At about 5pm, we received a call from a Palestinian journalist friend of ours with information that bulldozers were working in the Tel Zorob area, the western-most refugee camp next to the Egyptian border. We were actually in the middle of a meeting, so within minutes all eleven of us were geared up and out the door. Five English, two Scottish, two Americans, and two Italians piled into a large taxi and headed to the scene.
Upon arriving, we quickly learned that two Israeli armoured bulldozers had already destroyed one house, and that they were working on another one. We heard bursts of gunfire coming from the Israelis, but were assured that there was no armed resistance working in the area, and were given the go ahead to approach the scene.
As a large group of internationals sporting fluorescent and reflective gear and armed only with two megaphones, a score of banners and our white skin and western passports, we marched down the street towards the action. Palestinians had gathered around the area, peaking around corners, as they often do when there is military activity. As we passed by them we were encouraged with hollers and cheers. I felt like I was on a football team, running out onto the field for a big game.
A tank was parked at the end of the street, and as soon as he could see us he started shooting live rounds into the air and at a nearby mound of earth. The rubble that was a house 30 minutes earlier was directly to the right of us, and the tank was sitting to the left of the house currently being worked on. ”We are unarmed international human rights observers” we informed the soldiers over the megaphone, and then approached slowly. We moved forward about ten meters at a time and then stopped to assess the situation, figure out what could be done and find out who was comfortable doing what. A few activists lagged behind to videotape and watch a little before taking part.
Shooting was largely continuous, with only a few breaks here and there. When we were close enough to the tank, they started throwing sound grenades – not much louder than the shooting, but a metal object exploding close by is frightening. They threw over a dozen of these in the course of two hours, mostly without warning and directly at activists seated on the ground. The shooting was almost always into the air, but it sometimes hit the tops of surrounding houses, showering us with rocks, and we were a little afraid of ricochets.
We informed our embassies that Israeli soldiers were endangering our safety, and let the Israeli soldiers know that we had done so. The British embassy got right on it, but I had a rather disturbing conversation with an American consulate who told me that they would not provide any services for a citizen refusing to follow the travel advice, and refused to make a single call to the Israeli military to inform them of the presence of American citizens.
At one point several activists drew within a few meters of the bulldozer. The driver opened the door and poked his head out for a chat. This is completely unprecedented, as Israeli soldiers stationed in Rafah never leave their armoured vehicles out of fear of the Palestinian armed resistance. He wasn’t really hostile; he even smiled a little. He told us to leave, saying the situation was not our problem but his, and that this was not our land but his. We argued that we were on civilian land and were civilians, and that as a soldier he should return to his military base. We demanded that he disobey his orders and leave these people to live in peace. We insisted that we would not leave until he did so.
He soon re-entered the bulldozer and continued work. Feeling nice and humanized, four activists began to interfere with him. They stood in his path, as Rachel had done, and others of us stayed back in better viewing range, to remind the driver that they were there. He drove slowly and incredibly close to the activists, but stopped in time to avoid injury. After trying this a few times, he withdrew and allowed the tank to have a go at us. The tank soldiers tried a few sound grenades and the usual machine gun shots into the air, and then fired a tear gas canister. The wind blew the gas south, right back at the tank, and didn’t affect any of us. While we continued the face off with the tank, the bulldozer joined the other one around the border side of the house.
Four activist followed him, and once again stood in his path to prevent his work. This time they stood directly in front of the house, which was now partially rubble, making any bulldozer movement potentially dangerous.
A British consular official reported to us that the military had threatened us with arrest if we did not leave. This fact soon became apparent. An armoured personnel carrier (APC) arrived on the scene, and drove in between the two houses, one currently being demolished and another clearly next on the list. Realizing the threat of arrest, several activists withdrew to the area nearer to the Palestinians, an area where Israeli soldiers would likely be shot at if they entered. Several others maintained their position near the bulldozers, but had an escape route planned. The tank blew clouds of smoke from its exhaust (usually used for masking operations) and several Israeli soldiers in full combat gear piled out of the APC and headed for the activists. They all escaped quickly to the protected open area, and the soldiers returned to their armoured vehicle. At this point an enormous explosion occurred to our left as a rocket was fired from the Zorob Tower (a sci-fi looking watchtower at least 1km away) into an abandoned house immediately to the side. This was followed by the APC firing at our feet from a distance of no more than 20m.
One bulldozer came around and tried to bulldoze a large mound of earth and rubble, but activists quickly got in front of him, and prevented him from doing so. He pushed a good deal of the earth, but stopped when he came to the point of pushing us. Two activists actually sat down on this mound, and firmly held the position. The bulldozer remained motionless. We had a very clear view of the bulldozer cab, as our elevated position put us at eye level. The driver smiled and waved, and honked his horn in a rhythmic and musical fashion. At one point he even wrote his phone number on a piece of paper and put it to the window, motioning to a nearby female activists. We try to avoid playing with armed soldiers and armoured vehicles, as it is important for them to remember that this is not a game, and the stakes are far to high for it to be fun.
The tank moved around a little, back and forth, and a few of us tried to keep ourselves between the tank guns and the Palestinian journalists and interested children gathered on the street nearby. The APC soldiers attempted a second arrest mission, but failed again, as our safe space was just too close. We quickly returned to our position and began to sit and wait. The tank had driven rather close to the activists stationed on the mound of earth, and apparently one soldier has became too frustrated to just let us sit there. All of a sudden, he opened the hatch and popped out the tank. He dove for a nearby Italian activist in a sort of rugby tackle, but only managed to get hold of his pants, which were partially pulled down before he escaped. The tank fired heavily into the windows of the near-by houses as the soldier quickly scampered back into the tank, the final arrest mission left unsuccessful.
The near-by Palestinians found this all rather entertaining, and would frequently yell and cheer, and made sure we knew that we were well supported. At no point did any Palestinian fire upon the soldiers nor were any rocks thrown by youth.
Around 7pm, as it started to get dark, one bulldozer and the APC left. The other bulldozer abandoned the mound of dirt, and began to damage the other house. He only knocked down a portion of the surrounding wall and part of the house’s structure, and then left. The tank followed him and was quickly out of vision. In farewell, the Zorob security tower fired another rocket into the house directly above us. We were showered with rocks and the house was again marked with a hole the size of a watermelon.
We were inundated with grateful Palestinians who clearly related the Israeli army’s departure to us. They shook our hands and cheered, I felt like we had just won the game and they were tearing down the goal post. Both houses were left standing, despite suffering massive damage, and what should have been a half hour operation took all afternoon and into the night.
We know that the more effective we become in opposing the Israeli army, the more hostile they will become towards us. This is clearly becoming the case as is demonstrated by the recent injuries suffered by activists. Fortunately, today no one was killed, injured or arrested, but clearly they are beginning to threaten us with such consequences. This is scary, but encouraging as we now know that we are actually making a difference. We will continue to risk ourselves to oppose the atrocities perpetrated on innocent civilians, and will do what is necessary to undermine this brutal occupation.
Joseph Smith is a member of the International Solidarity Movement, based in Rafah, Gaza. He was a friend of Rachel Corrie and was present when she was killed, on 16 March 2003..