By Laila El-Haddad
04 June 2004
31 May 2004
-- Muhammad Juma was still trying to make sense of what had just happened.
Incensed as he was, he sat sipping a cup of mint tea next to a caged,
limping coyote and a bouncy kangaroo.
Spread out in the
field in front of him was an array of rotting carcasses, with the imposing
stench that only death imparts. Two gazelles lay facing each other,
the look of fear frozen on their faces.
Besides the carcasses,
the only indication that a zoo once occupied this empty field was a
rusty welcome sign that had fallen to the ground. Everything else had
been brutally ploughed over with military tanks and bulldozers.
This was to be the
fate of the animals in Gaza's only zoo - some of the first victims in
last week's now infamous "Operation Rainbow", which ravaged
the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah in the occupied southern Gaza
Animals, of course,
were not the only casualities of the Israeli raid, but their death and
the Israeli destruction of the Rafah zoo provide a glimpse of the indiscriminate
nature in which it was carried out.
At least 1650 Rafah
residents were made homeless here within a span of 72 hours. Fifty-five
Palestinians, mainly civilians, were killed and at least 200 others
injured. Almost all were unarmed.
Such wanton destruction
has left many residents of Rafah wondering just how Israeli occupation
troops are justifying their largest invasion yet of the refugee camp.
Tunnels, say local
residents, cannot be dug more than 80m from the border with Egypt and
cannot allow the sophisticated artillery Israel claims is being smuggled
The zoo is more
than a kilometre away.
"Most of the
destruction was in the old part of the Brazil camp which is significantly
inland. It's impossible to build tunnels this far in," says Abu
Hamzah of the Islamic Relief Society, which has distributed several
tonnes of foodstuffs and clothes to the victims of Rafah.
Abu Hamzah's own
home in Rafah was demolished earlier last month.
"It was destruction
for the sake of destruction," says Juma. "It took me years
to build up this collection of animals - it was my life's work."
In the Tal al-Sultan
neighbourhood of the Rafah camp, nearly two kilometres away from the
border, Majid Mishwakhi recounts in unflinching detail the unfolding
During the first
48 hours of Operation Rainbow, more than 11 Palestinians were killed
within two neighbourhood blocks, he recalls.
"Four AM. Missile
number one lands here, killing Hani Guffa, 18 years old," says
Mishwakhi. "Missile number two: Hani Balawi and son, Tariq Adl,
and Muhammad Shair who came to their aid, all killed instantly. I was
crouching right over there, a few feet away," he continues, walking
a few metres forward.
and four," he goes on, pointing to the now burned out exterior
of the al-Bilal Mosque in the centre or town. Prior to the invasion,
the mosque housed the largest collection of religious texts in the Gaza
Inside, the once
pristine prayer hall and its white Jerusalem brick exterior are blackened
from the smoke of the resulting fire.
and the embers of thousands of pages of books blanket the ground, and
half-burned copies of the Quran sit on the bookshelves.
"I was at the
mosque when the missiles hit," recounts eyewitness Rami Ghawa.
"There were no militants, no arms, and no tunnels. We were just
finishing the morning prayers. There was absolutely no reason for them
to target this place of worship."
Shoot to kill
East of the mosque,
down a tiny alley, is the Abu Libdah household.
On 18 May, the second
day of the invasion, Sabir Abu Libdah, 13, left his home with a white
flag in hand to fetch some water for his family. He had barely made
it out of the alley when he was shot three times in the heart by an
Israeli sniper positioned in a building across the street.
When his older brother
Yusuf, came to his rescue, he too was shot - in his rib, shoulder, and
hand. Then came the third brother, Ayub. The sniper shot him twice in
All three stumbled
back into the house, leaving behind a trail of blood. Family members
who inspected the wounds say the type of bullet used was one that shatters
on impact, leaving behind difficult-to-remove fragments in the bone
"I'm dying, father, I'm dying"
last words were: 'I'm dying, father, I'm dying,'" recounts his
grief-stricken father, as he points to the blood-stained wall where
all three brothers collapsed. "The ambulances were not allowed
in for at least two hours. The bullets wouldn't stop coming, it was
like an all-out war."
The elder brothers
are in critical condition in Rafah's Najjar Hospital.
Next door, Asma
and Ahmad al-Mughayir, 16 and 13 years old respectively, were shot dead
while standing on the roof of their house. Both received one bullet
to the head.
Two blocks away,
Muhammad Jabir turned the corner of his house and received six fatal
bullets to the chest. Meanwhile, in a building north of the Mosque,
Shamal Awad Assar was shot dead on his balcony while transporting a
gallon of water from his neighbour.
Across the street
from the Abu Libdeh household, west of the mosque, is the building from
which the Israeli sniper shot the three brothers.
It is the home of
Samir Barud and his family. Soldiers blew out the back door of his home
with dynamite after demolishing the house behind it, says Barud.
the area for arms, the soldiers locked the men and women into separate
rooms, 35 people in total, and went upstairs to take position.
Barud says Israeli
soldiers used him as a human shield, forcing him to go downstairs and
inspect the area for armed Palestinians.
they heard a ruckus so they took me and told me to scope the area out,
so if anyone was to get shot first, it would be me," says Barud.
"Lucky for me no one was there."
our mobile phones, cut the landlines, turned off the electricity, and
nested their snipers upstairs," he continues, as he picks up two
sniper shields that the soldiers had left behind in the rubble of his
On their back, scribbled
in Hebrew with tiny illustrations, is what looked like a battle plan.
left we discovered that they had defecated in the house and placed our
Quran in the toilet," says Barud.
Now, nine days later,
in a corner of the refugee camp, a cleaner calmly sweeps the overturned
streets, seemingly oblivious to the futility of his task.
Past a broken jar
of olives and a dismembered doll are the remains of a bombed-out elementary
On it in big bold
letters is spray-painted a simple, but telling message: "Sharon
Laila El-Haddad is a correspondent for Al-Jazeera.