations. They [the Israelis] are evading the political process in order to continue their destruction and killing.”
The governor continues. “If, as the Israelis claim, there are tunnels, then what does leveling olive trees on the border between Rafah and Khan Younis have to do with anything? Or the killing of children and civilians – how is this related to their claim of the presence of tunnels?”
Demolitions and Dynamite
Rafah residents say house demolitions are carried out in one of two ways: either with bulldozers or with dynamite. Some houses have been partially demolished because of shelling or when tanks passed through refugee camps’ narrow alleys.
According to Al Hayat Al Jadida correspondent Abdel Razzaq Abu Jazar, the method chosen depends on the area. If it is highly populated and tanks and bulldozers cannot reach it, then dynamite is used. But if it is in an open area, bulldozers get the job done.
“There have also been many cases in which homes in the middle of the camp have been demolished by bulldozers,” adds Abu Jazar. “Here, most of the houses surrounding the targeted home are also destroyed.”
Dynamite is equally destructive, according to Abu Jazar. The Israeli troops use extremely powerful explosives, he says, and damage to other houses is inevitable.
Mousa Abu Zanoun, 54, lives in fear that his house will collapse. The dynamiting of houses in his neighborhood – explosions he describes as earthquakes – have damaged almost all the houses in the border strip area, including his own. He worries that the walls of his home, which have already been weakened, will eventually collapse as a result of the almost daily explosions in the area.
“We can no longer ensure our or our children’s safety inside our own homes,” Abu Zanoun says bitterly.
Living in warehouses
Refugees constitute the majority of the population of Rafah city, at over 100,893 people or some 85 percent of the overall population, according to estimates from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) in 2003. And for the refugees whose houses are demolished, the demolitions continue a process of dispossession that began in 1948.
“Nothing has changed between yesterday and today,” says Haj Saber Barhoum, 66. “Yesterday was the exile of 1948 and today an Israeli soldier came into my home and told me to get out. They shot at me so I had to leave. When I came back I found my house in ruins, as if the earth had opened up and swallowed it. There was nothing left, just dirt and rubble.”
Ismail Radwan, 53, meanwhile, is the victim of consecutive demolitions in Rafah. “It was not enough for the occupation bulldozers to demolish my house [in the Yubna camp], they had to follow me to the house I rented in Block O. They tore that down last month.”
With 1948, Radwan counts three enforced exiles at the hands of Israel.
Dependent on aid for their sustenance, house demolitions have created a huge homelessness problem for the refugees. While some, in the intervening years, have spread out into their own homes in the city, many have nowhere to go.
According to Abdel Hakim Issa, head of the popular committee for owners of demolished homes in Rafah, emergency measures have had to be adopted and any available space is used to house the homeless.
Families, sometimes as large as 17 members, says Issa, now live in warehouses with no bedrooms, no kitchen or any other household essentials.
Issa, like most residents of Rafah, has no time for Israeli justifications for the demolitions. “Throughout the Intifada, Israel has adopted a policy of house demolitions – it has formulated a systematic and programmed plan and has carried it out to the tee.