Life and death amid the ruins of Rafah

A sandy stretch abutting Egypt is, many say, the most violent corner of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Khadra Abu Nameh, a sunken-eyed, blunt-nosed woman with a shawl wrapped around her head, stares coldly from behind gold-framed glasses. She squats a few yards from the mass of rubble and broken concrete that was once her home. Her granddaughter Fatima plays in the dirt with a piece of wire and a crushed plastic cup.

Mrs. Abu Nameh makes no plea for pity. "It was a wonderful surprise," she says, when she saw what Israeli forces had done to her home, her voice stiff with sarcasm. "The same as when someone offers you a flower."

This is Rafah, a town and a refugee camp at the southern end of the Gaza Strip that is home to some 90,000 people, and these are not days for flowers. In some ways this sandy stretch abutting Egypt is ground zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People on both sides consider it the most violent corner of their struggle.

The military positions that Israel maintains along the Egyptian-Gaza border have offered Palestinian militants a target for bullets and hand grenades, many of them homemade. The Israelis have responded with bombs and bullets of their own and by demolishing homes, acts that have cleared out many of the residents of this once densely populated area.

The numbers of dead are disproportionate, and reflect the imbalances between Israel's well-equipped troops and Palestinian militants, who include terrorists determined to kill civilians and guerrilla fighters willing to engage in against-the-odds attacks against their occupiers.

Palestinian officials in Rafah say 259 people - including 46 children and an unspecified number of militants - have been killed in the governorate since open warfare broke out in late September 2000.

Just three Israeli soldiers have been killed in that period, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), but apparently not because the Palestinians aren't trying. Against their positions in Rafah, the IDF counts 462 shooting incidents, 1,387 hand-grenade attacks, and 219 cases where Palestinians used antitank weapons, mortars, or bombs to assault the Israelis.

Israeli forces this month conducted their most sustained incursion into Rafah, at least in part to search for and destroy tunnels used by the Palestinians to smuggle weapons from Egypt into Gaza.

"There are some tunnels," says Omar al-Naqi, an aide to Rafah's governor, "but this is not the real reason behind [the Israeli] campaign." The true goal, many Palestinians assert, is to destroy Rafah and create a buffer zone along the Egyptian border.

The Israelis demolished the Abu Nameh home during their 10-day invasion because it hid a tunnel to Egypt, according to a local Palestinian official who gave his name as Abu Ghazi. He spoke with unusual candor about the existence of the tunnels, but insisted that they were not a project of the Palestinian Authority.

"There are tunnels in Rafah, no doubt," said Mr. Abu Ghazi. "But do tunnels serve the Palestinian national cause? No.

"The people who run the tunnels are a kind of mafia; they don't care about other people," he added, referring to the lucrative practice of using the tunnels to smuggle commercial goods in a time when Palestinian trade with the outside world is difficult at best.

Abu Nameh herself says there was no tunnel and blames neighbors for making false accusations against her family.

Abu Ghazi and other Palestinians argue that Israel is successfully using the tunnels as a pretext to clear Palestinians buildings and people from their land. An Israeli officer familiar with the situation in Rafah, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says many of the buildings demolished by Israeli forces have been abandoned.

"The houses that are close to the Egyptian border, where there is shooting and firing all day, these houses are full of holes and damage that comes from the shooting, from both sides - Palestinian and Israeli," this officer says. "It's a firing zone. How can people live in a firing zone?"

The Rafah Governorate says Israel has completely demolished more than 1,200 houses, including 266 in this month's incursion. Israel's tally for this month is closer to 45, the officer says. "Wherever we found a tunnel, the house was demolished. Every house that was involved in shooting against the forces was demolished."

International human rights groups have criticized Israel's tactics.

On Oct. 13, Amnesty International said it condemned "in the strongest possible terms the large-scale destruction by the Israeli army of Palestinian homes in ... Rafah, which made homeless hundreds of people, including many children and elderly people."

The Israelis say they "coordinate" with Egyptian authorities in tunnel eradication. "They report to us when they find tunnels, and they do find them sometimes," says the Israeli officer, adding that Egypt doesn't offer the sort of side-by-side operational assistance that Israel would need to eliminate the tunnels altogether.

The IDF says it has found 39 tunnels this year, including three in this month's operation.

The years of violence in Rafah have turned the areas closest to the border - once a hive of cement buildings - into desolate stretches of demolished or ruined dwellings. A teenager named Ahmad Abu Sweileh stays close to his family home, sleeping on a plastic mat in an abandoned building.

The other day Mr. Abu Sweileh gave a tour of his neighborhood, stepping over big chunks of broken concrete and keeping himself and his visitors out of sight of an Israeli watchtower, apparently fearful that the troops might shoot. The only sounds were the distant roar of an Israeli F-16 overhead, an Israeli bulldozer rumbling somewhere along the border fence, and the tweeting of birds.

In one of the still-inhabited houses in the area, a grandmother named Huda Abu Shammaleh sat on a plastic chair in her courtyard and recounted how the Israelis demolished her son's adjoining home five months ago. The Israelis blew it apart, she said, "because my son is wanted."

Her voice rising in volume and stridency, she explained why: "He's fighting the enemy; we are fighting for our rights. May we defeat them!"

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