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A view from the ruins

By Joseph Algazy

The El-Tufah crossing point in southern Khan Yunis divides the city from Mawasi, an area that stretches toward Rafah. To the right is a desolate field, which until two years ago was a lush green. To the left stands a wall that surrounds the settlement of Neve Dekalim and territory around it. Visible in the rear are the remains of two high-rise buildings ravaged by IDF shelling, with bits of concrete and steel reinforcing rods suspended in air.

Last Tuesday, dozens of men, women and children - residents of the area of Mawasi, near Rafah, were lined up at this IDF roadblock, along with a long column of cars and trucks loaded with food and produce. Noticing the UN and UNRWA officials and the reporters, they gathered around and bitterly reported how they had been detained at the gate for several days. Left without a choice, some were spending their nights there, while others slept in nearby mosques or with relatives.

They reported that the Israeli soldiers at the roadblock, who had allowed them the previous week to pass from Mawasi to Khan Yunis, had prevented them from returning to their homes the past few days. The IDF was not authorizing passage through the checkpoint to women under 35 years of age, or men below age 40, they explained. The ban was also affecting the small children who accompanied their parents. And the army was also preventing passage of trucks loaded with goods, including those transporting food products.

The people explained that they had gone to Khan Yunis, some to take a baby to the hospital or the doctor, some to buy food for Ramadan, others to visit relatives. They repeatedly said that if they had known they would not have an opportunity to go home, they would never have left the area. They also said that in Mawasi, which is home to thousands of people, there is a severe lack of basic food staples, especially milk and nutritional substitutes for babies.

Soldiers at the roadblock, they complained, were not impressed with their entreaties or requests, even when one mother explained that she had left her small children behind, without food or supervision. "Nor did it help when someone on his own initiative would pick up his clothes and expose his upper body, chest and hips, so the soldiers could see he was not carrying any explosives on his body," related a man of about 55.

At either end of the elongated IDF checkpoint at Abu al-Houli (also known as the flour mill roadblock), which stretches over several hundred meters and divides Gush Katif from the Green Line, long columns of dozens of vehicles await permission from soldiers to drive from one side, by the exit from Deir al-Balah, to the other side, in the direction of Khan Yunis. Running among the vehicles stalled in the two traffic jams are children around the ages of 8 to 12. Asked what so many children are doing there, a representative of the UNRWA information office in Gaza, Adnan Abu Hasna, explains that the soldiers at the two ends of the roadblock do not permit passage to vehicles with only a driver. One, two or three people must be seated with the driver, "depending on the mood of the soldiers." The children accompany drivers who are traveling alone, for a shekel in either direction. "This is another type of livelihood conceived by the occupation, the intifada and the economic distress," he says.

The stone wall around Be'er Sheva High School in Rafah is now punctuated by tents, the transitory homes of refugees whose houses have been destroyed by the IDF. In Rafah - primarily in the refugee camp - the destruction is extensive and easily discernible. In "O Block," which parallels the Egyptian border, a line of destroyed houses runs along the metal fence that is being built by the IDF. Kamal Youssef Abu Shamla and Husam Abu Lida pranced among the broken cinderblocks, bits of concrete and steel reinforcing rods of the destroyed homes, pointing out the destruction and asking over and over, "How many more homes does the IDF plan to destroy?" Through the opening of one window, they vigilantly point out a tower next to the wall - a mobile elevated IDF position that moves along steel tracks and is manned by snipers.

Amid the ruins of her home, Nafisa Mohammed Shaqfa relates that one night the previous week, an IDF bulldozer destroyed her home, which consisted of three rooms, a kitchen and toilet. Nine persons were left without a roof over their heads. She claims her family was not given any preliminary warning from the "Jewish army" that they were about to destroy the home. Some members of her family were now staying with relatives, others were sheltered in tents.

In contrast to previous visits to the refugee camps of Gaza, at which time residents would roundly criticize UNRWA for the dearth of aid it provided, this time the refugees in Rafah and Khan Yunis expressed satisfaction with the activities of the United Nation's relief agency.

