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Rafah: a land out of bounds

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  • ummyakoub
    Mustafa Barghouti: The erasure of Rafah (follows) ... Return to Rafah: Journey to a land out of bounds Jennifer Loewenstein, Live from Palestine, 17 February
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 24, 2004
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      Mustafa Barghouti: The erasure of Rafah (follows)

      ----------------------------------------------------------------------
      Return to Rafah: Journey to a land out of bounds
      Jennifer Loewenstein, Live from Palestine, 17 February 2004
      (via Electronic Intifada)

      http://electronicintifada.net/v2/printer2426.shtml

      Said Zoroub drives a white pick-up truck with the words "Rafah
      Municipality" painted on the driver's side in Arabic and English, a
      gift from the Norwegians.[1] Less than an hour after my arrival in
      Rafah, Zoroub, the mayor, receives an urgent call on his cell phone.
      An Israeli bulldozer has struck a water main eight feet under the
      earth in the process of demolishing homes along the border between
      Rafah and Egypt. This has cut off the water supply to the western
      half of the city. From the passenger side of the municipality truck I
      get to survey the latest damage.

      Outwardly Zoroub looks unperturbed, but his words belie the
      appearance. "We live each day here in a state of emergency." On
      either side of the road the homes and buildings on the streets of
      Rafah are dotted with bullet holes as if suffering from a contagious
      disease. The nearer we get, the more ravaged are the buildings
      --crumbling from disrepair, caved in where tank shells and mortar
      fire have hit them during the night, their inhabitants make-shifting
      roofs, walls and doorways as needed. Lines of drying laundry hang
      outside the windows and political graffiti and posters of martyrs
      decorate the walls. Poverty and ruin define the city landscape. The
      edge of town is a no-man's-land of rubble torn up and rolled over by
      the heavy tracks and claws of the armored vehicles that rule this
      terrain.

      Puddles, stones and broken glass adorn the path alongside the homes
      on the city's perimeter that the Israeli army has blasted into gaping
      gray caverns too treacherous to stray into for long. More and more
      children appear from the alleyways of the neighborhood to our left
      following us curiously toward the end of the street. Men and women
      come out to greet the mayor as we pursue the sound of the tank in the
      distance that is flattening the earth beneath it, its guns pointed
      toward us. A bulldozer is pushing up mounds of dirt and rubble behind
      it with a steady roar: more homes gone and no water in western Rafah
      until the Israeli authorities give clearance for the municipality to
      send out a repair crew that won't be shot on sight. A boy points to a
      hole in a wall from where I can snap pictures without being easily
      detected. >From the same vantage point, children can watch the
      progress of the demolition. I have only taken two photos when the
      mayor tells me to "get away now, it's dangerous." It is Thursday
      afternoon the 15th of January 2004.

      There are tall IDF watchtowers everywhere along the Egyptian and
      Israeli borders with Rafah as well as between Rafah and the Gush
      Katif settlement bloc on the southeastern bend of the Mediterranean
      Sea. The beaches of Rafah, a short walk away for most of the citys
      residents, have been off limits to Rafahns since the beginning of the
      second Intifada denying them the only relief they have from the
      unbearable squalor of the Strip. Driving past the edge of the Tel as-
      Sultan district, the area exposed to the settlement watchtowers, the
      mayor picks up speed sensing our vulnerability. Many people have died
      along this stretch of road hit by bullets fired randomly by soldiers
      in the towers. The local boys nevertheless still attempt to use open
      spaces like this one as a soccer field on 'quiet' days.

      Further on Zoroub points out an orphanage and new, pre-fab homes put
      up by UNRWA after the IDF incursions of October 2003 that left 1,780
      people homeless, 15 civilians dead and dozens wounded.[2] There are
      people still camped out in tents, and public buildings still
      converted into emergency shelters.

      Northwest of the town are the two fresh water wells rebuilt with
      emergency funds from Norway after the IDF destroyed them in January
      2003.[3] A caretaker shows us fresh bullet holes in the walls of his
      trailer-like quarters and in the big blue sign along the fence
      outside announcing the gift of the new wells. He recounts how bullets
      have of late been ricocheting off the sides of the wells themselves
      advising us against standing there outside for long.

      The day before, in East Jerusalem, a man named Roger from Save the
      Children told me not to go to Rafah, that it wasnt safe. "I was there
      just two weeks ago working on a water project. I was talking to a guy
      manning a water pump. He was wearing a helmet and a jacket
      identifying himself as a city worker but he was so exposed, you know -
      -in full view of a watchtower. Two days later he was shot dead."

      On the way back to the mayor's house we pass fields of multi-colored
      carnations and stop at a primitive flower factory. The flowers are
      cut and bound together for export to Holland --if the Israeli port
      authorities allow them to pass. If they dont get out within a few
      days they wilt and die even in the cold trucks. A man in the factory
      offers me a bouquet of red carnations. Driving back, Zoroub waves his
      hands in the direction of the field, "I wanted you to see something
      romantic in Rafah."

