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.
Abu Anzah, whose eyes are the dark brown of bittersweet chocolate, moved to Rafah with her brother from Algeria in 1994 in the political and economic afterglow of the Oslo peace accords. In those hopeful years, the refugee camp did not imply transience, but rather a community where she could spread familial roots.
"My father said, 'We have someone ready to take your hand,' " she reminisced. "It was a time of peace. Arab girls came here from all over to get married."
At summer's end, by family arrangement, she wed Musa Abu Anzah, a lifelong resident of the camp. Both were 20 years old. Within a year, their first daughter, Jehan, was born. Azizah Abu Anzah was surrounded by in-laws and embraced by a neighborhood of extended families in the camp's Block O.
When she delivered her babies -- Jehan, now 9, Jamallah, 5, and Mohammed, 3 -- "I would find all my family members around me," Azizah Abu Anzah said.
At the birth of baby Ola this year, she said, "No one was beside me."
She and her husband, who works in the customs office at the nearby international border crossing, were the last of their family to leave Block O. After the Israeli bulldozers flattened their home, which was in the center of the neighborhood, the family moved into a once elegant, butter-colored house abandoned by its Saudi owners.
In March, after the first suicide bombing carried out in Israel by Palestinians from fenced-in Gaza, the bulldozers rolled into Block O once more. Abu Anzah and her family fled with whatever they could carry, joining the swelling exodus from Block O.
Last week, the butter-colored house was pulverized by Israeli military forces.
'We Lost All of Our Lives'
Haneyyeh Ghoul, a grandmother of 26, didn't wait for the bulldozers to arrive.
"Bullets were coming inside our house," said Ghoul, 54, a stout woman draped in a billowing black burqa that exposed only a pudgy face and sandpaper hands. "We were always running in the middle of the night, carrying our children. They were panicked, wetting the bed, throwing up. It was a horror."
Two years ago, she moved part of her family out of the two-story house in Block O that she had spent half a lifetime scrimping to build. It was the house where Ghoul raised her five children and in which she was helping bring up a third generation.
Over the following months, all of her children and their families fled Block O. One son, Ayman, 27, was killed when shrapnel from an Israeli tank shell sliced through his body while he was helping his sister move.
The family house was bulldozed last October, Ghoul said.
"All we saved, we put into our house," said Ghoul's son, Ismail, 35. He figured the comfortable two-level house cost about $5,000 to build.
"We lost all of our lives," corrected his mother. "Not just our possessions -- the place where you lived with relatives and friends. You left a lot of feelings there."
"We ate every meal together," nodded Ismail.
Now Ghoul lives with two sons, a daughter-in-law and three grandchildren in the only affordable shelter she could find to rent in a city overrun by new refugees: a two-stall concrete shack previously used to house livestock. Other sons, daughters, in-laws and grandchildren are strewn across the Gaza Strip. When the Israeli military shuts down the checkpoints that cut Gaza into three sections, relatives who once lived within a few dozen feet of each other might as well live in different countries, Ghoul said.
The Ghouls, like hundreds of other Gaza families, are on a waiting list to receive a new house from the United Nations. Families that lost homes in 2001 are still waiting, and the Israeli military is bulldozing houses far faster than the United Nations can fund the building of new ones, according to U.N. records. About 100 houses have been finished in the past year, and another 300 are under construction on a former garbage dump at the eastern end of the Rafah border.
"Even if you have a new house, you can't forget about your old house," said Ghoul, sitting on a stool in the dust of the chicken run that is now her yard. "We've lost all our memories. Our life was in Block O."
Israeli military commanders said that in the course of their demolitions, they have discovered just more than 100 smuggling tunnels.
The devastation of Block O and surrounding neighborhoods and the frequent shooting are the results of "nearly four years of constant fighting and smuggling," said Maj. Gen. Yisrael Ziv, the Israeli military operations chief who was a former Gaza field commander. "Their philosophy is to try to create a war of attrition against our forces.
"The people there were suffering," he added. "Could we have prevented some damage there? Probably, yes. It's not a surgical thing. It's a terror war."
Local residents, especially the matriarchs such as Ghoul, say they are increasingly torn between their hostility toward the Israeli army and their anger at the local criminal mafias that build and control the tunnels.
"We'd tell the resistance, 'If they shoot, don't shoot back,' " Ghoul said. " 'If you shoot back, they'll harm us.' "
Fist-Size Bullet Marks
At 11:15 a.m. on a spring day in Block O, Jehan Abu Anzah sat on a stoop in her rumpled blue-and-white-striped school uniform, waiting for her mother, Azizah, to come downstairs and unlock the front door. A few feet away, Hallah Hamad, a 21/2-year-old, kicked at cigarette butts in the sand of the narrow alley. A team of three U.N.-sponsored psychological counselors stood nearby, advising Hallah's parents how to react when they hear shooting: Remain calm so as not to alarm the children.
Without warning, machine-gun fire crackled through the alley from the direction of the Israeli watchtower.
The adults -- parents, counselors and a reporter -- all flinched in the same instant, eyes searching instinctively for the nearest cover. Hallah, dark eyes wide with terror, clutched her father's worn pants leg with chubby fingers, whimpering like a puppy. Nine-year-old Jehan flung her books to the ground and slammed her palms against the metal door of her house, screaming in the frantic, high pitch of terror -- "Yama! Yama!" -- Mama! Mama!
"All of us feel scared," confessed Bushra Ayyash, one of the counselors, nervously tugging at the black burqa that shrouded her body. "What do you think this child feels, grabbing her father's leg?
"The people who still live in front of the Israeli troops feel more anger than those who ran way," Ayyash added. "They have the fear both of losing the house and of dying from the shooting. They feel their whole society is destroyed."
A few weeks ago, the two-story cinderblock house that Shadia and Abdulkarim Hamad shared with their seven children was peppered with bullet marks -- fist-size circles, jagged gouges big enough to fit an arm through, dozens of openings demonstrating the range of Israeli firepower.
Israeli military commanders said Palestinians frequently use the front rows of houses to shoot at soldiers in the guard towers and that troops shoot back in self-defense or to prevent suspected attacks.
Now Shadia Hamad, 42, whose soft round face and brown eyes reflect the weariness of permanent fatigue, clambered up the stairs to the second floor, offering a narrated tour of her house and her fears.
On a recent day, Israeli soldiers in a watchtower opened fire when her 12-year-old son Alaa went to the roof to feed the pigeons. At 11 a.m. on another day, two bullets smashed into the mirror on the bedroom vanity, inches from 16-year-old daughter Moha, who was brushing her thick black hair. Another day a projectile whizzed over Moha's shoulder as she bent to serve her father a glass of tea in the sitting room. Fourteen-year-old Walaa stumbled and broke her front teeth in the scramble down the dark, rail-less concrete stairwell to the first floor of the house.
At a neighbor's house, out of earshot of his parents, Alaa, brown eyes downcast, admitted, "I feel afraid."
When asked about his ambitions, he said, "I hope to be a doctor."
He hesitated a few seconds, then mumbled, "If I'm still alive."
Last week, as firefights erupted between Palestinian guerrillas armed with crude rocket-propelled grenade launchers and Israeli soldiers in armored personnel carriers and tanks, Alaa and his family evacuated their house, clutching the suitcases they kept packed for such emergencies. By Friday, their bullet-scarred house with its first-floor safe room was just another a heap of crumbled concrete.