This is the third day that protestors have effectively shut down the Rafah Governorate in the Gaza Strip. Over one hundred men, women, and children have come together to demand compensation for their homes, which have been demolished by Israeli forces armed with American Caterpillar D9 and D10 Bulldozers since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
Since Sunday, over one hundred people whose homes have been demolished have come every morning at 9:00AM to occupy the office of the Governor. They march right past the armed guards at the entrance and into the office of the governor, bearing a colourful array of supplies: handwritten signs expressing their demands; posters of Yasir Arafat and Palestinian flags; water and sweets for the children.
And as for the Governor himself, he has been mostly absent during this occasion, having picked up his papers and left politely on Sunday morning without a fuss.
This may be because of the high stature and people power of the protesting families within the community, which grants them relative legal impunity. The vast majority are not refugees but original inhabitants, and each has about ten thousand members living in Rafah alone. The last time an original inhabitant was jailed in Rafah, hundreds of his family members laid siege to the police station and he was quickly let go.
A yearlong campaign by the Popular Committee for the Owners of Demolished Houses (PCODH) led up to this sit-in. It began as a letter writing campaign. Former homeowners sent to the Housing and Finance Ministries, to UNRWA, to the Rafah Municipality and Governorate, and to the Gaza Governorate weekly updates on the continuing home demolitions by the Israeli army as well as requests for assistance. To date, no political official has responded to their letters.
Frustrated by this lack of response, the committee began daily protests one month ago in front of the Rafah Municipality, the Rafah Governorate, and the United Nations Refugees Works Agency (UNRWA) building. Demonstrators set up tents in front of the three buildings and maintain a daily protest. They sat in and drank tea outside while their spokespersons demanded compensation from officials of the three targeted agencies.
Three days ago, after a month of sustained protest, the Gaza Governor met with several protestors but refused to commit to any compensation for their destroyed houses and demanded they remove the tents.
The initial three-day Governorate shut-down has taken place between the hours of 9AM and 2PM. However, families have said they will begin to occupy the building 24-hours if their demands are not met. “If the Governorate cannot find us a home, we will move into his,” said Nahed Il-Shaer.
Two issues are in question here.
First, the lack compensation in response to home demolitions. The UN provides compensation exclusively to refugees and does not provide original inhabitants (from whose population 120 houses have been demolished) with any relief. Refugees themselves are provided by the UN with grossly inadequate housing, with 41 square meters going to a family of 5. Furthermore, the housing itself has been designed without consulting the families themselves, and as a result it does not comply with religious law around receiving guests.
Secondly, the ever-present Road Map does not address home demolition, one of the most pressing issues along the border both in Rafah and in the West Bank. The Road Map does not include any compensation for families who have lost their homes. Nor does it call on Israel to cease construction of the Occupation Wall itself which has separated countless people from their neighbors and families in Rafah-Egypt and involved the demolition of over 900 homes and tens of thousands of hectares of farmland, gardens, and olive groves.
Protestors at the Governorate demand that their government call on Israel to make a viable future State of Palestine by halting the violence and property destruction along the border. Refugees whose homes and farms have been demolished or illegally seized in Israel now watch their homes and farms demolished a second time. Many refugees used UN money granted in 1996 to build homes for themselves and for generations to come. Many of these homes have now been demolished, or are threatened with demolition. As for original Rafah inhabitants, those who have lost their own generations-old homes and farms have also been effectively exiled from their land. They call themselves the “unknown refugees” and demand the United Nations recognize them as such.
Rafah is a city with a long history of non-violent direct action. At the beginning of the Intifada and the construction of the Occupation Wall, hundreds of protesters were at the border daily, throwing stones and attempting without arms to obstruct the progress of Israeli military machinery. The Israeli forces responded with live ammunition, killing several people daily. This continued for over seven months, and only after hundreds had been killed did Rafah resistance groups take arms.
Another example of popular unarmed protest. The Tel Zorob Military Tower is located along the border of Rafah and regularly shoots into the area, killing and wounding the inhabitants. In October 1996 hundreds of people from the area descended to the tower, passing under the tower, beyond its range of arms. The people shook the tower back and forth, so that it began to sway slightly. Mohammed Bayome took a blowtorch to the tower and began to cut at one of the four metal trunks holding up the military tower. On this occasion, an Israeli Apache helicopter intervened, killing four, including Mohammed Bayome, and injuring over one hundred.
The disparity between Palestinian non-violence and the armed Israeli response has been consistently shocking as Israeli tanks continue to shoot unarmed demonstrators and stone throwing children.
English Translation of the Letter Sent to Governmental Offices in Rafah and Gaza, as well as to UNRWA in Rafah, by the Popular Committee for the Owners of Demolished Houses
June 7, 2003
In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Peace be upon you. Two years have passed, and still our problem. We are the people whose homes have been destroyed by Israeli bulldozers. As it stands now, our problem has not moved, and there is no hope to find any solution to provide us with homes. Our authority has no program or any mechanism about our problem. We watch as our nationality is demolished with our houses. What the ministers of our authority do? Who is responsible for us? Is there any problem more important than ours? Do we live in community? Do none of our ministers know anything about us? We do not know what to say. We need justice. We have already paid too dearly for our nationality. What more will we have to pay? We have been waiting for the minister responsible for us to take on his duty.
For that, we call on our ministers to take our problem seriously and to find promptly a solution because we live without houses. And the fathers without work. And the sons, without address. And we live a life of catastrophe.
We demand from our authority:
1. Plots of land to build homes. 2. The creation of a program through the Ministry of the Treasury to compensate homebuilding on these plots of land. 3. Sufficient funds to cover the cost of rent for the 120 families who have lost their homes who are original inhabitants of Rafah; who have now become the unknown refugees unrecognized by UNRWA. 4. The creation of a welfare program to compensate all persons whose homes have been demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Since the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, 863 homes have been destroyed in Rafah, leaving 1049 families (6283 people) homeless.
We hope that you can find a solution. We hope you will hear well and with a good heart during our call.
Popular Committee of Owners of Demolished Houses