Early in the morning on May 21, on a road into the neighborhood of Tal al-Sultan in the Gazan town of Rafah, 71 year-old Muhammad Salama swung his walking stick at a blade of grass. Some 100 yards ahead of him an Israeli army bulldozer rumbled along, apparently clearing the road of obstacles. Twice the bulldozer moved in the direction of a Red Crescent ambulance parked on the roadside, and twice the ambulance pulled back, until it was almost parallel to the spot where Salama sat in front of a row of greenhouses. “I am going to stay until I get in,” said the elderly man impatiently, in response to repeated entreaties from residents urging him to move back to the relative cover of a small block of houses. The other residents were staying well back, and only a band of journalists, most attired in flak jackets emblazoned with the word “Press,” ventured as far forward as Salama had. Somewhere behind the bulldozer, an Israeli armored personnel carrier was parked. Before the bulldozer had arrived, the APC sounded a siren to warn off journalists who had cautiously stepped past the ambulance walking in the direction of town. The message was unmistakable. Three days after it unexpectedly became the center of the Israeli army’s “Operation Rainbow,” Tal al-Sultan was still off limits.
Operation Rainbow—the biggest Israeli incursion into Gaza since the second intifada erupted in late September 2000—officially began on May 18, though forces began moving in the previous day. Ostensibly to locate and seal off arms smuggling tunnels into Egypt and arrest armed Palestinians, the army sent some 100 tanks and APCs into Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza. Palestinians in Rafah had been expecting the worst for some time. Following the May 12 destruction by Palestinian militants of a military vehicle near the Egyptian border, on May 13 Israeli forces moved into and shelled an area of the Rafah refugee camp, knocking down several houses and killing 12. The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) filed a petition that day with Israel’s High Court, which granted a temporary injunction against additional house demolitions until May 16. Nevertheless, more houses were reportedly destroyed on May 15. On the morning of May 16, the High Court declined to extend its injunction, saying that it was “unnecessary, as the prosecution and military officers stated that there is no intention to demolish more houses.” Simultaneously, the press relayed comments from Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon to the effect that many more houses would be bulldozed to “widen” the Philadelphi corridor along the Egyptian-Gazan border. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was also quoted saying that “We will deepen the fighting” in Gaza.
When it became clear on May 16 that the larger operation would proceed, many residents of Rafah decided to leave their homes for safer areas. On the day after Palestinians worldwide marked the fifty-sixth anniversary of the 1948 nakba, when more than 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes in what is now the state of Israel, some of those original refugees and their descendants once again packed their belongings and headed off to temporary dwellings hastily arranged by UN agencies or the municipality of the poorest town in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
On May 16 and 17, there was a steady exodus from areas that residents expected would be targeted first. By the evening of the second day, the areas closest to the border with Egypt, Block O and Yubna refugee camp, were practically deserted. Some had fled Block O and Yubna to go to Tal al-Sultan, next to the Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam toward the Mediterranean coast. This neighborhood, with its relatively wide streets and distance from the border, had seen little fighting in the past and seemed to offer a relatively tranquil refuge. But on May 17, the armored columns moved in there as well, separating all of Rafah from Khan Yunis and the rest of the Gaza Strip to the north. By May 18, Tal al-Sultan had been taken over by the Israeli military and isolated from the other areas of Rafah.
“Words Cannot Describe the Scene”
Two of Muhammad Salama’s sons and their families were in Tal al-Sultan. One son, over his mobile phone, had informed Salama that everyone was well, but that his grandson Adham, a policeman, had been detained. Salama had not heard any more news of Adham since the evening before—”probably the batteries died,” he said—and concerned, he had decided to try to get into Tal al-Sultan.
If his mobile phone’s batteries had died, Salama’s son would have been unable to recharge them. A 24-hour curfew had been imposed on residents of Tal al-Sultan, and as heavy Israeli military machinery wreaked havoc upon the infrastructure, soon they also found themselves without electricity, water or telephone landlines. News from the besieged neighborhood was thus hard to come by. While mobile phones were used incessantly, residents of Tal al-Sultan could report only what they saw through their windows. Neither journalists nor aid organizations could gain access, and even ambulances were finding it difficult, according to Ali Musa, a doctor and director of the Yusuf al-Najjar Hospital, the only medical facility in Rafah that can be called a hospital, though it cannot offer the full spectrum of care associated with that word.
