"Please, come inside," says the man with the faint smile, opening the iron door in one of the very narrow alleys of Yibne, a refugee camp neighborhood in Rafah. But after stepping through the open doorway, it's difficult to say if his "please, come inside," was said in the spirit of hospitality or was meant ironically, because inside the house, the interior walls were demolished and through the partially demolished outer walls, one sees a large pile of rubble - all that remains of the two houses next door.
"House" is a misleading term. In Rafah, as in other camps, the usual refugee house is made of thin sheets of tin, sometimes plastered, about the thickness of carton, a yard surrounded by a number of rooms with asbestos roofs laid over a couple of beams. The temporary nature of the tin and asbestos is in stark contrast to the doors, made of iron, often decorated with flowers shaped in relief in the metal, and creating a sense of permanence.
Here and there people have managed to save a bit and replace the typical home with a cement one, a couple of stories tall, for the entire family. Those houses are usually left unpainted, and their naked grayness emphasizes how the original refugee houses are tiny and temporary.
On April 19, a force of several dozen tanks, armored personnel carriers and huge bulldozers, accompanied by helicopters that did not fire anything - this time - took over a small quadrant of streets and alleys in the camp.
Five days after that Saturday, after a painful, angry funeral for the five people killed in the attack, people were still shocked as they walked around and over the ruins left by the retreating Israel Defense Forces.
The Yibne camp of 125 dunams has some 11,000 inhabitants. The IDF force surrounded less than a fifth of the camp. Thirteen buildings, homes to 23 families, 116 people, were totally destroyed in the operation, according to UNWRA. Another seven houses - 12 families, 60 people - were so badly damaged from nearby blasts or shells, that they cannot be repaired. The IDF said three buildings were demolished and another 10 damaged by gunfire.
Some 150 buildings - 186 families, 1,035 people - were partially damaged, and can be repaired: bullet-pocketed solar heaters, broken windows, collapsed ceilings, cracked walls, torn electric cables.
Five days later, people still want to explain why the attack was so shocking for them, why they regard it as the most severe blow ever against this city that knows well death, shooting, raids, flechettes, house demolitions, and the constant destruction of greenery for destruction's sake.
The first surprise was the early hour. It was about 10 P.M. when the convoy of vehicles (the Palestinians said there were 47 all together), gathered at Tel Zuarun, northwest of the city. People are used to the tanks coming in much later at night.
Secondly, it was the first time the army penetrated deep inside the camp, between Yibne and Shabura, about five kilometers away from the northwestern entrance to Rafah city, and about 400-500 meters from the border with Egypt. People say up till then the tanks and bulldozers had operated on the margins of the camps, in the neighborhoods along the border. That's where they destroy the houses, blow up the tunnels, and that's where people, armed or not, are killed by IDF fire.
This time the tanks rolled almost all the way to the center of Rafah, where the refugee camps are larger than the city.
Third, for some days, there had been the feeling among the Palestinian public, and particularly in Rafah, that as a gesture of goodwill to the newly formed Abu Mazen government, Israel would avoid particularly severe raids. The number of tanks on that Saturday night, the largest number ever seen at one time in Rafah, squashed that illusion.
Fourth, all of Rafah was busy that night watching two Egyptian football teams at play, and then analyzing the results, Zamalek against Ahli. Football is the game in Rafah. The Egyptian leagues are practically the home league. And Ahli is the favorite team in Gaza in general and Rafah particularly, and especially among the refugees. It's from a poor neighborhood; Zamalek is from a relatively prosperous Cairo neighborhood.
Zamalek won that night, but next time it will be Ahli, people managed to say, comforting each other over the results just as the tanks began growling from afar and the first panicky phone calls began coming from Tel Sultan, reporting the tanks' progress up Abu Bachar Sadik Street.
The tanks rolled on, and people visiting friends or relatives to watch the televised game began running home, while others, particularly the political activists, ex-convicts and relatives of wanted men, left their homes and escaped into the narrow alleyways of Shabura, where the tanks find it difficult to penetrate.
