Life in Rafah - March 2, 2002

I set out to Rafah with Mahmud from work on mid-Thursday. The route to Rafah crosses two roads used exclusively by Israeli settlers, which for us Palestinian kinfolk entails long waits at military checkpoints. On this day we managed to only spend about 30-45 minutes waiting in the sun, as once a few scheduled Eged busses full of Israeli settlers passed, we were free to cross in our taxi. Mahmud noted that sometimes people are forced to wait up to 5 hours. At will, the Israeli soldiers can halt cars and leave them waiting, even if its just because they would rather read a paper. There was an ambulance with its lights on behind us, but it clearly wasnt going anywhere in the 1-car wide lane. On the next day I heard about a similar situation where a woman’s newborn baby died in an ambulance as it was held up at a checkpoint in the Wet Bank. Obstructing ambulances is a major violation of the Geneva Convention that Israel violates almost daily.

We made it to Rafah about an hour later. Rafah lies just on the Egyptian border and is a city of mixed refugee communities. About 120,000 live there in total, probably 3/4 of which are refugees whose camps total only .75 square km. Mahmud pointed out the divisions at various street corners where a refugee
camp ended and regular residences began, but it really all looked the same to me. Refugee camps are most defined though by their ultra-thin alleyways where numerous 1-story poured-concrete apartments are tightly packed in. I didn’t know it at first, but Mahmud and his wife are from refugee families and themselves live in the camps.

Once we arrived at his house I was bombarded by his two young children, Suffah and Hiua, a 3 year old boy and a 2 year old girl respectively. However they were incredibly bright and fun to play with. The baloons and bouncyballs that Mahmud has picked up for them kept them entertained for hours. They had trouble understanding why I didnt speak any Arabic, but it didnt keep them from feeding me an endless supply of potato chips. They asked such irreverent questions to me as “does your wife speak arabic?” and “is my pocket nice?”

We feasted on a large meal of baked chicken smothered in middleastern herbs, turkish salad (tomato and parsley), rice, french fries (which have become a mideast staple) and a delicious soup made from a Egyptian leafy plant whose name I cannot recall. It resembled Spinach, but was greener and sweeter. Mixed with onions and parsely in the soup, it was surprisingly good.

That night Mahmud took me on a short tour of the town. He explained how due to the proximity of the border, gunfire was a common thing. Indeed, shots rang out here and there, followed by the low burst of an Israeli tank. It struck me, watching Mahmud talk to a neighbor whose tiny children ran about completely oblivious to the sporatic machinegun fire and occassional tracers streaking above. He explained that by now, only the airplane rocket attacks are really scary, but that there was half a mile of houses between us and the border so we were in no danger at all.

“This is the end of the world,” one of Mahmud’s friends told me. We wandered near the front line just before Rafahs “no-mans land”. This man was the director of a disabled childrens’ hospital that at one point was far from the line of sight of gunfire. Now that the Israelis had bulldozed almost everything inbetween, he lived right on the edge, watching the misery of newly-displaced refugees below. “The people who live here settled in this place as refugees. Now that the Israelis force them out again, they have nowhere to go. This is the end for them.” His partner across the table from us then joked, “Which came first, the border or the refugee?”

The director (I’m so bad at remembering Arabic names. Some wanna-be journalist…) then stepped out onto the porch. Along the upper walls were streaks of bullet markings. He noted how the bullets and tracers often flyby at night. “Its kind of a romance for me, now that I see it so much.” One of his deaf students a few months back was shot in the head and killed as he walked down the street because he couldn’t hear Israeli commands.

Rafah can be rather dirty, but its not quite the dustbowl of third world cities. It has more of a feel of just being run down - as well as swept over by layers of sand. Newly paved roads are almost instantly covered in an inch of sand which, blending with the drab color of almost every concrete building, gives a rather monochromatic tone to it all. But there are enough colored and tacky arabic signs to compensate for that. Political graffitti is everywhere, from brandishing various militant factions to illuminating residences of killed martyrs. Im sure much is completely non-political, but there are plenty of striking murals too. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera on hand to capture a painting of an Israeli bus blowing up, with little skull shapes flying out. There is anger here. But it’s not noticably on the surface. One boy who was spraypainting an announcement honoring the 30th anniversary of the DFLP turned and asked me if he could buy my glasses.

