At 11 am on Saturday the 15th of February 100-150 Palestinians were joined in Rafah by nine internationals in a march for peace for the people of Iraq, in protest of US government policies towards the people of Iraq and Palestine, and in support of the political rights of protesters in New York City. This demonstration occurred in conjunction with protests around the world.
Messages from Communities Around the Globe Palestinians and international friends from the United States, the UK, and the Netherlands marched along Sea Street, Sharia al Baha, one of the central streets in Rafah Camp. As they approached the center of town they began to shout through bullhorns in Arabic “Hurriyah la Falesteen! Hurriyah la al Iraq! Hurriyah la Rafah! Hurriyah la Baghdad!” and in English “Freedom for Palestine! Freedom for Iraq! Freedom for Rafah! Freedom for Baghdad!”
Internationals carried hand-written signs: “Amsterdam says no to War on Iraq and Rafah! Olympia USA says no war on Rafah and Iraq! City of Chicago Stop War on Iraq! South London for Peace in the Middle East. Malvern Against the War. Dingle for Peace in the Middle East.” Palestinians carried signs saying “Stop Repression in New York”, a nod to the illegalization of marches scheduled for New York City today. Some internationals reported that friends at home marched with identical signs mentioning the situation in Rafah.
“Freedom for Palestine. Freedom for Iraq.”
At about 11:10 this crowd converged in Al Awda square with a group of children from the Children’s Parliament, youth from the Fateh youth organization, as well as adults from Fateh and various community organizations.
Children joined in chanting “Hurriyah la Falesteen wa Hurriyah la al Iraq”—and passed forward crayoned United States flags to the center of the demonstration. A US national burned these flags, while the Children waved peace signs and continued to chant. A few of the children burned crayoned Israeli flags.
As rain began to pour on the streets of Rafah at about 11:30, Palestinians and internationals walked through traffic. The bullhorns went off, and the chanting dissipated to child voices and adult voices yelling “Hurriyah la Falesteen! Hurriyah la Falasteen! Hurriyah la Falesteen!” Freedom for Palestine. Freedom for Palestine. .Freedom for Palestine.
The situation in Rafah
Rafah is a city and refugee camp of about 140,000 people in the southern Gaza strip immediately adjacent to the Egyptian border. Currently, the Israeli Military (IDF), is constructing a wall approximately ten meters high paralleling the border.
The Rafah Popular Refugee Committee estimates that over 600 houses have been destroyed on the Rafah side of this wall. 79 houses were destroyed in Rafah in January alone, according to a United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) press release Tuesday. UNRWA Commissioner General Peter Hansen urged the international community not to ignore the situation in the West Bank and Gaza as focus intensifies on Iraq.
Internationals engaged in human rights work in Rafah report daily demolitions of civilian homes and “ceaseless shelling” from tanks stationed along the outskirts of Rafah. Palestinians living on the “front line”—those houses immediately facing the now-open area where other homes once stood—refer to the shelling and larger bomb blasts as “music”.
An international from the United States pointed out that the children involved in this demonstration rarely have direct contact with the outside world. “They have never seen Israelis except inside of tanks and sniper towers”.
What does this war mean for Rafah?
When asked what war in Iraq means for people in Rafah, one of the Palestinian organizers of the demonstration remembered his experiences as a child during the first Gulf War:
“During 1991in the first Gulf War Israel had bunkers and Israelis had gas masks. We had no masks. Israel is a technological country and knows how to deal with these things. But in the camps—no on cares what happens to us in the camps.”
He described the uncertainty of wondering whether Iraqi missiles aimed at Israel would hit Gaza and the difficulty of living under twenty-four hour curfew imposed by the IOF.
“We made some things, the best we could. We shut all the doors and nailed nylon over the windows. We knocked a hole in our wall to move between rooms.”
UNRWA alludes to further consequences of an Iraq war for Palestinians. According to Tuesday’s press release, UNRWA’s emergency programmes—“including the feeding of 1.1 million people”—will run out of resources and come to an end in mid March unless donations are received immediately. As of Tuesday, no funds had been received by UNRWA in response to a December call for US $ 94 million in emergency aid. UNRWA mentions Rafah in particular as an area of need - “Supplies of food, tents and cash to those made homeless cannot continue unless donations are forthcoming.”
Hansen makes the international community’s inaction and the potential for war: “[T]he paradox is that our emergency funding for the year may be threatened because donors are holding back to see what is needed in Iraq.”
When asked what the IDF might do in Gaza in the event of an Iraq war, one Palestinian from Rafah replied “We cannot know what they will do. We just wait.” No one made mention of the potential for mass famine.
“We know what this is like and we do not want this for the people of Iraq” A shopkeeper in the vicinity of the demonstration described the sentiment of many in Rafah that US aggression towards Iraq in the midst of continuous support for Israel demonstrates abject disregard for the value of Palestinian lives. He mentioned the IDF’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and killing of Palestinian civillians:
“This is something we cannot understand. We know the government is not the people, but why America wants to attack Iraq so much? Just the oil? They have all the oil. The Middle East is already as a base for America—army everywhere. Why do they want Iraq? What is the difference between Iraq and Israel? Why do they want these things for us?”
Another Palestinian organizer expressed doubt that the demonstration in Rafah would matter in the international community. “There were demonstrations before but the media doesn’t come here from Gaza. No one will see our demonstration.” Others in Rafah echo this sense of invisibility:
“We make protest here for Iraq, but we need to think about ourselves. Things are bad enough here. Nobody here likes Saddam Hussein. We make protest for Iraq because we know what this is like and we do not want this for the people of Iraq. Saddam Hussein is a king. He will not die. He will not be hungry. He will not suffer. We make a protest for Iraq. Because we have experienced this. Who makes protest for us?