One Step Ahead of the Bulldozer

Palestinian families who live close to the Egyptian border learned the lesson years ago: They keep small bags filled with important documents, some cash and a few sentimental items always ready.

RAFAH - Palestinian families who live close to the Egyptian border learned the lesson years ago: They keep small bags filled with important documents, some cash and a few sentimental items always ready. Whenever bulldozers plowed toward them, or whenever tank shells crashed nearby, or whenever helicopters hovered above - as happened as recently as May 12 - they grabbed their bags and fled.

But, feeling secure in a relatively quiet part of oft-battered Rafah, members of Wa'il Mansur's family, like those of his parents, grandparents and neighbors, never bothered to pack such bags. They live in the Brazil neighborhood, some 700 meters from the border. A few rows of houses used to stand between their residence and the border. Two such rows have already been razed. Nonetheless, members of Mansur's family reasoned that their residence was far enough from the border to be out of harm's way.

Then, at 8:30 A.M. yesterday, they relate, a huge bulldozer rumbled over neighbors' houses; neighborhood residents fled for their lives. Some ran in their bare feet. Others left behind identification documents, driver's licenses (Mansur is a taxi driver), money, clothes, books. The bulldozer crushed Mansur's cab; it also plowed up a small "zoo" that a neighborhood resident set up two years ago to amuse local kids.

Fortified Israel Defense Forces vehicles, supported by helicopters, set up shop in the Brazil neighborhood at 10 P.M. on Wednesday. Mansur's parents, together with 13 other people, live in a house with an asbestos roof. Mansur's own house, which holds 17 residents, is built of concrete and asbestos. Mansur feared for his loved ones' lives: A bullet could penetrate through the houses' flimsy walls and kill someone. And, fearing for their lives, "women and men and children" from both homes huddled in two rooms in Mansur's house Wednesday night, hoping that the IDF's Operation Rainbow would go somewhere else soon.

Wednesday night, nobody went to sleep in Rafah. Helicopters hovered close to rooftops; missiles whistled through the air; gunfire could be heard everywhere. Like everyone else in Rafah, the 31 members of Mansur's family waited in the two rooms, hoping that things would calm down in the morning.

At 7:30 A.M., when the women prepared breakfast, family members had hopes that it would be a normal day. But an hour later, all hell broke loose. Mansur recalls that he heard neighbors crying in fear and anguish. He says that he raced out to help them, only to find, to his amazement, that the bulldozer was already set to plow away his own home, and that of his grandparents. Mansur says: "I begged him [the bulldozer driver] to stop, to let us get out of the house. He blocked the entrance. Sitting behind glass, the driver never heard us ... We were just a second away from being killed - 50 persons, children, the elderly, women, all of us with our backs to the wall, with the bulldozer plowing toward us. The driver never heard us. The destruction happened quickly, faster than anything that could be said to stop it."

The Mansur family was saved by an iron ladder that led to the courtyard of a neighbor's house. Mansur: "First we had the children climb the ladder, then, with great difficulty, older people used it. They were afraid to go up, but fear forced us to push them. Just as we all got to the neighbor's house, the bulldozer started to raze it as well."

Mansur relates that members of his frightened family were instructed by a soldier in a tank to raise their arms as they fled this second demolished home. "We saw that everything in the area was in ruins. The stores were destroyed, asphalt was churned up, electric poles had collapsed. We raised our arms and started to wander past the tanks, as they were firing. My grandfather, 85, cannot walk. I carried him on my back. I walked slowly. The soldier in the tank yelled at me - `faster, faster.'"

The IDF Spokesman responded: "As part of the IDF's war on terror infrastructure, army forces are operating in the Brazil neighborhood. In this activity, some damage was caused to the outer parts of buildings in the area. The only building that was demolished by IDF forces was an abandoned structure used by terrorists who fired at IDF troops. Claims made by local residents about the demolition of houses are not correct."