Homeless Palestinians Tell All
- 'They have no humanity. They didn't even give us two minutes to get
By Chris McGreal
4 June 2004
Last month, Israeli troops swept into the Rafah refugee camp in
Gaza, bulldozing hundreds of homes and leaving around 60 dead.
Israel says it was looking for terrorists, but by the time the army
withdrew, 1,600 people were homeless. What happens to the people
whose houses are destroyed? Chris McGreal asked six families to
show him what they salvaged from the rubble
The Al-Akhras family
There is nothing left of the Akhras' family's home. Even the cloths
blowing in the breeze above their heads, providing a pathetic,
makeshift tent to the once nomadic Bedouin family, are borrowed
from luckier neighbours. A large round metal bowl is all that they
recovered from the rubble of their house after it was bulldozed by
the Israeli army.
"There were 10 rooms here," says the 50-year-old patriarch, Ghazi.
"Thirty-three people lived in the house. There was me, my wife, my
seven brothers and their wives, and all our sons and daughters."
It was 10pm when the bulldozers came. "All the people were fleeing
their houses, but one of my brothers is handicapped and was trapped
in the house. We had to carry him out as the bulldozer was hitting
All that remains of the house is a mound of concrete and dirt. The
destruction by the bulldozer was so complete that some of the walls
have been ground to a rubble reminiscent of the rocky desert beyond
Like many other families in Rafah, the Akhras family has been made
homeless before. Ghazi came from Yibna after the Israeli army,
under the command of Ariel Sharon, then military governor of Gaza,
bulldozed his home in 1971. "We bought the house here from the
Israelis. We had the documents to show it. We saved nothing, not
even the documents," he says. "This is more than the catastrophe of
1948 for us. In 1948 there were no Apaches shooting at us."
Akhras, who worked as a builder in Israel before the intifada,
cannot afford to rebuild. "I have no money to do it. Now we are all
homeless, living in houses of relations. During the day we come and
sit on the rubble, under the tent, because the relations do not
want us in their house all day. At night we go there just to
The Abu Ghali family
Aziza Abu Ghali is exhausted by her fury and can barely stand. "My
husband is 90 years old and has nowhere to sleep. The Jews are just
demolishing our houses. I was shouting at the bulldozer driver:
'Don't you have children?' They kill our sons and put us in the
morgue. We are praying to Allah to show them the suffering that
they show us."
Aziza is one of the few in her street who remember how they all
ended up in Rafah in 1948, just as the Israeli state was being
created. She was born in the now extinct village of Yubna, which
was erased and replaced with the Israeli town of Yavne. Four of her
children - three sons and a daughter - were born there also. "The
Jews used their guns to make us go away. They tell lies about this
now, saying we ran away on our own. Who would leave their home
unless they had to? We only left to save the lives of our children.
I was a young woman then. I never imagined that the Jews would
still be doing this to me."
When the bulldozers came this time, Aziza was asleep. Her husband,
Yousef, was in a bed in a neighbouring room. Their son and his
family lived across a small yard in two other rooms.
All that was recovered from the wreckage was Yousef's wheelchair.
The corner of his bed sticks out from the rubble. Their fridge is
tossed on top, wrecked. A metal ceiling fan, its blades buckled
like a withering flower, hangs from a surviving wall.
Yousef's son, Sobhi, a nurse in a UN clinic, says his father was
lucky to escape. "All day there was shooting. There was a tank near
our house and I was afraid to even put my head out of the door.
There were Israeli snipers on the top of the buildings. It was
dangerous just to show your face.
"I was awake the whole night. I could hear sounds of houses being
demolished. At first light I could hear my father knocking at my
mother's room saying he wanted to go to dawn prayers. He is almost
totally deaf. I wanted to call to him and tell him to stay indoors
because they might shoot, but he came out and I had to rush to
The family sheltered for a few more hours until the bulldozer's
attention turned to their own house, home to 13 people. "I saw the
house was about to be demolished. I just picked up my son and my
father and dragged them away. We ran out into where the shooting
was. The bulldozer driver was indifferent to us. They saw us and
knew we were inside. We had just a few minutes to get away. We were
crying and shouting at them. I was carrying my father on my
shoulders. I don't think he even understood what was happening."
The Al-Wawi family
Mousa Joma al-Wawi has a long history with Ariel Sharon. "We call
him 'the bulldozer'. This is not the first time he's done this to
us. The first time was in 1971," says the 54-year-old grandfather,
standing amid the rubble of his home in the al-Brazil neighbourhood
Like many in Rafah, the latest round of mass demolitions was not
the first time that Wawi had been bulldozed out of his home. He
counts off the times he has had to flee his house.
"I was a refugee before I was even born. My mother was pregnant
when she fled our village, Zarnuga, when the Jews came in 1948. The
house is still standing. There's a Jew living in it. My mother
moved to a tent in Khan Younis (a little north of Rafah) and then
to Rafah, where I was born."
Wawi's introduction to the bulldozers came in the 70s, when General
Sharon, as he then was, bulldozed about 20,000 people from their
homes in the Gaza Strip to widen roads as part of his strategy
against the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
"Sharon destroyed our house. The UN and Israelis built us new ones
in Yibna [a Rafah neighbourhood]. They sold the house to us. I have
all my documents. The house had a tiled roof and two rooms. It was
1.5m high and 3m long by 2.5m wide. When we became a bigger family,
we expanded it."