The nights I spent in Rafah were actually quite quiet. I did have trouble sleeping though, not from the sound of distant gunfire, but rather from the cawing of a neighbor’s rooster that had difficulty understanding the temporal concept of midnight.

On Friday, my one day off from work it turns out, I set out with another resident who works at al-Mezan, Muhammad, to tour the areas levelled by Israeli bulldozers in the past year. Of the 1500 or so homes that have been demolished by the Israeli army since the start of the new Intifada, almost 2/3 have been
in this tiny area. I had visited the year before, but now buildings I had walked past last July were now heaps of cynder and iron. While the refugee sections such as as-Sultan camp and Brazil Camp have taken the brunt of distruction, the Israelis dont discriminate and levelled several nicer homes of wealthier (relatively) families too.

We visited one such family, whose patriarch, Mohammad Gishta had lost his villa a few months before. When we went inside, his wife at first kept repeating how amazed she was that there was an American in her home. Then she proceeded to force homemade cookies on me. Muhammad spoke English and proceeded with the now familiar questioning I recive of “Why does America allow this?” to which I have no answer other than to go off about money in politics and wealthy lobbies.

Touring the ruins in the camps is a little more difficult as swarms of children who have nothing else to do decend upon any foreigner walking past. “Money! Money!” children not over the age of 3 or 4 called out as I walked by. The 7-10 year olds though are the obnoxious ones who poke and prod me as I proceed.
Some want to show me things, some want to see my video camera and one just wanted to have my pen. In fact I think that is when I had the first items ever stolen from me abroad, as when I returned I found that two disposable pens were missing from the pocket of my bag. My guide, Muhammad, repeatedly yelled at the kids to leave us alone.

It was a risky tour as looming behind the rubble is a large Israeli outpost, what Muhammad calls a “terminal”. The windows are covered in camoflauge netting and machinegun portals surround it. Adjacent to the position is a giant tower frame, upon which sits traversable cameras so the Israelis can see for hundreds of yards beyond the rubble they created. Each time I leaned around a corner, Muhammad warned me to be careful for being exposed to the “terminal” meant that the Israelis could assume I was a sniper. Thats how most civilians die in the area.

A group of very young girls followed us for a while, begging “soura! soura!” (picture! picture!). Having gone through that enough on my last trip I rather ignored them until one approached with a bullet. It was a full .50 caliber round sans shell that hadn’t impacted. Indeed, it made for a lovely photo in the smiling girl’s hands. The group of them then led us into their mother’s home which was situated at the front of the remaining undamaged houses. Still, the side facing the Israeli position had well enough been raked by gunfire several times. While on their porch and daring to photograph the “terminal” a
shot rang out and I jumped at it. Muhammad pointed out that it was a long ways away, probably from someone shooting at one of the other “terminals” along the border. I must think that jumping at that sound is foolish. For given that I was 200m from the Israeli position, had it been a shot aimed at me, it would have hit me before I could have heard it.

I spent that night with Mahmud attending a sort of gathering for a friend of his who recently had a baby. On our way there we were over taken by a small march of militants from the Palestinian Resistance Committees - one of many factions that dominate in Rafah, where the Palestinian Authority has little,
well, authority. I asked Muhammad if this meant that people lacked civil structures, such as courts and regular police. He said that because of the Israeli conflict, all diferences among the people were put aside so it didnt matter. The march was small, but still featured the MiddleEast penchant for firing automatic weapons in the air (next to your ears) - be it in celebration or in anger. It was still much smaller and less colorful than the funeral processions I had seen the year before in the West Bank however.

Mahmud’s party consisted of 6 men playing cards and drinking coffee and tea all night. Oddly enough, the new father, instead of participating, played host all night. He served coffee, peeled oranges, sliced apples and fetched candy bars as his friends played a peculiar version of “Hearts”.

I couldnt sleep at all that night yet had to wake up at 6am for work. Each day, Mahmud has to give at least an hour of leeway for transit to Gaza City because of the checkpoint delays.

One of the projects I am working on right now is bringing in a team of British Quakers to serve as observers in Rafah. Westerners always seem to be absent when the bulldozers make their moves.

Today in Rafah, 3 were killed and 4 more homes were destroyed. Among the dead were 2 civilians fleeing their homes. One was shot while trying to lead his children away from the danger.