      Confronting the Wall

      I left for Rafah on 11 January 2004 as part of a three-person pilot
      delegation to the city. We represented the Madison-Rafah Sister City
      Project, an organization founded in February 2003 to establish people-
      to-people ties between our two communities. Sistering projects are
      well known in Madison, Wisconsin --a Midwestern University town north
      of Chicago. Madison has official, City Council-approved sister cities
      with El Salvador, Nicaragua, East Timor, Cuba, Vietnam, and Lithuania
      among others. It seemed time, some of us thought, to build ties with
      a city in Palestine though a vote making this official has not yet
      been taken. Although in our first year we had had a number of highly
      successful local events and were welcomed by many in the community
      here, we were unprepared for the obstacles we encountered trying to
      get into the Gaza Strip.

      Since the deaths of Rachel Corrie, Thomas Hurndall, and James Miller
      at the hands of the Israeli military in Rafah last spring, entrance
      into the Gaza Strip has been increasingly difficult.[4] What became
      clearer than ever to me as I struggled to get permission to enter the
      Strip this January was that internationals are being kept out for two
      key reasons: to hide as much as possible what is taking place daily
      and to avoid any further "mishaps" --i.e., the killing or wounding of
      internationals that might draw unwanted publicity to the area again.

      The Israeli military forces kill Palestinians nearly every day in
      cruel and horrible circumstances. Most of the reports about these
      deaths and the unending atrocities against both the people and the
      land never make it into our media. When they do, they are packaged as
      justifiable violence against "terrorists" and militants",
      as "retaliatory strikes"or as actions of "self-defense". With the
      US and Israeli media and foreign policy establishments spotlighting
      the "War on Terror" few stop to question the reduction of entire
      groups of people into often grotesquely caricatured national foes
      bent on destroying "freedom" and "democracy". One result has been
      that nearly 3000 Palestinian deaths have had no effect on the
      majority of Americans --most of whom have no idea what is happening
      in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or elsewhere in the Middle
      East-- even though their government is directly responsible for them.
      When an international dies, however, especially a young American girl
      like Rachel Corrie whose purpose for being in Rafah was to engage in
      non-violent resistance, damage control becomes necessary --despite
      concerted attempts by some to portray Corrie as a "terrorist
      sympathizer".

      On 4 January 2004 Israel issued a new series of restrictions designed
      to further isolate the Palestinian people and to prevent the
      situation in the territories from as much formal or informal
      international monitoring as possible. The restrictions require prior
      written authorization for all citizens attempting to enter areas
      technically under the control of the Palestinian Authority (those
      known as "Area A" under the 1993 Oslo Agreement). Persons wishing to
      enter Gaza "are required to fill out a form requesting entry and to
      submit it to the Foreign Relations Office in the Coordination &
      Liaison Administration in the Gaza Strip, situated at Erez crossing.
      [5] These requests take a minimum of 5 business days to process, can
      be rejected at will, and often require repeated and frustrating
      attempts, as people we spoke to affirmed[6]. Attempting to get into
      areas A without permission can result in legal action, deportation,
      and the prevention of future entry into the state of Israel.

      The excuse for these restrictions, which have been more or less in
      place since the spring of 2003 but codified only recently, is to
      ensure the safety of foreigners entering the Palestinian territories,
      routinely described as "dangerous". The real reason, however, is not
      only to keep out activists such as those belonging to the ISM
      (International Solidarity Movement) but to keep people in general
      away from the Gaza Strip. These restrictions follow other, equally
      unsettling policies such as the requirement issued last spring that
      all visitors to Gaza sign a waiver absolving Israel of all
      responsibility for death or injury caused by the Israeli military.[7]
      International humanitarian aid organizations and foreign journalists
      have sometimes, but not always been, exempted. Nevertheless, the
      short-term effect of such policies has been to discourage all but the
      most determined from going to the Gaza Strip, and sometimes the West
      Bank. Their long-term effect could be far more devastating.

      Internal Checkpoints

      We arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday the 11th of January and, after
      security personnel interrogated two of the three of us, headed for
      the Jerusalem Hotel in East Jerusalem[8]. We understood that saying
      we were on our way to Rafah in the Gaza Strip would draw unwanted
      attention. Nonetheless, we felt reasonably confident we would arrive
      at our destination if we made it past Tel Aviv because we had a
      letter of support from US Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), a
      long-time supporter of Israel but also of Madison's sister cities.
      Before we left, Baldwin's State Department aide, Andrea Bagley,
      requested--and received-- comprehensive information on the purpose of
      our visit, our meeting agenda during the week, the names and contact
      information of the Rafah municipal authorities hosting us, a clear
      and detailed description of our organization and its goals, and our
      full names and passport numbers. Her letter requested that the
      appropriate authorities in Israel honor our desire to visit Rafah and
      facilitate our entry into the Gaza Strip.[9] In addition to this
      letter, two of us had valid press cards from local media outlets
      desiring reports on our experiences in Rafah.

