There are two magic phrases that the government uses to enlist soldiers, pilots and their families for the assault on Rafah: "armed men" and "smuggling tunnels." The sound of those two threatening phrases overcomes the sounds of gunfire by the air force and armored corps, the humming of the unmanned aircraft overhead, the whistle of the missiles, the long bursts of machine gun fire, the bombs and the shelling. And then the sirens of the ambulances.
In the last three and a half years, the residents of Rafah have experienced all of this, far more frequently and in far greater volume than any other Palestinian community in Gaza or the West Bank. Between 1 A.M. and 5 A.M. yesterday, the missiles, shooting from the air and bombings, took 11 Palestinian lives. Three were killed at 1:05 A.M. by two missiles in the Yibneh refugee camp; five were killed on their way to dawn prayers at around 4 A.M., at the entrance to the Al Bilal Mosque on the outskirts of Tel al Sultan; and three were killed during the Israel Defense Forces takeover of Tel al Sultan.
As these lines are being written, early Tuesday morning, not all the details are known yet about the casualties. The hospital says that most were civilian. The early news reports in Israel used the magic phrase "armed men." But whoever ordered a missile fired at the entrance to a mosque a few minutes after the muezzin called the faithful to prayers - just as people began gathering for the prayers - knew that there would not only be armed men there, if indeed there were any at all. And those who ordered missiles fired at the Yibneh camp knew very well that not all the residents had evacuated themselves, despite fears that the IDF was on its way to demolish their homes.
Not counting yesterday's casualties, there have been 320 people killed in Rafah - which is estimated to have about 150,000 residents. Eighty-five of those killed were children under the age of 18. Twenty-seven were women. Altogether, at least 200 of those killed were civilians. The rest were "armed men" and members of the Palestinian security services, whether they were fighting against the Israelis or were simply on duty, killed at their posts by virtue of being PA security forces on duty.
The army and the settlements are clear targets for the armed Palestinians in Gaza. The army conducts all-out war to protect the settlements. Therefore, virtually all that is left for the armed men to do is to clash with Israeli soldiers. They thereby improve their guerrilla warfare skills - though IDF commanders know that the capabilities of the "armed men" in Rafah and the equipment available to them are still very limited, despite the soldiers killed last week, and despite the bragging of some Rafah residents about fighting for every street and alleyway. The scenes of carts and trucks evacuating homes proves how much the vast majority - how natural - wants to live and is afraid to die. Nonetheless, the government sics the soldiers and tanks and helicopters on the residents of Rafah. And particularly civilians.
What is so infuriating to the IDF about the relatively few armed men (compared to the numbers of people killed in the district)? Is it that they have very few weapons compared to Israel? That they stubbornly clash with soldiers? That they prove that they are able to learn from their tactical mistakes and from those of others? That despite the competition between the organizations, they manage to work together? That it is easy to depict some of them as heroes? That maybe they get thrown out of some neighborhoods in Rafah, but in others they are considered genuine representatives, as long as Israel does not intend to put an end to the occupation? That they are so few against so many?
Or is it the tunnels? Merchants invented the system. The tunnels are not only for weapons and drugs, but for medicine, basic food commodities and cigarettes, at prices much more suitable for poverty-stricken Rafah. They are a way to break an economic siege. The weapons in the hands of the armed men of Rafah prove that the tunnels are not being used to smuggle sophisticated weapons. Nonetheless, the tunnels have turned into a scarecrow that justifies every strike at civilian lives and civilian property. Or is the IDF angered by the fact that Palestinian brains and needs have led to inventions that enable them to build the tunnels despite all the risks and the sophisticated Israeli equipment for uncovering them?
Neither the armed men nor the weapons smuggled through the tunnels are a strategic threat to Israel. Rarely do they manage to strike successfully at the soldiers and cause real pain. Usually, they are merely a nuisance for the military patrols that routinely fire into Rafah, whether they have been fired on or not. But the danger posed by the armed men and the tunnels is so inflated that the statistics of destruction and death sown by Israel in Rafah go largely ignored - in Israel. In Rafah, on the other hand, it feeds the conclusion reached the other day by a religious lawyer. "Everyone in Israel - opposition, left, Labor - bears responsibility for what their government is doing here."
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