Danger: Rafah's Fresh Water Wells

It all began last Wednesday. Israel Defense Forces bulldozers dug and moved around and then dug some more for a few hours in the dunes that divide the refugee neighborhood of Tel al Sultan and the southern settlements of the Muwassi area.

Considering the thoroughness with which the bulldozers worked early last Thursday morning, one might have thought the soldiers received a clear order from their commanders and knew exactly what they were doing: demolishing the foundations of the pumping station for two water wells that provide nearly 50 percent of drinking and household water to Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

Raids on the houses of Rafah, particularly in its refugee camps, and the wounding of residents from IDF fire, has become so routine, so un-newsworthy, that it usually does not get reported in the Israeli media, which does, however, generally report on the number of Palestinians killed in those operations.

It all began last Wednesday. Israel Defense Forces bulldozers dug and moved around and then dug some more for a few hours in the dunes that divide the refugee neighborhood of Tel al Sultan and the southern settlements of the Muwassi area. Nobody, of course, told the Palestinian residents what was planned for their land: perhaps another military outpost, perhaps another fence to protect the settlement, perhaps the settlement was to be expanded.

Children gathered in the distance, away from the bulldozers and armored personnel carriers and began throwing stones. Especially in Rafah, where cameras have grown tired of recording this common type of children's game, the armored forces, under attack by the stone throwers, respond with live fire, as if there's nothing more natural than shooting at rock-throwing children 200 meters away. A field researcher for the Palestinian Center for Human Rights said that after the soldiers opened fire on the children, some armed youths showed up and began shooting back at the soldiers. That symbolic fire has also become part of the lethal ritual: nobody expects the armed Gaza youths, with only a rifle or home-made explosive, to actually harm the forces inside the armored vehicles, but someone has to protest against the shooting at the children.

For several hours the shooting went on, said the residents. The Palestinian fire was amateurish and sporadic. The Israeli fire was heavy and scattered. People reported that in addition to the troops involved in the digging on the dunes, three local army outposts joined in the shooting.

Eighteen people were wounded: eight children from the ages of 10-17 (a 15-year-old was seriously wounded in his stomach, a 10-year-old was wounded in his knee). Another four wounded people were over 30 (35, 38, 42, and 50) and six people in their 20s. No fewer than 10 houses were damaged by the heavy fire. Most of the wounded were hurt at home, or in streets far from the road near where the bulldozers were working nearby.

On Thursday morning, heavy armor appeared and razed the area. Intentionally or not, the bulldozers damaged about 20 houses, some used by people who became refugees last year after the army demolished their homes near the border. Seven cars were crushed, and the fence around a school was destroyed. The bulldozer's teeth chewed up the building with the operating machinery of the two water wells.

One of those wells was dug and built by the Israeli Civil Administration in 1990 and the second was built in 2001 by the Palestinian Authority with funds from the Canadian government. According to the mayor of Rafah, a map identifying the location of the wells was given to the Israeli authorities. Together, the two wells provide some 6,000 cubic meters of fresh water - unlike the salty-oily water that comes from four old wells - out of 13,000 cubic meters produced daily for Rafah's residents. The residents used to go to the wells and fill up with the fresh water, which is clean and tasty, much better than the water that comes out of Rafah's faucets, a murky mixture of fresh and salt water.

Now the 130,000 residents of Rafah are on strict water rationing, with water flowing into the neighborhoods only a few hours, and only every few days. People spend precious hours filling up jerricans straight from the working wells, or from agricultural wells with water unfit for human consumption. The rationing will continue until the money is found to get new pumping equipment and install it.

A military source told Haaretz that there was no intention "to expose the well building. A review of the incident revealed that the troops did not have good intelligence, and the force was not aware of the two wells were in the area." According to the source, "in the wake of an incursion two weeks ago by a terrorist to Shalev (a settlement in the area), the regional commander decided to straighten out the dunes so there would be no way for terrorists to sneak into the area. On Wednesday, the work was undertaken on both sides of the separation line between Tel al Sultan and the area under Israeli control."

According to the source, a firefight with armed Palestinians erupted, and the commander of an APC was wounded when a bullet hit his helmet. The source said that Islamic Jihad activists took part in the gunbattle, and as a result, the force demolished some buildings in the area. The commander, said the source, ordered "the walls of some of the houses from which the shooting took place, to be exposed." The day after the operation, it turned out that "there were also two wells in the area, but there was no intention to expose them."