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 The IDF Shuts Away the Sea at Rafah
 Amira Hass, Israel
 July 14, 2002
It's hard to calculate the number of unemployed at Rafah. In fact, it's easier simply to count the number of workers.

A yellowish curtain of sand and heat separates Rafah from the rest of the world. The handful of visitors who come to this hapless, forgotten southern town have to cut through this screen. Sand particles swirl as an irritating fog, and the sunlight scalds. People roam about in sand alleyways, passing between mosques and homes; or they sit down to rest in the sweltering heat. The sand-fog and blistering heat make it impossible to distinguish between those who are moving or sitting, alive or catatonic.

Only the children carry on, as children do anywhere. Some play soccer on a field near the open market, and ignore the heat. Some practice their English by striking up a conversation with an English-speaking visitor; a few run to the neighborhood store to buy some drinks. Some ask visitors for a shekel—a local adult tells them that they should be "ashamed" to beg for money, while another adult shakes his head, and murmurs about how "miserable" they are.

But when the youngsters try to fly a kite in wind that isn't blowing from the sea, they no longer behave like children. Kites are flown in open spaces, not between concrete slabs which block off any breeze. In Rafah, there is no open space. The sea has been shut down.

The entire coast-line between Rafah and Dir al-Balah has been closed to Palestinians. IDF positions, replete with rifles poking out of watchposts, and the occasional jeep or larger army vehicle which races up and down the road, ensure that nobody trespasses beyond clearly demarcated borders. The sea, a natural place of escape from the over-bearing heat and an idyllic leisure spot for children during the summer holiday, has become an inaccessible place visited only in dreams.

It cannot be reached, even though it's only a 10-minute walk, or a two-minute car ride away. Those who have permits remind themselves what the waves are like when they travel up to Gaza City. But these are just a minority of lucky Rafah residents; few have the NIS 14 needed for a round-trip journey.

During recent months, when the IDF has enforced a policy of "cutting-up" and isolating the Gaza Strip, and has blocked movement between northern and southern areas for hours or days, the sea off the Gaza coast has become no more than a memory.

Rafah and Khan Yunis regularly figure in Palestinian surveys as the two most impoverished Palestinian cities. Their indigence and misery has grown in recent months. Unemployment levels at Rafah, long among the highest in the territories, have skyrocketed. There is no industry. Is unemployment 60 percent? Or 70 percent? Are farmers to be included in these unemployment figures? Cucumbers and flowers are grown in local greenhouses, but they aren't picked, and the local market is saturated by agricultural products that aren't marketed to the West Bank and Israel. Farmers in Rafah figure that it is simply a waste of gas to to put products on a truck which will be held up at a road-block in Gush Katif for three days.

Are cab and truck drivers to be included on the rosters of the unemployed? They are listed as drivers, but they never move on the roads due to the checkpoints, or make just one trip a day to Gaza City and back, instead of the seven or eight trips which they would make in normal times.

And is the story of Manal, an architect who was unable for months to make the trip from Rafah to her firm's office in Gaza City, but managed to send her sketches to colleagues by electronic mail, representative? Various work facilities which were promised to local residents but never built, or which were built and then closed, have no virtual reality substitute on the Internet.

And what about young adults, 18-year-olds who have just finished secondary school, and for whom "work" (meaning contributing to the family income), not to mention higher education, are just words in the dictionary? These young people have yet to be counted as unemployed.

Trash piles up

The few money earners in this city of 100,000 persons are several hundred workers in the Palestinian public sphere. But their wages are not paid on time. In Rafah, residents refer cynically to these pay-delays by saying that the major reform instituted so far by the Palestinian Authority is to turn the month into 60 days. Delays in paying wages to public servants and policemen create a chain reaction of missed payments—payments due to a local grocery, or to the municipality, aren't made on time.

These delays in salary payments, and residents' consequent inability to pay electricity and water bills, have left their mark on the streets in Rafah. Rubbish is piled up outside at levels which haven't been seen in the city since the early 1990s, when Israel controlled the town directly. There aren't funds to hire an adequate number of public sanitation workers. More than that, there simply isn't the will to display respect for public space, which has become a venue of despair, hopelessness and death.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights has compiled figures showing that between September 29, 2000 and June 24, 2002, 450 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip. About a quarter of these persons, 112 persons, died in Rafah; this figure for Rafah includes 30 children. Palestinian statistics regarding fatality levels compared to total population levels show that Rafah and Nablus are the two most blood-soaked locales in the territories. In Nablus, during the IDF occupation in April, dozens of persons were killed in just a few days. In Rafah, the fatality figures represent a more gradual process of individuals losing their lives, but on June 24, six local residents were killed in one stroke.

Yasser Raizak, 29, was known as an operative in Hamas' military wing, Az a-Din al-Kassam. Two months before June 24, he was injured while preparing an explosive. On June 24, he traveled to Rafah's A-Najar hospital, together with two brothers, Bassam, 32, and Yusef, 24. Also in the car was Amir Kufa, another member of Hamas' military wing whom the IDF had pursued a few months earlier in his neighborhood, Tel a-Sultan. The driver of the cab was Sami Omar, 29. At 7:00 A.M., an IDF helicopter fired two missiles at the cab—at the time, the vehicle was 500 meters from the hospital, traveling on a road which has a few residential buildings on one side and olive trees on the other. All five men died on the spot.