Taxi drivers ran to their cars and drove away from the center. Shop owners in the market, still open for late-night shopping, left their shops and escaped. They would find their merchandise in place the next day. Nobody looted. Meanwhile, children huddled into the corners of rooms farthest from the street.
The members of the popular resistance committees from all the factions began gathering in the Yibne area. One ran to get his Kalashnikov, another to get another magazine of ammo, and others to get the homemade bombs prepared for just such an eventuality. The electricity was cut almost immediately and the entire area plunged into darkness as the growling tanks approached, heralded by the first sounds of shooting, intensifying as the convoy drew nearer.
One activist was running with his baby in the street, and T., a mother of two, opened her door and he handed off the baby, nearly throwing it inside, asking for the woman to protect it. Until he gets back. If he gets back. She didn't know his name. The baby didn't know her. During the entire night the bullets whistled around the house and some broke through the walls and came into the house. Her oldest children, girls, hid under a blanket. Quietly, once in a while, T. went to check they weren't hurt. But the baby who didn't know her cried all night.
From the main road, the tanks turned into two narrow streets, each barely wide enough for a tank. One tank pushed two cars forward, crushing them against the Ashur family's tin wall, two of 14 vehicles destroyed that night, including one Red Crescent ambulance. The walls collapsed, the ceiling, too.
On the parallel street, another tank shoved aside large cement blocs the resistance committees had put at the corners as tank traps. One collapsed on a tin house and crushed it completely, while the family huddled in the corner. Another tank, or perhaps the one that crushed the cars, stopped in front of the Abu Obeid house. Mofid Abu Obeid's children were sleeping next door, in their grandfather's three-story cement house, still under construction.
Their mother was visiting her family in Shabura that night, on the other side of the main road. Their father was with friends watching the game. Meanwhile, the tanks broke the two large iron doors on the first floor. The soldiers ordered everyone inside to come out. There was the panic of gathering up the children, the women, the elderly, the grandfather, all scrambling down the stairs and out into the dark street, straight to the huge armored vehicle.
In the panic, Walid, 9, who was carrying Mohammed, 2, got lost looking for the adults. Walid handed the baby to his grandfather, who insisted on standing in the doorway and not leaving. And then Walid came out, confused, lost in the dark street beside the tank treads, wanting to find the rest of his family, which had found shelter in a neighbor's house. His father would say later that the soldiers put the boy in the tank and drive him a little way down the street, where they let him out.
Their mother meanwhile was running from Shabura to Yibne, to be with her children. She nearly managed to reach her street when she was hit from gunfire in her stomach. An hour later she was finally evacuated and hospitalized in serious condition. She was one of three Palestinians wounded that night from gunfire.
Then the soldiers blew up Mofid Abu Obeid's tin house, and two others next door. The IDF said it destroyed a tunnel used by Hamas underneath the house as well as another smaller tunnel.
Abu Shamallah's house
At the same time, tanks and other APCs, with one or two bulldozers, moved west, onto Salah a Din Street. Around 10:30, they began converging on Mohammed Abu Shamallah's house. He's a 30-year-old in the Hamas militia, the Iz a Din al-Kassam Brigades, wanted by the IDF on suspicion of involvement in the murder of an army officer in Rafah in 1994. Two of his brothers fled the house when they heard the tanks were moving on Yibne. They were afraid they'd be held as hostages. The others remained with their wives, children and elderly mother, who has diabetes and needs a cane to walk.
"Umm Halil, come out and turn yourself in," a voice was heard in the night, calling on her personally to come out.
Umm Halil said later, "They shouted, `Hello, Hello, Abu Shamallah family, have the little ones come out and the men with the guns come out and hand over their weapons,' and I said, `Here, I'm coming out, coming out,' and they shouted `give up, give up.' They didn't let us take anything out of the house, just as we entered it, we left it, not a single teacup remained whole, and for six hours they were in the house and outside there were tanks, many tanks, so we came out with our hands up in the air."
