Displaced from the `dead zone'

Palestinian refugees sift homes destroyed by Israeli bulldozers

January 15, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Palestinians call it the "dead zone," the southernmost part of the densely populated Gaza Strip, along the border fence with Egypt.

It is becoming a field of rubble, the product of a long Israeli campaign to clear the area and create a security buffer. But last week, after a Palestinian attack on a military post left four soldiers dead, the Israeli army took its bulldozing to what is being called a new extreme.

Palestinian officials and human rights groups said dozens of occupied homes in a football field-size area were flattened, forcing families to flee for their lives and creating hundreds of refugees.

"We got out with only the clothes we had on," says Rashad al-Najar, 25, who was born in the Rafah refugee camp and lived there with his wife, two infant sons and extended family. "The army came and knocked in our front wall, and we were just trying to save the children."

Israeli officials halted demolitions yesterday, but they have defended Thursday's actions, saying that the houses were unoccupied and used by militants as shooting posts and to mask tunnels through which weapons are smuggled in from Egypt. One tunnel was found, and soldiers blew up the house.

But the destruction in Rafah, among the most severe of the past 15 months, was criticized by the United Nations as collective punishment on a civilian population and remains controversial.

Najar was picking through the wreckage yesterday to salvage belongings buried under mounds of concrete blocks that used to form the walls of his home. The pile of debris stood 6 feet high.

Children scavenged for pieces of metal they could sell, scattering each time Israeli soldiers atop a nearby guard post fired machine gun volleys over their heads - a none too subtle reminder that no one should be in the dead zone.

"That's how they say good morning," says Najar, smiling, as gunfire crackled yards away.

His grandparents were uprooted from their homes near Tel Aviv in 1948, when Israel became a state, and he is a third-generation refugee in Rafah, a squalid camp crammed with up to 80,000 destitute people, most clinging to the hope that someday they will be able to reclaim property in Israel. It is an improbability that remains a stumbling block in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"This is the second time we've become refugees," says Najar. "It seems that nobody wants us."

Israeli officials have struggled to explain what happened in Rafah. The army's accounts have differed, with little agreement on the number of houses knocked down or how many were inhabited. Initially, it said that four homes had been destroyed. Later it was 11, then 21. Government officials were still insisting yesterday that most of the houses had been abandoned three months ago.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has defended the demolitions, saying the army's actions were necessary to provide security for Israelis and to stop the "coalition of terror," a reference to the Palestinian Authority.

"Sometimes it's hard to accept that the Jews have to defend themselves," Sharon said during the weekend. "This government will not make any compromises when it comes to the security of Israelis and to the very state of Israel."

But the images of displaced families huddled around small fires in cold weather have undercut Israeli claims that no civilians were displaced. Israeli newspaper columnists have dubbed the episode a shameful chapter for the military.

Palestinian officials put the number of destroyed homes at 58. The United Nations and the Red Cross say 54 houses, occupied by 80 families, were demolished. The officials said 450 were left homeless.

Evidence can be seen in Rafah's al-Awda central square, a wide, partly paved intersection where taxis and donkey carts fight for space. It is here that the United Nations has pitched tents for the displaced Palestinians.

White tarpaulins line the roadside, each with the name of a family scrawled on the side. The floors are dirt, and the occupants lie on thin, grimy mattresses and sleep in the clothes they wore as they ran from the bulldozers.

"We are looking for someone to help us," says Refat Mattar, 24, who fled Thursday with his pregnant wife. She gave birth Sunday to a daughter, Ala'a.

"The men stay here, and our wives and children are with relatives," says Mattar. "Where else can we go?"

He says relief agencies gave each family $1,000.

Yesterday, after a chorus of criticism from Israel's left-leaning Labor Party and some Cabinet ministers, Sharon ordered the army not to destroy homes in Palestinian-controlled areas. That does not include demolitions in Palestinian communities under Israeli control. Police leveled nine Palestinian houses yesterday in East Jerusalem, saying they had been built without proper permits.

The order to halt army demolitions was given more to salvage Israel's public image than as a concession that the method was wrong. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had complained that the destruction "caused us very bad media damage."

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