Thorn in the Desert

Refugees from the ruined village of Shoka say 17 of their neighbors have been killed by Israel in recent weeks.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Laundry is fluttering in the wind. A few miserable items of clothing are hanging on a thin rope, drying in the sea breeze. The houses nearby are riddled with thousands of bullet holes, their supporting pillars are collapsing, their walls have been ripped wide open and the windows are all shattered. It is hard to believe that people are still living and hanging their laundry here. Sarajevo is here in Rafah, but even in Sarajevo the residents did not live in ruins like these.

In recent weeks several residents of the village of Shoka have fled to this place, to live among the rubble. Shoka is located near the Yasser Arafat International Airport in Dahaniyeh in the southern Gaza Strip, which is also in ruins. What is Shoka, which means "thorn" in Arabic? A village? A suburb? Who's ever heard of it, and who cares about its residents - or about their bitter fate?

Six years ago, some of these people fled from their bombed homes on the outskirts of Rafah opposite the Philadelphi Route, and now they are returning to the ruins of their previous homes. Like frightened grasshoppers, these miserable individuals are fleeing the fire of Israeli forces, from neighborhood to neighborhood, first from the Philadelphi Route, before the so-called "end of the occupation" in Gaza, and now back to the rubble of Philadelphi, after the Israel Defense Forces invaded and bombed Shoka in the wake of the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit.

Who said the IDF didn't win? Who said there was no decisive victory? After all, white flags are flying above some of the abandoned houses in Shoka, which is now a ghost town, with the debris left by the bombings strewn along a desolate road. There is not a living soul in what's left of the shuttered houses. Nobody dares to approach Shoka now; the IDF may still be in the area.

We didn't know all this when we drove down the main street of the town this week. There was a terrible silence hanging in the air as we made our way slowly toward of the airport. The attractive airport is still partially standing, like a mirage in the heart of all the destruction, with a sign reading "International Airport of Gaza" in two languages. The runways were bombed at the beginning of the present intifada, and the approach road is scattered with wreckage from recent days. There is not a living soul at the entrance, no security guards, no one. We had naively considered leaving the car and entering the airport on foot, to see what remains of the terminal and the dream of liberation, but the silence was too menacing. Only when we returned to Rafah did we discover that nobody goes near there now.

The fields of Shoka are destroyed, the remains of the orchards and the vineyards are parched, some of the trees have been uprooted. Where are the residents? They fled, some to the ruins of Philadelphi. There, for $100 a month, several families can crowd into a demolished and empty building, subsisting virtually without water and electricity, trying to find a hiding place until Israel's rage subsides. The refugees of Shoka say 17 of the village's residents have been killed since the beginning of the month, and that some of their bodies could not be evacuated for hours.

The IDF Spokesman said this week, in response to a query from Haaretz: "On August 3, IDF forces operated on the outskirts of the city of Rafah and attacked dozens of armed terrorists who were identified near our forces, armed with anti-tank missiles and rifles, some of them detonating roadside bombs targeting the forces. It should be emphasized that the IDF activity is directed only at terrorist organizations and infrastructure. The IDF troops are clearly instructed not to fire at terrorists when there is a danger of harming innocent bystanders, unless there is a clear and present danger to the Israeli forces. The IDF will continue with its activity against the terrorist infrastructure as long as the captured soldier is being held, and as long as the terrorist activity from the Gaza Strip continues."

What can we say to these miserable creatures, who originally fled from Philadelphi to Shoka and now are fleeing back to the ruins? What can we say to their terrified children, who have already seen everything in their short lives - the destruction of their first and second homes, corpses scattered about and wounded who cannot be evacuated, and all in an atmosphere of abject poverty?

The Shoka refugees are sitting in the sand. Some plastic chairs have been placed among the ruins of the Saladin neighborhood in Rafah, between the Yibna and the Brazil refugee camps.

Brothers Musa and Hafez Armelat fled here from Shoka. The faces of the two have been scorched by the sun and are etched with wrinkles. Musa is about 60, Hafez is about 70, and both look older than their years. Their brother, Suleiman, was killed in Shoka. On the night of August 3 an Israeli plane fired a missile at him and killed him, they say. Suleiman was about 50 years old and he was killed next to the family home in the village. The family escaped, but Suleiman's body remained in the sand until the next morning, say his brothers, when it could be removed. Since then the two have not returned to Shoka; they're afraid. They left behind 15 dunams (about 4 acres) of almond and citrus trees that are not being watered. In any case, some of them were uprooted by the IDF.

Hafez does not utter a word; Musa barely speaks either. Musa says that the inferno in Shoka lasted for three days, until the fire died down. The two brothers saw Suleiman fall. One of the neighbors, Anas Abu Awad, was also killed. A 14-year-old boy. And Sharif Abu Libda, too.