One of her daughters-in-law held the twins, 3-year-olds, and came out of the house.
"A soldier pointed his rifle at me," she says, shocked from rage and fear for her children, "and told me to put the children down next to the tank and raise my hands. I put them down, they were crying, and raised my hands. They looked so tiny next to that huge thing."
The asphalt of the road was heating up from the engines. The children who came out barefoot or lost a sandal or shoe ended up with burnt feet, said the woman. Go, said the soldiers, or made clear their intentions using their hands and rifles to signal the frightened people.
The young mother lined up the children in front of her, one next to the other. "If a soldier shoots me, I thought, at least I'll get killed, not the children."
Thirty-two people live in the house, built from savings, for the mother, who was widowed in 1977, and for her children and her grandchildren. The army said munitions were found inside.
Another one of Umm Halil's sons remained inside his apartment, paralyzed with fear, unable to move. His children went down the stairs to tell the soldiers there was still someone inside, but one of the soldiers pointed a rifle at them in the darkness and told them to stay in the apartment, in the building opposite the house meant for demolition. That's where they stayed all night as the soldiers prepared the explosives for the demolition. That's where they were, when 10 meters away, the Abu Shamallah house was blown up, collapsed, and destroyed the eastern wall of their apartment.
The Kishta family, which lived in a tin house next door, also didn't manage to evacuate their home. A huge bulldozer brushed up against their iron door, which opens to a courtyard surrounded by a wall. The iron door was twisted, its lock was stuck. They couldn't get out. "We banged on the door, we didn't know what was happening outside, we just heard soldiers calling to Abu Shamallah to come out, and from the noise of the tanks and shouting, nobody heard us," says one of the daughters.
She got up on a table in the kitchen, opened the window and peeked outside. She shouted to the soldiers there were children inside and an elderly woman who had to be carried out. The soldier, she says, shouted at her to get back inside "or you'll be killed," she says.
"Get us out," she continued shouting. "We'll die in here."
And the soldier, she says, shouted back at her, "Get back inside, inside, so you die at home."
She pushed her brother's children to underneath the iron staircase that goes from the courtyard to the roof. And that's where they huddled, shaking as the shooting intensified; the voices came and went, the shouting, and then the explosion. With the explosion, the Kishta home collapsed. Their only luxury, a computer, was destroyed along with everything else.
The tanks left later on. People don't remember if it was 2:30 or 3:30. That's when they found the dead soldier, killed by a Palestinian gunman in the narrow alley between the Kishta house and the Abu Shamallah house. He was Lior Ziv, the IDF spokesman's cameraman.
No rooms available
The Abu Shamallah family spent four days trying to find a house to rent. Very few empty houses or connecting rooms remain in the poorest city in the Palestinian territories (along with Khan Yunis), most having been rented in the last two years to the refugees from other demolished houses.
With every new demolition, it becomes more difficult to find alternative housing. There are houses that were damaged in previous demolitions, repaired, and then destroyed completely in new demolition operations.
Halil Abu Shamallah, an official in the Palestinian Communications Ministry, finally found a top-floor apartment in a building on the same street. He moved in some mattresses he was given by an Islamic charity, and what was left of the children's clothes, found in the rubble.
UNWRA supplies that were supposed to come from Gaza City didn't show up. For Passover, the army cut off the road from north to south in Gaza.
From the northwest window of the apartment, one can see a tank about a kilometer-and-a-half or maybe two, away. Half a kilometer away there's an army post with an Israeli flag, and from the southwest window, one can see another army post with a flag, and the wall that the IDF engineering corps built along the border road. Some of the windows in the new apartment are broken. There are bullet holes in the walls. Just looking out the window is frightening. But only such an apartment, exposed to gunfire like all the taller buildings in Rafah and Khan Yunis, was available for the family to rent.
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