      Journalists visiting Israel must have their press cards validated at
      the Beit Agron [press house] in West Jerusalem especially if they
      want to enter the Gaza Strip, as I made clear I did. I therefore went
      to the Beit Agron first thing in the morning only to be told my card
      was inadequate without 1) a letter of assignment from the
      organization that had issued it and 2) a fax from the Israeli
      Consulate in Chicago acknowledging that the media organization for
      which I was working was legitimate. I followed this up immediately,
      phoning Norman Stockwell at WORT radio in Madison asking him to fax a
      letter to Richard Pater at the Beit Agron. Stockwell also agreed to
      phone the Israeli Consulate to register WORT as a legitimate media
      source. Because there is an 8-hour time difference between Madison
      and Jerusalem I knew the process would take another day.

      In the meantime, we decided to visit the American Consulate in
      Jerusalem to move ahead with our letter expecting this would prove
      more fruitful. As Americans, we got into the consulate relatively
      easily and were directed into a waiting room. Minutes later we were
      called up to one of the service windows where I presented our letter--
      on official Congressional stationery-- to the American attendant
      saying that we hoped to get to Rafah to fulfill the obligations of our
      delegation asking that he help facilitate this. The words barely made
      it out of my mouth before I was cut off by the curt reply, "we have
      nothing to do with Rafah and nothing to do with Gaza. Gaza is a
      dangerous place and you shouldn't be going there. If you want to talk
      to the relevant personnel at the [US] Embassy in Tel Aviv, go ahead
      but I'm sure they will tell you the same thing." He shoved the letter
      back at us over our naive protestations that this was from a US
      Congressperson. We were dismissed and went back outside where it was
      raining. This was our first direct experience with the extent of the
      collusion between United States and Israel.

      I went back to the hotel to email Andrea in Tammy Baldwins office. By
      the next day she had faxed another letter to both the US Consulate in
      Jerusalem and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv appealing to them yet again
      to assist us in our project.[10] Meanwhile I telephoned Richard Pater
      repeatedly at the Beit Agron to follow up on my press card: the
      letter of assignment had arrived but not the telex from the Israeli
      Consulate in Chicago despite Stockwell's repeated phone calls.
      Exasperated, I phoned the press division of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv
      and spoke to division Chief Paul Patin who was both sympathetic and
      helpful. He phoned Pater to vouch for WORT radio (it turned out
      Patin's neighbors in Israel were from Madison, Wisconsin) and he
      promised to fax a letter on my behalf, which Pater received the next
      morning. I phoned Pater six times between 8:30 and 11:00am on
      Wednesday 14 January to inquire about the status of my press card. He
      kept putting me off saying there were still some "matters" he needed
      to look into. He refused to elaborate.

      For reasons that are unclear to me, I was finally --around 2pm on
      Wednesday-- issued an Israeli press card (valid for one week).
      Interestingly, this was just hours after a female suicide bomber,
      Reem Riyashi, blew herself up at the Erez crossing's Industrial Zone
      killing three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli border policeman.[11]
      Word had it that Erez would be closed indefinitely. Hamas took credit
      for the attack.

      On a hunch, I phoned an IDF spokesperson who, contrary to the rumors,
      said that with my press card I should have no trouble getting into
      Gaza. I put my suitcase in a cab and we drove off, arriving at the
      Erez crossing just before dark. There were 5 armored personnel
      carriers parked outside the visitor's station but otherwise the
      crossing was empty. Three young soldiers in the visitor's station
      sat huddled together with long faces. I handed them my passport and
      press card expressing my sadness over the deaths caused by that
      morning's suicide bombing. "My friend is dead," said the young female
      soldier who handed back my ID with the gate pass that finally allowed
      me to proceed.

      That night the streets of Gaza City were flooded from torrential
      rains and waters gushing up from the useless, decaying gutters. Cars
      were stopped in the streets standing in half a foot of water and men
      were laying wooden planks from the curbs to help them cross shallower
      areas. The power had gone out in a good part of the city making it
      look more rundown than ever in the darkness. My taxi driver took a
      circuitous route around the worst areas and dropped me off at the
      Deira hotel hoping I would find a vacant room. In fact, the hotel was
      empty. The desk clerk explained that all the journalists planning to
      stay there that night had cancelled their reservations because Erez
      was closed. To his surprise I explained that I had just come through
      Erez. Now I had the beautiful villa-style hotel to myself. I phoned
      my companions in East Jerusalem urging them to follow up with our
      Congressional letter at the US Embassy and then, at 8pm, gave a
      half-hour live interview to WORT radio in Madison as agreed. The next
      morning I left for Rafah passing the north-south checkpoint at Deir
      al-Balah with relative ease: we waited only 45 minutes before being
      allowed to proceed --unusual for a place where delays anywhere
      between 2 hours and four days are common.

      The Terrorist Infrastructure

      Bullets flew at us like hailstones when we left Naila's home that
      first evening in Rafah. For two hours I'd sat together with Sumaiya,
      the mayor's wife, and her sisters and their children watching their
      wide eyes and smiles as, one by one, they stood before me to attempt
      a sentence in English looking to me for approval and then running
      away in gleeful embarrassment. The older girls passed around dinner,
      pastries and coffee and Noof, Said Zoroub's beautiful 17-year-old
      daughter, asked me what I thought of Islam and if I would tell her
      what the bad things were that people in America said about it.

      Some of the kids were roughhousing in the background when the power
      went out leaving us in darkness. The littlest boy, Karim, let out a
      shriek calling, "mama!" and someone went to look for a battery-
      operated lamp. Electricity, like water and phone lines, is never
      taken for granted.

