At first glance, it looks like an earthquake struck the edges of Rafah. Whole residential neighborhoods have been turned into piles of crushed asbestos, disintegrated concrete, torn tin, bent iron poles, broken wooden doors.
But the rows of houses behind the rubble are a reminder the destruction is not the result of a natural disaster. These houses, a few dozen meters away from the Egyptian border, are perforated by holes of all sizes from bullets and shells from so many different types of weapons that their names are not known to the average victim. These holes are testimony to what are called in Israel "exchanges of fire."
Last week, as the Israeli, Palestinian and international media were busy with the IDF incursion into Beit Jala, another 40 Rafah houses fell under the bulldozers, in addition to the 50 already destroyed in the last few months. Some 120 families - about 700 souls - became homeless in seconds. People woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of the bulldozers crunching through their homes. They ran outside in their pajamas without managing to grab even their identity cards or valuables. The next day they wandered the market looking for cheap clothing. All their property and savings were lost in a few minutes.
There's nowhere else in the West Bank or Gaza that has seen as much destruction as Rafah. In terms of Palestinian deaths - dozens in every city - the burden seems to be divided "equitably" between all the Palestinian districts. But in terms of loss of homes, Rafah stands on its own. What turned Rafah and its northern neighbor Khan Yunis, where the proportion of refugees and the unemployment rates are among the highest of all of the Palestinian areas, into the most popular target of Israeli bulldozers?
Shots are often fired at IDF outposts and settler homes from crowded, gray and ailing Khan Yunis, which sits on a slight hill overlooking the lawns of Neve Dekalim. The house demolitions in April resulted in relative quiet in the area - but the shooting, of mortars as well, simply moved to other places.
From the refugees' homes in Rafah, says the IDF, not only are bullets being fired, bombs being planted and hand grenades being thrown, but there are also tunnels being dug to smuggle weapons into the district. Yesterday, Palestinian sources in Rafah confirmed that two tunnels were found in the neighborhood that was destroyed last week. A Palestinian security source says that more arms are smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Israel than from Egypt. In Rafah, they wonder why an army with such sophisticated weapons technology needs to destroy homes in order to expose - or not - tunnels.
What worked only partially in Khan Yunis is not working in Rafah. The IDF explains that there's a problem with a "mafioso clan" in the city. The Abu Samhadanas. Jamal, a clan member, is one of the heads of the local resistance committee. "The clan of ill-repute," is how a radio reporter once referred to it. The media attack, which takes place of course without any opportunity for anyone from the "clan" or for that matter Rafah to respond, needs some explanation. It may be that there's more here than simply tunnels.
The Abu Samhadana "clan" brought into the open a conflict between prisoners and administrative detainees, and collaborators, youths killed by the IDF and those with criminal backgrounds both in the past and present. Some work for the Palestinian Authority, others post placards criticizing the PA. In the eyes of the IDF and those who make do with the IDF's sources, they're all one clan. According to these reports, the IDF is practically doing the people of Rafah a favor by fighting this criminal "clan."
But dozens of Palestinians who are not members of the "clan" participate in the grass roots resistance committees and shooting at the IDF. No matter how "amateur" they are militarily - and well-aware of the inferiority of their weapons - it's clear the committee members aren't revealing all about themselves.
Nonetheless, there is the sociological truth that only those who have been in the dusty alleys of Rafah can know: This group is popular and their popularity rises in direct proportion to the amount of destruction the IDF sows. This is a group that, in its frustration over lives with no way out, no future for their children and wasted support for a political process that changed nothing, represents the vast majority of Rafah. By virtue of neighboring on the IDF outposts, they have turned the IDF into the central target. They continue to promise a struggle against the Israeli occupation despite all the failures actually to harm the army. The political, social and diplomatic frustration, combined with their popularity arms them with determination.
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