But the bulldozers were back in 1997, as the Israeli army destroyed
the very homes it had built for Palestinian refugees about 25 years
earlier. The Wawi family fled to the al-Brazil neighbourhood of
Rafah and, over the years, built up a new home.
There were about 20 men, women and children crammed into the back
room of Wawi's home on the corner of an al-Brazil street when the
demolition squads arrived. They had not dared to venture out
because of the bullets flying round the street, but now they had to
"My brother lives next door," says Wawi. "We were all in this room
and my brother came with a hammer and smashed a hole in the wall.
The bulldozer was hitting the house. We carried nothing at all. We
were just trying to escape by ourselves ... Some of the pigeons
Among the rubble lies the water tank, pierced by bullets, a broken
bedside table and the remnants of a wardrobe. A hanging basket of
red flowers magically survived unscathed, and the family pulled
some blankets, pillows and a child's toy plastic bike from the
Where will they go now? "This is still my home," says Wawi. "We
will clean it and we will bring tents in. If they want to shoot me
in my home - shoot me, my sons, my grandchildren - we cannot stop
them. We are staying, no matter what."
The Mikkawi family
Rula Abu Abid grips her doll as if it is all she has left in the
world. It is called Larla and its head is buried in the rubble of
her home. Rula asked her grandfather, Hassan Mikkawi, if they would
ever find it. The 61-year-old motor mechanic - "the most famous
mechanic in Rafah" - reassured the five-year-old that one day they
would have the strength to sift through the rubble to look.
One building in the family compound, which provided homes for two
of his sons and their families, has been completely demolished. The
armoured bulldozer ripped the front out of his own home, crushing
furniture, destroying much of the living room and wrecking the
bedroom. The surviving furniture is battered and splintered. Not
much else was saved: a toolbox, a crate of onions, a large metal
bowl, a bedside table, some blankets. Mikkawi's car was flattened
by the massive bulldozer.
"I lived in America illegally for more than a year. It was 1996,"
he says, pulling out an Alabama driving licence to prove it. "I had
good work as a motor mechanic, but I came back here. I often wonder
why, but I could not take my family to America. When I came back,
we thought things would be peaceful. We thought there would be no
Hassan Mikkawi was six years old when he fled his own village,
Zarnuga, as it was seized by the fledgling Israeli army in 1948.
There were about 2,500 Arabs living there, many of whom ended up in
"I remember the garden and the mosque. At that time there were no
tanks, but I remember the shooting. I remember my mother and my
father and my brother weeping. And I remember us running away and
my father carrying some food and some clothes. It was the same then
as it is now.
"We arrived in Gaza in 1948 and came to Rafah a year later. In 1967
the Israelis crushed our home and they wanted to send us to Sinai
or the West Bank but we refused. My father built a house here. Two
rooms with a bathroom. You can see we made it much bigger, much
There were 16 people living in the house when the bulldozers
arrived for the most recent demolition. The family ran, waving
white headscarves. When they returned, the parts of the house that
were not destroyed teetered precariously. A forest of scaffolding
is all that keeps it standing.
The Abu Hasaneen family
Raesa Khalel Abu Hasaneen has 10 children. Their small home was
always a little cramped; the boys sleeping in one room, the girls
in another. But all that is left now is the kitchen, where some of
the children bed down next to a piece of netting where once there
was a wall, and the bathroom.
"We didn't expect this to happen here. The Israelis say they are
looking for [weapons-smuggling] tunnels but we are too far away
from the border to have tunnels.
"We heard the bulldozer and we saw the walls shaking. I put my
children in one room and I went to the bulldozer and said there
were children in the house. The children were all crying. The
driver kept bulldozing. I was crying and shouting and begging and
waving a white flag.
"The men smashed a hole in the wall to the neighbour's house. They
had pieces of wood and they were hitting and hitting. They all came
to help us."
The family escaped, but not much was recovered from the rubble. A
couple of kerosene lanterns and many of the children's schoolbooks
survived, as did the kitchen furniture and fridge. But all the beds
and clothes are gone.
"The children don't want to go to school in these clothes. They
have been wearing them for days. They are ashamed," she says.
"This was my home for 22 years. I moved here when I married my
husband. There's nothing better than this home. I am sleeping on
the stone floor now, but I'm staying here for my dignity. I have no
idea how we will rebuild it. My husband used to be a builder in
Israel but he is not allowed to work there anymore. We have no
money to rebuild.
"They only have malice against all Palestinians because the Jews
don't want to see Palestinians as people. They just want to destroy
The Abu Masod family
Mohammed Abu Masod says the graffiti on the shell of his home and
factory was nothing to do with him, but he sympathises with its
sentiment. Sprayed on to what had been one of the building's
floors, now sloping precariously after an army bulldozer ripped the
supporting wall away, is a Star of David next to a Nazi swastika.
The equation deeply offends almost all Israelis, and Palestinians
know it. But Abu Masod, sitting in the rubble of the business that
fed his extended family, sees what he describes as a common lack of
humanity between the two.
"They do not see us as human beings. They have no humanity. Look at
the Jewish settlers: they live so well and we live so badly because
of it. And then what little we have the Jews destroy. They didn't
give us two minutes to get out. They were slapping us in the face.
They called us terrorists. Who are the terrorists now?"
One in three buildings in Masod's street were demolished by the
armoured bulldozers. All that emerged from what had been his
factory, which made car carpets and seat covers, is a couple of
ruined sewing machines, a few blankets and a battered car seat.
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