      We decided to leave when the lights came back on and Talal, the
      mayor's friend, came to pick us up, but we had to cram ourselves back
      into the doorway when bullets flew at us from the watchtower in the
      distance hitting the side of the building or shooting past us into
      the night. I would never have left that doorway had I been alone, but
      for the others the routine for these episodes of indiscriminate
      firing was to pause for a moment to wait for quiet, then dart into
      the car and duck down below the windows while the driver sped away.
      Up the road two cars had collided racing away from the same scene,
      their drivers looking dejected standing there in the middle of the
      dark street surveying the damage.

      Back at the mayor's home, I received a call from Laura Gordon, the
      last American ISM activist in Rafah[12]. Would I come by the office
      and meet her friends? They were planning a demonstration for Friday.
      Had I heard that Tom Hurndall had died? Ten months in a coma and
      peace finally came. The martyr's posters had already been printed
      with his young face looking out at us. Now they would be plastered
      along the city walls next to all the others. The demonstrators would
      march up Keer Street the next morning to stand at the place where
      he'd been shot in the head attempting to pull two children out of the
      line of fire.

      Tanks barrel down Keer Street when major invasions into Rafah begin.
      It is a wretched slum-like street that dead-ends in a large mound of
      earth, stone blocks and rubble across from the no-man's-land between
      it and the IDF's positions. On Friday morning I stood on top of that
      mound gazing across the way at another fortress-like bunker harboring
      Israeli guards. I couldn't see them but I sensed their eyes on us.
      The demonstrators, almost all children, wore bulls eye placards on
      their shirts and carried the banners, "Palestinians and
      Internationals are Targets for the Israeli Army." A young girl
      pointed to a small hole in the wall of the building at the end of
      Keer Street, the mark of the bullet, I was told, that ultimately
      killed Hurndall.

      I have heard many say that the Gaza Strip is a prison with the sky
      for a ceiling. Its inhabitants live surrounded by electrified fences,
      motion censors, barbed wire and metal barriers except along the sea
      coast where Israeli gunboats patrol the shores. Israel prevents most
      Gazans from leaving the territory or traveling freely even between
      its overcrowded camps and towns since it is controlled by extensive
      checkpoints that can turn half-an-hour's travel into a four day
      journey. Its military can choose to close off sections of Gaza from
      all contact with the rest of the Strip whenever it pleases though
      residents of the 17 illegal settlements, which take up more than a
      quarter of this tiny area, can travel back and forth to Israel with
      ease on the Jewish-only roads[13].

      The Gaza Strip is far more than a prison, however. One need only
      spend time in Khan Yunis or Bureij, Jabalia or Nuseirat, Gaza City or
      Beit Hanoun to recognize the flaw in the prison analogy. In Gaza you
      are more than an inmate in a giant penitentiary. You are a walking
      human target, shadowed by hired killers who can destroy you and your
      surroundings at will. Your home belongs to bulldozers and dynamite,
      your cities and refugee camps to F-16s and helicopter gun ships. In
      Gaza your livelihood is diminished each day by an impoverishment that
      is as deliberate as it is merciless. There is neither escape from
      desperation nor refuge from terror. Nowhere is this more evident than
      in Rafah.

      Since 29 September 2000 the Israeli army has killed 275 people in
      Rafah, more than three dozen of them since October 2003. Seventy-six
      of the dead have been children. It has destroyed a total of 1,759
      homes, 430 of them since October 2003 displacing a total of 12,643
      residents, 2,894 since October 2003. Unemployment is nearing 70% in
      Rafah, with a poverty rate of 83.4% as of the end of the third
      quarter of 2003.[14] Malnutrition affects a large number of Rafah's
      children as does Post Traumatic Stress Disorder[15]. Rafah, a city
      with a population of about 120,000 (smaller than Ramallah, Nablus,
      Gaza City, and Hebron) has lost more people than any other city in
      the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the beginning of the
      second Intifada. It is the poorest of all Palestinian cities, and its
      Shaboura district is the poorest section of Rafah. There, whole
      families live together in one-room shacks made of corrugated iron
      with dirt floors and sheet metal, cardboard and tarpaulin roofs.
      Children run barefoot in the streets ill-clad and ill-fed. Nowhere in
      Palestine will one find conditions as miserable and destitute as they
      are in Rafah, approximately 80% of whose citizens are refugees
      sometimes two and three times over.[16]

