Community Razed Along With Its Homes in Gaza
Palestinian Camp Is in Crossfire Between Gunmen, Israeli Army
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A19
RAFAH REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- Azizah Abu Anzah was watching an Arab soap opera on television when a 56-ton armored bulldozer ate its way to her house in this Palestinian refugee camp on the Gaza Strip's southern edge.
The 30-year-old woman recalls grabbing her children and hiding behind a house in the next alley. She stole peeks around the corner as a blade taller than a man began scraping away her three-room home.
"All the neighbors came and ran inside to collect my furniture -- the bed, TV, my new washing machine, some blankets -- and the bulldozer didn't stop," Abu Anzah said. "We were all crying. It was a day I will never forget."
She and her husband, Musa, moved their family deeper into the refugee camp -- farther from the encroaching bulldozers, spasms of gunfire and thunderous tank rounds. But the bulldozers kept coming, flattening the neighborhood, house by house. Last week, 16 months after their first house was demolished, the Abu Anzahs' second home was demolished by Israeli forces during a new outbreak of battles between the Israeli military and Palestinian fighters.
This is the front line of the most perilous combat zone in the Palestinian territories. In the past week, 14 Palestinians and seven Israeli soldiers have been killed in the intense gun battles in the refugee camps and surrounding neighborhoods of Rafah. Since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000, 257 Palestinians -- including at least 58 children and teenagers -- have died in clashes here, according to local medical officials and human rights organizations. The Israeli military said 10 of its soldiers have been killed here.
During the same 31/2-year period, Israeli military bulldozers have crushed 1,218 houses along the northern edge of the border between Gaza and Egypt, pushing back the city of Rafah and the adjacent refugee camp. A mile-long swath of broken concrete, splintered wood and twisted metal is all that remains of what Azizah Abu Anzah and others say was a close-knit community built by families and neighbors who gathered here a half-century ago in a cluster of U.N. tents.
"They've separated us," Abu Anzah said a few weeks ago in the house that has since been demolished. "All my neighbors were my relatives. Now they are scattered everywhere."
After Israel demolished between 80 and 120 homes in the Rafah camp this week, Israel's Supreme Court on Saturday granted a temporary injunction against demolition of homes here. The ban had been sought by a Palestinian rights group.
Israeli military commanders say Palestinian guerrillas launch more attacks against Israeli forces along this small stretch of the border than anywhere else in the Palestinian territories. Last year, the military recorded nearly 2,000 attacks against its soldiers along the border from antitank missiles, grenades, guns and bombs -- double the number of such incidents in the entire West Bank. Inside the border, the military has erected a 26-foot-high steel wall topped by bulletproof observation towers that house high-tech surveillance gear and soldiers armed with remote-controlled machine guns.
The houses along the border, the Israelis say, harbor Palestinian gunmen who shoot at soldiers, and many houses sit over the entrances to tunnels that smugglers use to bring weapons and contraband from Egypt. Bulldozing houses here, commanders maintain, is crucial to the fight against gunmen and smugglers. So while incursions by Israeli armor have become less frequent in the West Bank and other parts of the Gaza Strip, the pace has intensified in Rafah. Last year, the Israeli army demolished three times as many homes here as the year before, according to local Palestinian monitoring groups.
Abu Anzah and her neighbors say they are caught in the middle between the Israeli military and Palestinian guerrillas and criminal gangs. And they mourn not only the loss of lives and the destruction of houses, but also the street-by-street dismemberment of their community.
The neighborhoods within the Rafah refugee camp -- such as Abu Anzah's Block O -- retain the bureaucratic designations assigned by the United Nations in the early 1950s when the facility was created for Palestinians who either fled or were evicted from the new Jewish state. But they have evolved into intimate enclaves of one- and two-story cement homes and multistory apartments where three generations often share the same dwellings and neighbors marry neighbors, drawing communal bonds even tighter.
Now, more than 11,000 people -- about one of every 10 residents in the sprawling camp of nearly 100,000 people -- have been uprooted, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which administers refugee communities in the Gaza Strip. In Block O, one of the most ravaged neighborhoods in the camp, at least 570 houses -- nearly half of the community -- have been razed or so badly damaged that they are unsafe for habitation, according to records kept by a local association of owners of destroyed houses.
Under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposal to withdraw Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers from the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials say, even more houses in Block O and adjoining neighborhoods may be bulldozed to expand security zones along the border access road called the Philadephi Road. Control of the southern Gaza border with Egypt is one of the most controversial issues to be resolved before any withdrawal plan could be implemented. This is because of the complex negotiations that would be required to shift authority from Israel to Egypt.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company