According to PCHR, 39 Palestinians were killed in Rafah between May 17 and May 20. With only one fatality on May 21 and fewer injuries than on previous days of Operation Rainbow, Musa could have been taking a much-needed break. The hospital is woefully under-equipped for the kind of emergency it has to deal with regularly—the morgue, for instance, holds only six bodies—and the entire medical staff had been on 24-hour standby for the duration of the Israeli incursion.
But Musa was instead sharply dressed and freshly shaved. Over the phone, he was addressing a crowd of Israeli demonstrators that had gathered on the Israeli side of the Erez crossing at the northern tip of the Gaza Strip to protest the army actions in Rafah. Hoarse and sounding weary, the doctor told the protesters that several appeals for medical help from Tal al-Sultan had gone unanswered because ambulances were not allowed access. He told them that in at least one instance, an Israeli Apache helicopter had fired a missile at an ambulance. “Whatever I say,” he croaked in conclusion, “words cannot describe the scene.”
As Musa rushed from speaking to peace activists to greet the visiting politician Muhammad Dahlan, formerly interior minister for the Palestinian Authority, he had a one-word answer for journalists asking how the hospital had coped with the strain. “God,” he said.
A tearful Harb Zidane Ghazeg al-Jereidah, 60, also invoked God as she waved her identification card at journalists. Her house in the Brazil refugee camp near Rafah’s small sports stadium had been one of three she said were destroyed there on May 20. “It’s a crime before God,” she said, her voice rising in anger. Her home had housed seven people. “Forty years I lived here. Now we are on the street. My fridge, the TV, the furniture—it’s all gone. I only have my ID card.”
Before dawn on May 20, the Israeli army expanded its operation to include the Brazil camp and adjoining Salam neighborhood. The tanks and soldiers stayed there for some 24 hours, during which another wave of people from those neighborhoods crowded into the UN facilities that had been made available as temporary housing in other areas of Rafah.
Yet, throughout the duration of Operation Rainbow, the Israeli army consistently denied most accusations of house demolitions. On May 20, while Rafah municipality officials claimed over 40 homes had been destroyed, and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) had counted over 30, army spokespeople would admit to only five. Only when the operation was winding down on May 23 did that number rise to 12. On May 24, UNRWA had tallied 45 destroyed Palestinian homes. The Israeli army by then was talking about 56 demolished “structures.”
Presumably, one of those structures would have been the Rafah Zoo in the same area as al-Jereidah’s house had stood. There too, even as journalists picked their way through the twisted metal of demolished animal cages, army spokespeople initially denied any knowledge of the damage. Later, the army admitted that it might have “damaged a wall” of the zoo. When confronted with this assertion, Muhammad Ahmad Juma, the zoo’s co-owner, simply shook his head. “Look around you,” he told reporters. Around him, children and volunteers were trying to find some of the animals that had disappeared. Some were found dead under the rubble. Others, including wolves, foxes, a python and an ostrich, were loose somewhere. The animals Juma had been able to recapture, among them a frightened kangaroo and a sneezing ram, were being kept in a nearby basement.
Army statements, meanwhile, evolved further. While still only admitting to causing damage to a wall, the army now placed the blame for any further damage on “Palestinian explosives.” Only at the end of the day did an army spokesman acknowledge that indeed Israeli tanks had “opened a road” through the zoo, and then only because “Palestinian explosives” blocked the way ahead.
About half a mile away in the Salam neighborhood, Hasan al-Ajrami, 30, stood on top of a pile of sand and rubble from which bits of broken furniture protruded. Twenty houses, he said, had stood there two nights before, among them a house belonging to his family. “Everyone was at home at the time,” he said. “They came at around one in the morning, with no warning, and they started bulldozing the place. People lost everything. Whoever ordered this,” he said, with perhaps unintended understatement, “is a reckless person. And those who carried out the orders are even more reckless.”