      When Israeli tanks came rolling through the streets of Rafah in
      October 2003 the western media reported they were looking for tunnels
      linking homes in Rafah to Egypt for the purpose of smuggling weapons.
      The Palestinian leadership was failing to "dismantle the terrorist
      infrastructure" and so it was up to Israel to do the job itself. We
      are supposed to accept unquestioningly that such tunnels and the
      trickle of weapons they deliver pose a serious threat to Israel's
      massive military arsenal, and that the process of searching for these
      tunnels necessarily involves the destruction of 2000 people's homes
      and all of their possessions. To doubt this would jeopardize the
      logic of continued occupation and of the greater "war on terror"
      Americans and their Israeli allies must fight together. It could lead
      to the more likely conclusion that the level of death and destruction
      routine in Rafah are part of Israel's plan to clear --at whatever
      cost to the inhabitants-- a wide area in between the Egypt-Rafah
      border in order to turn it into a closed military zone under direct
      Israeli control and to terrorize and intimidate the Palestinian
      population. Establishing a CMZ (closed military zone) will remove the
      last international boundary between Palestinian territory and a
      country other than Israel guaranteeing that the Gaza Strip will
      become permanently quarantined. It will complete the destruction of
      the Gazan economy since trade with Egypt will, for all practical
      purposes, cease. It will advance the process of gradual, internal
      flight away from Gaza's border regions into the already overcrowded
      refugee camps and cities of the interior. Devastation and the
      implosion of an entire society will be accelerated with the United
      States' blessing.

      Just after the October incursions, Amnesty International issued a
      statement labeling Israel's actions a war crime and calling for a
      halt to the extensive demolition of family homes. Two weeks of
      destruction, dispossession and death during which time Israeli forces
      found three tunnels and no weapons.[17]

      "Gaza is a Dangerous Place"

      Heavy tank and machine gun fire blast the nights wide open in Rafah.
      For six hours straight I listen to the continual pounding of bullets
      and tank shells outside my window. Now and then an unidentifiable
      explosion interrupts the shooting, a silent pause creeps over the
      skies, and the routine begins again. But the silence above me is not
      absolute: in the distance on the ground I can hear the non-stop
      rumble of machines at work; bulldozers devouring the edges of
      the town.

      On the morning of 17 January Arij Zoroub knocked on my door to find
      out if I was all right. She wanted to know if I'd been afraid. I told
      her I was angry. How could I explain the feeling of being transported
      away into a nightmare world where you expect the next blast to come
      through your wall --and that you almost wish for it so you can end
      your impotent seclusion? that in your mind you stand in the shadowy,
      cracked-open homes where the ragged partisans shoot back at the
      army and pray for them to hit their targets.

      On the roof of the mayor's house, Arij points past the homes behind
      us to survey the night's damage: The familiar flattened landscape
      gapes back at me like a dead man's eyes. More homes gone and part of
      a mosque destroyed. Dozens more people displaced. Disproportionate
      force unleashed against pitiful guerrillas determined to fight back
      and to drag all of Rafah in with them if necessary. What difference
      will that make? Israel's message is clear: we will destroy you,
      if not in death then in life.

      In the two weeks following my departure, at least 30 more homes
      vanished from Rafah and nearly 600 more people were displaced. Seven
      more people died, including an infant while two more men were the
      victims of Israel's "targeted assassinations" policy. Both were
      unarmed when they were executed.[18] A photojournalist contact sent
      me photos from the latest violence. These are the images that best
      summarize life in Rafah, the kinds of images that clutter my memory
      when I think back to my brief stay this January, even after the hours
      of working visits to the municipality, youth centers, women's
      organizations, the ministries of health and education, popular
      refugees' committees, and a rehabilitation center for the deaf; after
      days of note-taking and conversation about moving forward and
      building bridges between communities[19].

      Before leaving Gaza City I'd found emailed messages from US
      Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin's office waiting for me on-line. The same
      friendly aide, so eager to assist us when we started on our journey,
      had received correspondence from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. Now her
      tone was official and serious. She was "urging" me to get out of Gaza
      away from "potentially dangerous areas and situations" and was
      conveying the State Department's concern that American Citizens not be
      "exposed" to such dangers. She had attached three items: a letter
      from Alison Dilworth of the American Consulate in Jerusalem informing
      her that American Citizens should not be traveling to the Gaza Strip;
      a "Public Announcement: Warden Message" issued by the US Government
      on 15 October 2003 (just after an official American convoy traveling
      in the Gaza Strip was hit by a bomb) recommending that all Americans
      in Gaza leave immediately and that their evacuation be facilitated by
      the Israelis; and a "Worldwide Caution" issued by the US State
      Department on 22 December 2003 warning American citizens abroad about
      the potential threat to their lives from Al Qaida[20]. It seemed the
      office of our US Congressperson had been made to fall into line with
      the US policy of sanctioning Israeli actions.

      When I tried to leave Gaza through the Erez Crossing on the evening
      of 17 January Israeli soldiers ordered me to stop before I passed the
      last barricade. I was left waiting for more than two hours in the
      dark surrounded by concrete blocks. If I moved forward, I knew I
      could be shot. I shouted repeatedly at the soldiers in the Israeli
      bunker at the checkpoint to please let me through because I had a
      flight to catch. My shouts were met with sarcastic remarks and
      threats, "Erez is closed, go back"and "we heard you the first time;
      you can be quiet now". Only after continuing to holler that I was an
      American citizen and needed to leave was I finally instructed to
      proceed through the electronic security gate. At the window of the
      bunker, a helmeted young soldier grabbed my passport and stamped it
      huffily saying that he hadn't been able to let me through before he'd
      gotten clearance from a higher authority. A voice behind him echoed
      guiltily, "We are just little screws in a big machine". Would this be
      the justification years hence for the horrors of the Israeli
      occupation?