According to Abu Hasna, who was born in the Rafah refugee camp and whose family comes from Bshit, the refugees' attitudes toward UNRWA changed for the better, for several reasons: The organization provides immediate assistance - mainly food, tents and building materials - to refugees whose homes have been destroyed or who have been left without any possessions. Aside from its ordinary budget, UNRWA maintains a fund for emergency aid that is supported by contributions from around the world. The agency undertakes various projects, for instance the construction of a new residential neighborhood at Tel El Sultan. UNRWA has proven an ability to help refugees that outstrips that of the Palestinian Authority, which barely functions.

Fishing under siege

Ten days ago, an Israeli Navy Dabur patrol boat was attacked by terrorists on a fishing boat near the Gaza coast. The following day, the IDF banned fishermen whose boats are moored at all four fishing quays in the Strip - in Gaza, Deir al-Balah, Khan Yunis and Rafah - from taking their boats out to sea. On a calm sea at the Gaza anchorage, yellow-painted fishing boats bobbed up and down. Under IDF orders, the Gaza fishermen's boats have been painted yellow, those of Deir al-Balah green, Khan Yunis red, and Rafah white. Only a few people are standing near the Gaza pier, an area where fishermen and fishmongers usually bustle about. A member of the fishermen's council, Mahmoud al-As, explained that the ban imposed by the IDF on the fishermen is affecting the livelihood of over 2,000 persons engaged in either fishing, repair of boats or nets, or buying and selling fish.

Al-As, a man of 60 with a tanned face and graying hair, has earned his living from the sea since he was 14. "I own one launch boat and seven small boats. Fishing supports 43 people in my family - adults, children and grandchildren," he said. In ordinary times, he said, the IDF allowed Gaza's fishermen to go 15 miles out to sea, but only on condition that they not go north toward Ashkelon or south toward Egypt. Before the naval siege was imposed, the fishermen brought in a good catch.

Al-As noted that the naval blockade on Gaza hurts thousands of innocent people, which he described as "unacceptable, collective punishment." He said that the terrorist attack at sea did not involve any Gazan fishermen, and that none of his friends was arrested. The two assailants, he said, entered the Gaza anchorage with a fishing rod and fishermen's basket, stole a boat and set out for sea. Al-As responded affirmatively when asked if he and his fellow fishermen would show more awareness in the future, lest any other assailants try to take boats from their fishing dock.

IDF shelling from the sea did serious damage to the port in Gaza and suspended construction work there. Most of the coffee houses and reception halls that had sprouted along the beach after the IDF's pullout from Gaza eight years ago are now closed. The rides at the closed amusement park are getting rusty. Nevertheless, the cluster of hotels on the beach across from the city's main street, including the Falastin and Al-Deira hotels are still there, and show no signs of damage. However, guests and clientele are few and far between. "The UN people and foreign journalists that stay in the hotels and eat in the restaurants protect us," explained one of the waiters, half-smiling.

A high-ranking security source said yesterday that the El-Tufah checkpoint had been closed after a terrorist attack occurred in the area, but was reopened to traffic, in both directions, on Friday morning. As for the row of homes in the Rafah refugee camp's O Block that were destroyed by the IDF, across from the new fence now being built, the source stated that the homes that were destroyed had provided shelter to Palestinians who had fired on Israelis or who had laid explosive charges. The wall is intended to provide better protection for the IDF and the settlers, he said. When violent incidents in the area are reduced in scope, the Palestinian population will be better able to live in quiet.

As for the fisherman's quay in Gaza, the Israeli defense source reported that the intelligence probe of the terrorist attack was still ongoing. At this stage, the marine blockade of the jetty in Rafah had been rescinded, and fishermen there were now permitted to go out to sea, to a distance of six miles from the coast. The naval blockade remains in force at the other jetties.

Ha’aretz, December 02, 2002