Braving the sporadic gunfire, Ajrami led journalists to the top of one mound. “Look down there,” he said. In the distance was a watchtower, one of the many the Israeli army has erected along the border with Egypt. “That’s about a kilometer away,” Ajrami estimated. “What tunnels are that long?”
The stated justification for Operation Rainbow—a search for tunnels used to spirit weapons from Egypt to Palestinian militant groups—was also met with contempt by the mayor of Rafah, Said Zuroub, who questioned why it was necessary to demolish houses to find the tunnels. “There is technology to find oil deep in the ground. And the Israelis can’t discover tunnels some five meters deep? This is nonsense.”
Zuroub did not pretend that there were no tunnels or smuggling in Rafah. “Smuggling is a business, and Rafah is a border town. In Egypt a packet of cigarettes costs five shekels. Here it is 13.” The municipality’s already limited resources, the mayor said, were being stretched to the limit. Rafah was designated as the poorest town in the West Bank and Gaza by a 2003 World Bank report, and Zuroub estimated the unemployment rate to be in excess of 75 percent.
He acknowledged that there was very little the municipality could do for its citizens, except to urge people to stay in their homes. Primarily, he said, this was because there was nowhere for them to go, but also, he added, because of history. “In 1947 [the pre-state Zionist militias] told us to leave. We are not going to leave this time.”
“A Devastated Place”
Operation Rainbow was officially terminated on May 24, though an army presence remained in the Brazil camp until the end of the month. What passes for normality in Rafah has slowly returned. People there have come to expect the periodic Israeli raids such as the one on June 2 that reportedly left another 18 homes demolished.
In all, UNRWA has put the number of people left homeless in the Gaza Strip during the intifada at over 21,000 people, 3,800 of them, according to the agency’s Rafah Emergency Appeal, in Rafah in May 2004 alone. On May 31, UNRWA issued a plea for $16 million in international aid to repair the damage from Operation Rainbow and its aftermath. “Rafah was always a poor place,” agency head Peter Hansen told Agence France Presse. “It is now a devastated place.” A June 2 press release from the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that some 38,000 people had been left without potable water. The organization said it was preparing to bring 150,000 liters of water a day into Rafah for the next five weeks.
At least 45 Palestinians were killed during Operation Rainbow, including at least ten when Israeli tank shells and/or helicopter-borne missiles slammed into demonstrators who had gathered on May 19 to try to walk into Tal al-Sultan. Seventeen of those killed during the operation, according to the UN, were children under 18. In the cases of two of them, circumstantial evidence suggests that they were killed in broad daylight by Israeli sniper fire, and on May 26 Amnesty International called on Israel to conduct a “thorough, independent and impartial investigation” into their deaths.
History hangs heavy in the air in Rafah where a little over half the population consists of 1948 refugees or their descendants, and where some have been made homeless for the second or third time during the current intifada. The single greatest upheaval in Rafah since 1948 came with the Israeli occupation in 1967. Those who remember that time were eager to point out that Tal al-Sultan was mostly built by the Israeli army in 1971 as alternative housing for those who had been made homeless by a similar campaign in the early 1970s to clear out the refugee camps and widen the roads to allow tank access.
In 1972, UN General Assembly Resolution 2963 condemned Israeli actions in Rafah, including the “destruction of refugee shelters and forcible transfer of populations” as being in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and called on Israel to “desist forthwith” from such practices. General Assembly resolutions are routinely dismissed by Israel as non-binding. Perhaps one could see the passage of a similar, but theoretically binding resolution by the UN Security Council on May 20, 2004 as a sign of progress for Palestinians. But the resolution was cold comfort for Abu Ali Shahin, Rafah’s representative to the Palestinian Legislative Council, who was keen to remind journalists that the commander of the Israeli army’s southern force in the early 1970s was none other than Ariel Sharon. “We have no alliances,” Shahin said, invoking Israel’s “special relationship” with the US. “Not even Arab countries are coming to our aid. We only have our will. We have nothing to struggle with but we must struggle. We have no alternatives.”