      The air was cold when my taxi drove me off into the night.


      Jennifer Loewenstein is a freelance journalist and human rights
      activist. She lived and worked in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian
      refugee camp in South Beirut, Lebanon during the summers of 2000 and
      2001, and worked at the Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza City,
      Gaza for 5 months in 2002. She has participated in delegations to the
      Occupied Palestinian Territories and was among the first
      Internationals into the Jenin Refugee camp after its destruction
      during "Operation Defensive Shield" in April 2002. In February 2003
      Jennifer founded the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project and visited
      Rafah in January 2004 for its first delegation to the city. She has
      written and spoken extensively about her experiences. Jennifer
      teaches Professional Communications at the University of Wisconsin -
      Madison.


      Endnotes

      [1] Norway has provided development assistance to Palestine since
      1993 to "help prevent any further disintegration of the political,
      social and economic basis for the peace process." From 1999-2003
      Norway pledged NOK 1.3 billion in aid to the Palestinian Territories
      making these areas one of the single largest recipients of bilateral
      aid from Norway since 1994. There was evidence of the Norwegian
      development assistance all over Rafah (indeed it is sobering just how
      much international aid in general is holding together the
      infrastructures of Palestinian cities, towns, and refugee camps). The
      two new fresh water wells on the outskirts of Rafah are one example
      of emergency Norwegian aid.

      [2] The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
      published a report on 28 January 2004 detailing the consequences of
      IDF operations in Rafah. It found that "Some of those made homeless
      by IDF operations moved into smaller units, which in most cases are
      insufficient for the size of the family. Others have migrated
      northwards in search of accommodation, or --in exceptional cases--
      moved into abandoned dwellings adjacent to the buffer zones that were
      left by other families fearful that their homes would be targeted. An
      increasing number of families whose homes were destroyed are relying
      on tents for shelter. Tents are being provided by UNRWA and ICRC."
      The homeless figures I quote above are from this report. Others
      estimated the number of people made homeless during the October 2003
      raids at around 2000.

      [3] For a report on the destruction of Rafah's two fresh water wells
      in January 2003, see "Danger: Rafah's fresh water wells," by Amira
      Hass of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, 5 February 2003. The wells
      provided about 50% of the drinking and household water to the city of
      Rafah and Hass suggests they were deliberately destroyed.

      [4] Rachel Corrie was an American ISM (International Solidarity
      Movement) activist who was crushed to death by a bulldozer in Rafah
      on 16 March 2003. She was standing in a flat, open area wearing a
      bright orange vest and carrying a bullhorn shouting to the bulldozer
      driver to stop the demolition of family homes. According to an
      Israeli investigation, her death was an accident. Tom Hurndall was a
      British ISM activist shot in the head on 11 April 2003. He died in
      the UK in January 2004 after lying in a coma for ten months. Like
      Corrie, Hurndall had been wearing a bright orange vest with
      reflective stripes. He had been trying to move children away from an
      area where there was active IDF firing. A Bedouin soldier in Israel
      has recently been charged with killing him. James Miller was an award-
      winning cameraman making a film in Rafah on how violence was
      affecting children. He was shot in the neck by Israeli gunfire on 2
      May 2003 while wearing a jacket marked "press" and waving a white
      flag as he approached Israeli troops. He died while awaiting
      evacuation.

      [5] To view the document on the new, 4 January 2004 Israeli
      restrictions on travel into the Palestinian Territories go to:
      www.palsolidarity.org/pressreleases/entryrestrictions.php

      [6] While in East Jerusalem, my companions and I spoke to a number of
      individuals who had faced difficulties getting in and out of Gaza
      including the acting manager of the Bookshop at the American Colony
      Hotel, Peter Huff-Rousselle, and a young man working for the World
      Bank who asked not to be named. Their experiences were significant in
      that these two were indirectly or directly (respectively) involved
      with international aid organizations for which such restrictions
      might have been more relaxed.

      [7] To view a copy of the Gaza Waiver absolving Israel of
      responsibility for the deaths of internationals at the hands of the
      Israeli military go to: electronicIntifada.net/v2/article1452.shtml

      [8] I was not interrogated but my companions, George Arida and
      Francis Bradley, were each questioned and searched in an ordeal
      taking more than two hours. There are many possible reasons for this.
      It is significant to me, however, that I have yet to be questioned in
      Tel Aviv although I have been to the West Bank and Gaza Strip on many
      occasions, have written extensively and critically on the situation
      in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, have worked in Gaza City, and
      have Syrian and Lebanese stamps in my passport. I tend to think the
      ease with which I pass through security in Tel Aviv is related to my
      Jewish last name, Loewenstein.

      [9] A copy of the Bagley/Baldwin letter and all further
      correspondence between myself and Congresswoman Baldwin's office can
      be found at the MRSCP (Madison-Rafah Sister City Project) website:
      www.Madison-Rafah.org

      [10] See footnote 9.

      [11] There are numerous articles on this Hamas-sponsored suicide
      bombing focusing on the fact that the bomber, Reem Riyashi, was a 22
      year old married mother of two. See, for example, Chris
      McGreal's "Palestinians Shocked at Use of Suicide Mother" in The
      Guardian on 27 January 2004. What has been left out repeatedly is
      that the victims in this case were all associated with the Israeli
      military (three soldiers and one border police guard) and the bombing
      took place on occupied land making the attack arguably wholly
      legitimate.

