An old Palestinian man rests in the street next to destroyed houses at the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, May 17, 2004. Panicked Palestinians fled their homes in Gaza as Israeli forces massed for threatened assault, despite Palestinian Prime Minister's appeal to White House to intervene. (REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)
Rafah is the poorest town in the Occupied Territories. Its misfortune is that it is ruled by an Israeli government that does not believe Palestinians - even in an eventual "independent" Palestinian state - should ever be allowed to control their own borders. And Rafah lies on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.
For the last three years, the Sharon government has been slowly building an Israeli-controlled "security zone" between Rafah and Egypt, using "Israel's security" as the pretext to quietly raze one more row of houses at a time. Since 2000, 12,600 Rafah residents - already refugees from earlier periods of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - have been deliberately made homeless in order that Israel can build its "security zone", which will leave Gaza isolated in Israeli-controlled territory and cut off from the outside world, just as PM Sharon proposes to do with the twelve cantons in which he intends to fence in the Palestinians of the West Bank.
The head of the IDF's Southern Command explained to an Israeli audience in 2002 that the process of clearing out Palestinian homes was going well, but moving too slowly:
For the governor of Rafah, Majid Ghal, the claims about tunnels and resistance are all nonsense. He says the demolitions are yet another grab for Palestinian land. "What they are doing is to carve out a buffer zone between Rafah and the border. The Israelis have always said they do not want Palestine to control its borders or to have borders with other countries. They are trying to drive people out," he says.
The army denies any such motive. But a clue to Israeli intent can be found in comments made on Israel radio a year ago by the then head of the military's southern command, which has responsibility for Gaza. Colonel Yom Tov Samya said house demolition was a policy and an end in itself, not a by-product of a search for tunnels. "The IDF (Israeli Defence Force) has to knock down all the houses along a strip of 300 to 400 metres. It doesn't matter what the future settlement will be, this will be the border with Egypt," he said. "Arafat has to be punished, and after every terrorist attack another two or three rows or houses on the Palestinian side of the border have to be knocked down ... This is a long-term policy. We simply have to take a very extreme step. It is do-able and I am happy it is being done, but it's being carried out in doses that are too small, I regret to say. It has to be done in one big operation".
Today, PM Sharon is dispensing with the "small doses", and amassing IDF troops at the entrance to Rafah Refugee Camp in preparation for the "one big operation" that will illegally level hundreds of Palestinian homes. The residents of Rafah are currently salvaging what they can, and leaving their homes in preparation for the assault.
I have put together a photo album of current events in Rafah, where the poorest Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are today preparing to become refugees for a second, third or fourth time in their lives. All in the name of "Israel's security".
Pace in Medioriente provides this satellite image (click to enlarge), showing the extent of the planned demolitions. According to the map, based on reporting from Israeli media, the homes of 117,000 Palestinians are scheduled for demolition.