A few dozen militants could be seen trickling into the Block O neighborhood of Rafah along the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip Monday afternoon. They said they came in anticipation of a major Israeli army operation in the area.
That operation may become the biggest that Israel has undertaken in the Strip since the beginning of the Intifada.
At several points during the day gunfights erupted between the fighters and the Israeli army. One militant appeared to be holed up in a heavily damaged white building facing the Israeli position at the Sallah Eddin gate on the border. At one point the Israeli army attacked the position with a rain of bullets from a heavy machine gun.
The army build-up started in the morning and by the early afternoon Israeli forces backed by tanks and helicopter gunships had cut Rafah off from the rest of the Gaza Strip. Forces at division level were to be deployed for the first time in such an operation.
The actions followed last week’s fighting along the Egyptian border inside Rafah where Israel maintains control.
Early Sunday morning helicopter gunships fired missiles at targets in Gaza City. But the army’s actions seem concentrated on Rafah, where Israeli press reports said it intended to target tunnels under the border that militant groups allegedly use for smuggling weapons.
The troops also planned to take on militants who killed seven Israeli soldiers in two different incidents in Rafah last week.
The army reiterated a plan it had earlier aired. It is considering digging a deep trench along the border to counter smuggling, it said.
Palestinians expect widespread demolition of houses in two neighborhoods along the border: Block O and Gishta.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia appealed to the United States Monday to stop Israeli destruction of houses in Rafah. Qureia was meeting U.S. national security adviser Condoleeza Rice in Berlin.
Qureia had earlier called the Israeli actions in Rafah “ethnic cleansing…and collective punishment of innocent civilians.”
Rice was reported to have said she would ask President George Bush to help end the confrontation.
Late Monday groups of militants were still converging on the two neighborhoods where they expected the Israelis to attack.
One group of masked and armed men wore t-shirts that bore the logo of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, DFLP. The leader wore a black mask and held an improvised-looking rocket launcher clutched against his body. He introduced himself as Abu Kassem and said he was 33 years old.
“The Israelis will only enter this neighborhood over our bodies, when we are martyrs,” he said.
He said the fighters were encouraged by the success in their confrontations with the Israeli army last week.
“All groups now coordinate their actions and we cooperate,” said Abu Kassem. “Together we will fight until the liberation.”
By the time sporadic fighting broke out in the afternoon, Block O and Gishta resembled ghost towns. Almost all inhabitants seem to have packed up, loading their furniture onto donkey carts and leaving the area to the militants.
But some of the families in Block O waited until the last minute to leave their endangered homes.
“Maybe they were not going to come in and destroy my house,” Abu Hani Abu Anza said.
But the shooting nearby convinced him it was time to leave. Aided by three of his sons, he emptied his simple home of his meager belongings. Two of his sons carried out a large bird cage full of yellow and green canaries.
“How I feel about this, there is nothing left to feel,” said Abu Anza.
For some families, it seemed almost too late at moments. One donkey became paralyzed by fear the moment the shooting started. Outside the heavily damaged al-Nurayn mosque, its owner desperately tried to get the animal moving under loud encouragement from a handful of bystanders. Eventually the cart moved on.
In the Gishta neighborhood the Palestine Bank was operating as if there was no imminent threat. The side and back of the building bear the scars of the fighting last week, when holes were punched into the walls.
Bank manager Anwar Abu Nahla seemed unperturbed. “We are a formal institution, we should provide some stability for the people,” he said.
The bank had taken the precaution of removing expensive equipment, and it had prepared an alternative office in the center of town.
Later in the afternoon, the fighting subsided around the time the schools closed. Incredibly, a procession of uniformed young schoolgirls walked into the area where minutes earlier shots had rung out. “We are going home,” one said.