Palestinians Brace for More Destruction

More and more Palestinians are facing homelessness after the fighting last week.

Palestinian families could be seen fleeing their homes in Rafah Sunday in anticipation of further Israeli military action. The area close to the Egypt border bears the marks of the fighting and widespread house demolitions last week after Islamic Jihad fighters destroyed an Israeli armored vehicle.

The Israeli High Court lifted a temporary stay order Sunday against demolitions. At the weekly cabinet session defense minister Shaul Mofaz and defense chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon vowed to intensify the fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Mofaz said Israel had to prevent smuggling of arms from Egypt into the Strip and that he would "create a new reality" along the border. Israel had kept control over a narrow strip that it calls the Philadelphi route after it withdrew from Rafah in 1994 under the Oslo accords. The area has been a focus of fighting over the last three-and-a-half years.

Israel would "deepen the fighting" in Gaza in order to deal with the militants in the strip, Mofaz said. This was taken by many in Rafah to imply that Mofaz wanted to create an expanded buffer zone along the border at the expense of Palestinian homes in Rafah.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell voiced rare criticism of Israeli actions during a visit to Jordan. "We know that Israel has a right for self-defence but the kind of action they are taking in Rafah with the destruction of Palestinian homes, we oppose," he said.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia called on his people not to react to Israeli actions, so as not to give the army a pretext to expand its operations.

On Saturday some 150,000 Israelis had gathered in Tel-Aviv to ask that their country withdraw from Gaza and start negotiating with the Palestinian Authority. Many commentators linked the high number of demonstrators to the flare-up of the fighting in Gaza last week in which 14 Israelis and some 30 Palestinians died.

There is widespread fear of further escalation in Rafah. A spokesman for the Rafah governorate said he expected that the Israeli army would demolish a further 1,000 to 1,200 homes in the area, after already destroying about 1,000 during the current Intifadah.

The family of Abed Majed Al-Shamale was gathered outside their house in Rafah’s Block O neighborhood Sunday afternoon, ready to move out. All their belongings were loaded onto a trailer hitched behind a small tractor.

"We heard this morning at ten about the High Court decision and we decided to leave," said Abu Shamale. "It is better to escape now than lose everything."

He was planning to store his furniture at a friend’s place but had no idea where he was going to stay over the next few days.

During the fighting last week some 88 houses were destroyed in Rafah and about a thousand people were made homeless, according to Palestinian sources and the United Nations. Some of them have found temporary shelter in a school, others in an improvised camp. Others like Fathieh ‘Sdude have taken shelter in the damaged al-Nurayn mosque in Block O.

The family had fled their home Wednesday when they heard Israeli bulldozers operating in the area. A few hours later there was a huge explosion when fighters from the Islamic Jihad blew up the Israeli armored personnel carrier.

"It was like an earthquake," said a neighbor. The ‘Sdude family came back to find their house damaged by the blast. They had to flee when the army started attacking the area "with helicopters, tanks and machine guns."

Their home was heavily damaged. Several walls are missing. The house was then stripped empty by looters, "kids from the neighborhood," said ‘Sdude. Even the sinks are gone.

"We don’t have anything left, we couldn’t take anything with us," said ‘Sdude. "We only have the clothes on our backs. I was doing the laundry when we fled."

Next to the kitchen a checked shirt flapped in the wind. The only bits of furniture left were two old ceiling fans. On a back wall, posters of Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi who were killed by Israel, were the only decoration.

The family did not blame the fighters of the Islamic Jihad for the loss of their house. "It would have happened anyway," said a son. "The Jihad is a legitimate resistance group. The army was already destroying houses in the area when they attacked. Were they supposed to do nothing?"

The fighting and the demolitions took a heavy toll also in the Gishta neighborhood next to Block O. Ashraf Gishta was killed there Friday morning when he went to retrieve some of his belongings moments before it was demolished, his family and an eyewitness recounted.

He was shot by snipers, said a cousin Hossam Gisht. Ashraf was inside the house carrying an ax to "cut cables" when the tanks approached. Later Ashraf’s body was found with three bullet wounds a small distance from the demolished house, Hossam says.

Some families who lost their home in the Gishta area now live in tents provided by the Red Cross next to the Salaam mosque in Rafah. They squatted in the sand in confusion, wondering how long they would have to live like that.

Ali Sha’er, 41, said he worked for the Palestinian Authority but his salary was not nearly enough to feed his family and build a house as well.

"You are still one of the lucky few," another man said. "Most people who have lost their homes don’t have any income at all."