      [12] Laura has returned to the US and is doing a speaking tour across
      the country.

      [13] Much has been made of the recent development that Ariel Sharon
      is planning to evacuate the 17 Jewish settlements in Gaza. There are
      in fact 23 settlements in Gaza, as noted by Amira Hass in "This
      mortal coil", Ha'aretz, 13 February 2004. What he said was, "I have
      given an order to plan for the evacuation of 17 settlements in the
      Gaza Strip." An order to plan for the evacuation is not the same as
      an order to evacuate, which is yet to be given. Nonetheless, many have
      known for years that Israel does not 'need' Gaza and that giving up
      the settlements there could provide some strategic leverage for
      Israel, keen to annex more Palestinian land in the West Bank for its
      settlements there with Washington's approval. Indeed, some say that
      Sharon expects the West Bank in return for 'giving up' the Gaza
      Strip. According to Sharon, "It is my intention to carry out an
      evacuation - sorry, a relocation - of settlements that cause us
      problems and of places that we will not hold onto anyway in a final
      settlement, like the Gaza settlements," ("PM: I gave order to plan
      evacuation of 17 Gaza settlements", article by Yoel Marcus in
      Ha'aretz, 3 February 2004.) Other analysts, such as Mouin Rabbani and
      Amira Hass, have suggested that Sharons move is also, in all
      likelihood, a ploy to look conciliatory during his next visit to
      Washington, to refocus domestic attention on the Palestinian crisis
      and away from the scandals now rocking Sharon's government, and
      possibly an attempt to explore a unity government with Labor. It may
      also be another attempt to divide any remaining Palestinian
      leadership within the enclaves that remain. The likelihood of the
      circumstances in Gaza being made easier for its Palestinian
      inhabitants even with the evacuation of all Jewish settlements is
      slim based on the extent to which Gaza is cordoned off from Israel
      and Egypt and under heavy IDF military control. In fact, the chances
      are considerable that the social and economic circumstances in Gaza
      will continue to worsen and that extremism within the political
      factions will increase.

      [14] The statistics listed here were compiled by the Mezan Center for
      Human Rights based in Gaza City, Gaza. They do not include statistics
      on the number of homes destroyed, people killed or displaced between
      16 and 22 January 2004. During this time 1 woman was killed and 8
      people were injured. Seventy-two more homes have been demolished
      since the beginning of January 2004 and an additional 684 people have
      been made homeless. See "Report to the LACC on humanitarian
      consequences of the Israeli Defence Forces operations in Rafah,
      southern Gaza Strip," published by the UN Office for the Coordination
      of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 28 January 2004.

      [15] On malnutrition in the Palestinian territories see, for example,
      "Palestinian malnutrition at African levels under Israeli curbs, say
      MPs," by Ben Russell in The Independent, 5 February 2004. British
      MP's on a visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories are quoted as
      saying, "Rates of malnutrition in Gaza and parts of the West Bank are
      as bad as anything one would find in sub-Saharan Africa. The
      Palestinian economy has all but collapsed. Unemployment rates are in
      the region of 60 to 70 percent&.It is hard to avoid the conclusion
      that there is a deliberate Israeli strategy of putting the lives of
      ordinary Palestinians under stress as part of a strategy to bring the
      population under heel." On the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress
      Disorder among Palestinians, especially Palestinian children see "An
      Interview with Eyad El-Sarraj"(of the Gaza Community Mental Health
      Center in Gaza City, Gaza) in Tikkun, by Julie Oxenberg and Dan
      Burnstein, Nov/Dec 2003.

      [16] Information on the situation of Rafah's refugees was obtained in
      direct conversation with Zeyad Sarafandi, President of Rafah's
      Popular Refugees Committee, on 17 January 2004 in the main Rafah
      office.

      [17] Amnesty International Press Release, 13 October 2003. AI Index:
      MDE 15/091/2003 (public); News Service No: 234; Israel/Occupied
      Territories: "Wanton destruction constitutes a war crime".

      [18] See the UN's OCHA reports for February 2004; also "Israeli
      Troops Kill Palestinian in Raid," Al Jazeera, Sunday 8 February 2004.
      www.english.aljazeera.net

      [19] Brent Foster's photographs can be viewed at:
      www.sportsshooter.com/members.html?id=1966 A detailed description of
      the people met and organizations visited during this trip to Rafah
      can be found at the MRSCP website: www.Madison-Rafah.org

      [20] See attachments with correspondence from US Congresswoman Tammy
      Baldwin's office on the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project's website at
      www.Madison-Rafah.org

      --------------------------------------------------
      Hell walking on earth

      Under the world's clouded gaze the State of Israel is ethnically
      cleansing the citizens of Rafah. Not a single excuse remains for
      inaction, writes Mustafa Barghouti*

      Al-Ahram Weekly Online : 5 - 11 February 2004 (Issue No. 676)
      Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/676/op2.htm

      The disastrous cycle of violence gripping Israel and Palestine
      receives plentiful news coverage. Largely unreported however, are the
      more insidious aspects of the conflict. Israel has committed a litany
      of atrocities during its occupation of Palestine, but the crimes
      visited daily upon the innocent civilians of Rafah are among the most
      heinous. Even in the wider context of the occupation as a whole,
      Rafah's situation is particularly tragic, and the conditions imposed
      on its citizens increasingly desperate. There can be no doubt that
      Israeli policy in Rafah amounts to a process of ethnic cleansing,
      and, as has been so often the case throughout history, a humanitarian
      catastrophe is being allowed to continue unimpeded. The world sits
      idly by.

