Protecting Palestinian families in Rafah

Yesterday was marked by what I call a “mini action”. We very loudly moved into a house in which we will now have a constant presence.

It’s a four-story building in the Rafah neighborhood called Yebne, a refugee camp right on the Egyptian border, victim to significant amounts of shooting and demolition. This house belongs to the Jaber family, and contains around 35 people, four families with loads of children. Its located right across from two Israeli security towers, and an area where an Israeli tank often sits.

The house has been ridden with bullets, indeed there are bullet holes in walls as deep as three rooms into the house, and virtually every room is occupied by family members. The children show me armloads of bullet shells, shrapnel and rocket casings that they’ve gathered from their house, and the damage is more than apparent.

“Every day they shoot”, said Mahmud, a 16 year old boy who frequently has to help the older men patch the holes in the wall. The holes are anywhere between the size of a golf-ball to a bowling ball, depending on which kind of ammunition the Israeli soldiers chose to fire. I ask him about bulldozers, and he points to the ground to show me how close they have come.

Indeed, they’ve destroyed their chicken coup and other garden space that is within meters of the house. The family never knows when the Israeli military may come for their house, but they don’t think a bulldozer could take it down. This size of house usually requires explosives, meaning Israeli soldiers will likely enter the house, remove the people and lay large explosive charges.

This is why it is especially important for us to have a presence here, perhaps we can ensure some more humane treatment of the family if and when they are forced to randomly evacuate in the middle of the night.

Yesterday morning, Israeli snipers shot two brothers in the house, 15-year-old Rushdee, and 19-year-old Mustafa. The windows have been covered with plastic to conceal movement, but when a light is on in the room a good sniper can hit a figure. There are no militant connections to this house or these boys, so the Israeli snipers must have just been bored. Rushdee was hit in the neck and is in the hospital in serious condition, and Rushdee was hit in the leg and seems to be okay.

In response to this and the other violence this family has been forced to face, 10 internationals from America, England, Scotland, and Italy staged a demonstration on the roof of their house. It started around 5pm, and went on for over an hour.

We hung banners on the house making our international presence clear, and shouted at the towers and tank with megephones, and told them who we are, and not to shoot at us or this family. They had to have heard, and now cannot miss the two large banners hanging from their house. One reads “Internationals Live Here”, and the other “Internationals in the Area”.

The second banner refers to a tent we plan to pitch today. Every night, an Israeli tank drives up and parks near to this house. The soldiers then use this position to shoot rampantly into the houses all down the street, and effectively prevent anyone from moving in the area, or getting a good night’s sleep.

Palestinians have offered to help us set up a tent in the tank’s parking spot, which they will then, along with us, occupy and effectively resist the tank’s violence. We will be pitching the tent, a large, yellow, canvas and metal structure like the ones given by the UN to refugees who’ve lost their houses to Israeli aggression, around 4pm, and will have at least two internationals occupy it from sun down to sun up, ready at all times to stand off to the tank. It will remain there for as long as it needs to.

Besides the constant gunfire and tank traffic that marks every evening and night, things have been calm in Rafah. I’m sure you’ve all read about the sieges on Gaza City and Beit Hanoun, very tragic and difficult for us knowing that we are only a few kilometers away and can do nothing. It stresses my family out, we watch the news together each night and they try and tell me what has happened that day.

I say “my” family, as I’ve grown an incredible attachment to them. We almost had to leave the house due to a lack of internationals, but we felt that it was impossible to do so right after the invasion a little over a week ago. Shortly, more internationals arrived and we’ve been able to keep our commitment.

The family speaks hardly any English, and Laura and I hardly any Arabic, but we get along just fine. The children especially love us, and my guitar. We play for hours each night until they pass out around 9pm. Monsuer (11), the oldest boy, and I have a special connection. He’s remarkably creative, and has taken to numerous craft projects.

He’s constructed a cardboard drum set to go along with my guitar, and makes use of glass cups and metal objects to improve the diversity of his rhythm. He’s also been making random things out of popsicle sticks and paint. The oldest girl, Esma (13) is a remarkable artist, and draws interpretive portraits like something you would see in a modern art museum.

Nahed is clearly the matriarch of the house. She is phenomenally strong-willed, and her children have picked it up, leading to constant show-downs. She will sometimes hit them with firm plastic tubing, like they use to whip donkeys, but Laura and I have taken to confiscating this weapon and hiding it from her. Things are more peaceful when we do this.

Their house is equiped with a large sand box, as an Israeli tank fired a large shell, like the kind used for blowing up other tanks, at their house and it has left a hole in the floor and wall the size of a small car. The children play with the sand and broken tile, and often use this hole as a sort of back door.

Outside their new entrance is a now empty field, which used to contain orange trees. I am told that there were over 30 but Israeli bulldozers destroyed them all, a tragically all-too-common attack on these people’s livelihood.

A common topic of conversation has been the United States’ War on Iraq. I am incredibly defensive about this topic, as I feel some sort of responsibility for it, as it’s my government with my taxes and my country potentially benefiting from the war. I become rather indignant about the whole thing, probably also in attempts to make sure that they know where I stand.

After we learned that Baghdad had been invaded, and saw video of U.S. tanks driving around the streets unapposed, I asked, “Where are the Iraqi soldiers?” They said they didn’t know, and I said that I hoped they were hiding somewhere, and planning a massive attack to take back their country.

They corrected me quickly, and said that the U.S. soldiers aren’t bad, and shouldn’t have to die, that it is Bush and other big leaders that are the problem.

It couldn’t be more humbling to have these people, that face such constant violence from foreign soldiers, make the distinction between soldiers and their leaders. What an incredible amount of humanity they’ve been able to maintain. I can only learn from their example.

Joe Smith is an American activist from Kansas City, Missouri, based with the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah, occupied Gaza. He was a friend of Rachel Corrie’s and was with her when she was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer on 16 March 2003.

Related Links

  • International Solidarity Movement
  • ISM Rafah statement on the killing of Thomas Hurndall (12 April 2003)
  • “Not again”: Joe Smith writes about the killing of Tom Harndall
  • Protecting Palestinian families in Rafah (11 April 2003)
  • The Brian Avery shooting: When will we realise that there can’t be this many “accidents”? (5 April 2003)
  • Photo story: Israeli bulldozer driver murders American peace activist (16 March 2003)
  • Increased targeting of International Solidarity Movement (16 March 2003)