Another taxi was traveling behind the decimated vehicle. For minutes, its stunned driver couldn't move, nor get a word out of his mouth. Looking into his mirror, he could see the young passenger—or, more precisely, the headless body of the passenger—whom he had been transporting. This dead passenger was Midhat Jurani, 17. Three other pedestrians were injured by the airborne warship's missiles. One of them, A'aishe Halil, is 11 years old.

Three days later, charred remains of the first cab whose passengers were wiped out could still be seen on the side of the road. A crater in the battered road marked the spot where a missile devastated the car. Neighborhood residents still talk about pieces of flesh which they find around trees and windows, about a hand which somebody found, and about children who are afraid to go to sleep at night.

Asked about whether they think about similar grisly scenes which transpired in Netanya or Jerusalem because of suicide terror attacks, Rafah residents reply that this is "a case of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." One answers the question with a question: "What is the weaker side supposed to do?" he queries. Another comments that in Israel, everybody is a soldier. One resident declares that he opposes suicide terror attacks, but also wonders whether Israelis think about killed Palestinian children.

The IDF reports on a daily basis about grenades that are thrown at army bases, or mines detonated against IDF jeeps. In Rafah, Palestinians report each day about Israeli soldiers shooting at anyone who wants to get near, even those who live in the town.

The constant altercations have caused many to leave houses located in border areas. These residents have joined hundreds of persons whose houses were demolished during the past two years by IDF bulldozers.

Since the destruction of 59 houses in January in Rafah, another 20 homes have been demolished. Though dozens of residents were left homeless by this second wave of demolitions, the 20 wrecked homes did not cause the same outcry which was heard in January.

The IDF regularly reports that soldiers have uncovered tunnels and weapons smuggling operations. Residents in Rafah don't deny that there are tunnels, but they claim that most were stuffed up long ago by the Egyptians.

Holding a place in line

In Rafah's "O block," houses which remain standing are damaged, and perforated by bullet holes. Mostly children wander around the alleys; adults tell them to hurry along, warning, "Be careful, the Jews might shoot you." Some women sit in front of their homes and bemoan the fates of their unemployed children, some of whom have vowed to die as martyrs. Now and then a puddle of sewage seeps into the sand—IDF bulldozers destroyed sewage pipes which had been installed a few years ago, with the help of European donations. A stench wafts from the cesspools.

It's lucky, somebody says, that not many people have remained around here.

Municipality workers made several attempts to carry out sewage repairs along the border, but IDF soldiers fired shots at them in each instance. Finally, in late June, members of a solidarity group of human rights workers from Italy and France, along with Palestinian peers, managed to work their way up to the sewage grid (while holding signs in English) and create a human shield as municipality workers repaired the damaged pipes.

In June, human rights activists also demonstrated between the IDF roadblock at the entrance to Dir al-Balah and the roadblock at the Gush Katif junction. This stretch of road is a mass of iron gates, concrete slabs, rifles poking out of army posts, and a long line of Palestinian cars. The Palestinian drivers have to wait on both sides of the road while a Jewish settler's vehicle, or an IDF patrol car, passes through. Often no such reason is needed to hold up hundreds of Palestinians cars and trucks along the only route left to Palestinians who need to travel between Gaza's southern and northern stretches.

The human rights workers from overseas marched along the road, carrying English language placards. When Palestinians tried to skirt by the roadblocks by foot, IDF soldiers fired warning shots in the air. The human rights activists approached soldiers, and asked why Palestinian traffic was being blocked. One soldier responded: If they back off, we can reopen the checkpost. The activists moved back, and at last gates at the checkpost opened up.

In Gaza City and Rafah, residents ask daily about the status of roadblocks on this stretch between Dir al-Balah and Gush Katif.

Dozens of children run between held-up cars. New orders hold that at least three persons have to travel in each car. So the children tell drivers that they'll get into cars that don't meet this requirement, for a small fee. Impromptu kiosks have sprouted up along the side of the road, and offer coffee and tea to drivers and passengers whose cars are stuck for hours, or even days. Truck drivers come in early evening and wait until the roadblock opens at 3:00 A.M., or 4:00 A.M. or even 7:00 A.M.

Nobody announces when the stretch of road will be open to human movement. The checkposts might open up at 11:00 A.M., or they might not. Sometimes they open for the second time in a day at 4:00 P.M., and remain open for 30 minutes, or two hours. For months, persons got out of taxis and climbed into trucks that were parked for the night in front of the roadblocks—by staying around and getting into the trucks, these wayfarers "saved" their place in line. These hapless travelers included university instructors from Gaza City, contractors, and students.

Local residents tell the following story: a truck conveying 10 cows to a slaughterhouse got stuck on the road next to a second truck in which dozens of persons were huddled together. One truck was headed from Gaza City south, and the other was northward bound after leaving Han Yunis. When permission was finally granted to vehicles to move, the traffic jam stopped each truck from moving. Neither driver wanted to yield a place in the line, and go through the checkpost behind the other. "What's the difference between you and me," asked the driver who was ferrying the cows to the slaughter. "We are more than you," replied a passenger in the other truck.

Amira Hass lives in Gaza, and writes a column for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

From Ha’aretz, July 14, 2002.