      The most populous district of one of the most overcrowded regions on
      earth, the people of Rafah continue to find the land beneath them
      dwindling as repeated Israeli incursions systematically rob them of
      their homes, livelihood and dignity.

      Formally one complete city, Rafah was divided in two following the
      Camp David settlement in 1978, with one half now part of Egypt. Since
      then, Israeli settlements have been established along the coast,
      cutting further into the already divided city. Today, the Palestinian
      half of Rafah is a disparate collection of squalid camps, hemmed in
      by a ring of steel, its infrastructure effectively destroyed and its
      people destitute. Unemployment in the area stands at over 80 per
      cent. Israel has conspicuously targeted the city's infrastructure
      leaving sanitation in the camps in a deplorable condition.

      On the fringes of the city, one row of houses after another has been
      erased, Israeli destruction moving at a pace that the crippled local
      infrastructure cannot hope to counter. The United Nations Relief and
      Works Agency (UNRWA) has helped rebuild 200 houses in Rafah, and the
      Palestinian Ministry of Housing has managed 34. But these figures
      pale in comparison to the 1,643 buildings demolished and 16,000
      Palestinians left homeless by the Israelis.

      Last week, Israeli occupying troops went on yet another destructive
      rampage on the edge of the city, demolishing 31 Palestinian houses
      and wounding 38 local workers in the process. This one raid alone has
      left over 400 people homeless. A neighbourhood mosque was also razed
      in the invasion, another clear symbol of the casual disregard in
      which the Palestinians are held.

      As well as the demolition of property, the Israeli military grip on
      Rafah has also been steadily tightened to disastrous effect. Due to
      its position on the border with Egypt, Rafah is of vital strategic
      importance to the Gaza Strip's impoverished economy. As such it has,
      in the egregious logic of the Israeli government, been a natural
      target for Israel's flagrant intention to crush any semblance of
      economic self-government in the occupied territories. Local workers
      seeking access to their jobs in Egypt are repeatedly denied passage
      at the border, or refused re-entry to the city in the evenings.
      Likewise, access to other towns and cities in Gaza is frequently
      restricted, disrupting the local economy as much as possible.

      With the available farmland rapidly disappearing, local produce is
      more and more scarce, with Palestinians increasingly forced to rely
      on Israeli imports. Meanwhile, the poverty rate in Rafah, established
      by the World Bank to include those living on less than $2 a day,
      stands at 75 per cent.

      As usual, the Israeli army's specious justification to the
      international community for the systematic degradation of Rafah has
      been the ongoing search for tunnels used by militants and smugglers
      extending from the city across the Egyptian border. The fact that
      Israel possesses ample equipment to discover and unearth these
      tunnels without resorting to widespread destruction and violence
      is conveniently ignored.

      As the citizens of Rafah are crammed into a smaller and smaller
      portion of land, stripped of their homes, and enslaved in grinding
      poverty, the fallacy of Israel's stated objectives is clear. The
      incursions into Rafah, as elsewhere in the occupied territories, are
      merely an ongoing land-grab masquerading as a justifiable security
      operation. New ground for settlement expansion is being prepared and
      Israeli control of the border is tightened. At some points in Rafah,
      the incursions have cut up to 150 metres into Palestinian-owned
      territory, widening the buffer zone along the border at no cost to
      Israel, but to disastrous effect for the destitute local population.

      The deaths in Rafah last year of international peace activists Rachel
      Corrie and Tom Hurndall, as well as the BBC cameraman James Miller,
      have caused ripples of concern across the international community and
      raised the media profile of the situation in Rafah and the occupied
      territories as a whole. Nonetheless, it remains a sad indictment of
      attitudes abroad that Sharon's government has only been called to
      account when a foreign worker suffers the same tragic fate as the
      thousands of innocent Palestinians killed in the last three years. Tom
      Hurndall's family has had the grace and dignity to acknowledge this,
      even at a time of unbearable grief.

      The Israeli actions in Rafah are a crime; a reign of terror on
      innocent civilians. The world has looked on too many times when such
      crimes have occurred in the past, reacting only when it was too late.
      Now it runs the risk of not reacting at all as the Sharon
      administration, already steeped in blood, plunges the civilians of
      Rafah into further carnage. Alert to the growing "demographic
      threat" posed by an increasing Palestinian population, the ethnic
      cleansing has already begun. Unsatisfied with reducing the city to
      terrified penury, Rafah it appears is to be steadily eliminated. The
      world must respond.

      * The writer is secretary-general of the Palestinian National
      Initiative.

      *********************************************************************

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