We go to see Sharif's grandfather. Opposite the gas station, which still bears the Israeli Sonol sign, we climb up the steps to meet Mahmoud Abu Libda. In a junkyard at the entrance lies a man taking an afternoon nap, among the heaps of garbage.

Abu Libda welcomes us in the dark entryway, where he now spends his time since he left Shoka. He is 60 years old. His grandson Sharif's name, according to his ID card, was Adnan, but everyone called him Sharif. He was one month shy of 17, says his grandfather, who proudly explains that the teenager was an outstanding student who received invitations to continue his studies in Yemen and Germany.

Maybe he launched a Qassam rocket? The grandfather denies this. Maybe the boy was a "Hamas activist," as military sources claimed? The boy's father, Bassam, was also arrested during IDF activity in the area, we are told, and nobody has any idea where he is.

The family's version: On the evening of August 3, Sharif went out with Mustafa, his 19-year-old uncle, to water the family's fruit trees. They say that in Shoka there is water only a few hours a day, mainly in the evening and at night, which is why the two left shortly after 10 P.M., when the supply was renewed. An Israel Air Force missile hit them, killing Sharif and wounding Mustafa. Mustafa lost one leg; the other was badly injured. In Shifa Hospital in Gaza they wanted to amputate it, so the family sent Mustafa to Egypt, where he is at present, to try to save his leg. The picture of Mustafa's severed leg is now displayed on the screen of the cell phone.

Grandfather Mahmoud lived most of his life in Block O, another impoverished neighborhood of refugees in Rafah. Three years ago he fled from Block O, which was under fire, to the village of Shoka, hoping to find some security and calm there. At the beginning of the month the tanks caught up with him there, too, and the IAF plane killed his grandson. As Grandma Famiya gazes at the picture of her grandson, her eyes fill with tears. Sharif's bereaved mother, Sausan, mounts the stairs quickly and disappears inside.

Two grief-stricken figures stand on the porch of the ruined house, opposite what up until a year ago was the IDF's Termit outpost. Brothers Musa and Yusuf Kishta. Musa is a teacher, the father of seven; Yusuf is unemployed, childless. Yusuf's wife was wounded by an Israeli missile in 2000, and her arm was amputated and she lost an eye. The couple spent three years in Saudi Arabia, where the disabled woman received medical care.

Najib, the brother of Musa and Yusuf, was killed here in December 2000, by IDF fire, while returning from prayers at the nearby mosque. Najib was 50 at his death and he left 10 children behind. After his death, his brothers quickly fled from the inferno along the Philadelphi Route. Their house stands in the first row in front of the iron wall, behind which spreads Egyptian Rafah. Until the evacuation, it was impossible to come anywhere near here for years.

A white Palestinian police car is now crossing the route, and two cart drivers are bringing their horses to mate, among the ruins. The stallion mounts the mare, slips and falls; the owners pick him up for another attempt, everything among the wreckage.

The staircase that leads up to the third floor of the Kishta home is hanging by a thread. Musa's apartment is a combination of destruction and a pathetic attempt to provide a human sort of feeling. There are no windows in the apartment, only plastic sheets, and plywood boards cover the shell holes. Several pinkish pillows are scattered on the floor in an effort to achieve an atmosphere of pleasantness. On the lower floor live Yusuf and his wife; the other apartments are empty. Apartments? Dwellings with pockmarked walls and sand floors, whose tiles have been pulled out. It has been six years since the houses were first abandoned, a year since Israel's disengagement from Gaza, and nobody in the Palestinian Authority or in the world thought to help these people rebuild their homes.

Immediately after the evacuation, Musa and Yusuf returned here, when they couldn't afford the rent in the alternative apartment they had in Rafah. Since then they have been here, in a wreck of an apartment. We go up to the roof of the building, to get a better look. An Egyptian flag flies opposite; you can practically stretch out your hand and touch it. The Kishta family is divided between the two parts of Rafah, but transit between the two parts of the divided city is still difficult, even after the Israeli withdrawal.

When we visited the Rafah border crossing - Gaza's "escape hatch" - some time later, it was closed and dozens of desperate families were sprawled on their suitcases in the open field, under the burning-hot sun, waiting for the crossing to be opened the next day. Nobody knows for certain when it is supposed to be opened or closed. At the same time dozens of children driving carts gathered, fighting one another to fill up containers of water from a pipe for their donkeys. The tap water in Khan Yunis is not potable. In Rafah there hasn't been any water in the taps for four days.

A pleasant breeze wafts in from the sea and there is a PA army tent pitched in the sand, opposite the iron wall of Philadelphi - like a reservists' tent in Givat Halfon. Next to the tent is a huge crater, the remnant of a search for a tunnel. The voices of the children of Egyptian Rafah can be heard from a distance, puncturing the silence.



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