Nightmare in Rafah

Rafah, Gaza.

I had spent nights in Rafah before, but never so close to the front line. On March 4, I was offered to join International Solidarity Movement (ISM) member Rachel in sleeping at a home threatened with imminent demolition. The ISM, which works throughout the Palestinian Territories staying in homes endangered by Israeli bulldozers, has a small core in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. They have spent their days responding to emergencies, placing themselves in the line of bulldozers and tanks, and their nights with families whose homes are threatened.

To understand daily life in Rafah is beyond the capability of most foreigners. Only by paying a visit is it possible to understand how people survive in a city that is almost completely surrounded by hostile tanks and gun towers, and loses portions of its border almost daily. Since the start of the second Palestinian Intifada, the Israeli Defense Forces have embarked on a slow, but monumental campaign of demolishing homes along the Egyptian border to the south and the Israeli settlements to the west. After conducting a few massive demolitions in July 2001 and again in January 2002, which garnered international condemnation, the IDF has resorted to slow and piecemeal destruction instead. In its now gradual method, over the past three months some 200 more homes have been demolished, brining the total in Rafah to over 600. This doesn’t include the vast areas of orchards, gardens and greenhouses so critical to this impoverished city’s food supplies.

Before arriving at the house, owned by a local policeman named Monsour, I asked Rachel what the nightly situation was like in Brazil camp. “Oh, theirs is a good deal of ambient gunfire usually. But nothing much.” she casually described it. The term “ambient gunfire” stuck in my head. In my previous stays in Rafah the year before, I had been further from the frontline but still heard machinegun bursts and tank shells into the night. I thought it was a particularly nerve-wracking experience. I had no idea how much worse it was at the front.

We approached Monsour’s two-story home in almost total darkness through sand- swept streets. Instantly I felt far more afraid than having been so close to the Israeli tanks and gun towers during the day. I simply couldn’t see any of them and had no idea what was on the other end of each street. Monsour’s front yard, if it can be called that, consisted of sand covered piles of concrete and twisted metal, moved in to place by bulldozers. The sand piles mark the beginning of no-mans land.

We knocked on the heavy metal doors and were let in to a dimly lit hallway with half of a ceiling where Monsour’s family sat next to some burning charcoal. Indeed, the desert night in winter was quite cold, but I only noticed it when I wasn’t thinking about the tanks.

Monsour, who looks well beyond his mid-40s, took heavy drags from repeated cigarettes as he asked me about my background. His father and brother talked with each other while eating biscuits as his elderly mother found us lawn chairs to rest in. Almost instantly the chugging of tanks emanated from the walls. No one else seemed to notice, and at first I thought they might just be large trucks. But the clanking of metal treads revealed the true origin of the sound and I sat in awe as the family and Rachel continued to chat while a tank positioned itself only a few hundred feet away. I knew fully well that this was the case every night here, but it still took some adjustment. Food was shared, and the grandmother hobbled back and forth to bring us tea. She wouldn’t quit working, despite her clearly advanced age and the able bodied men who could help. She just kept grinning at Rachel and me, happy to have us present. The family took delight in finding that I knew some Arabic, but once my vocabulary’s limits were met, they lost interest. We continued to communicate with each other though and I thought it would be a simple night of laughing and eating.

About a half-hour later, as more tanks and bulldozers rumbled past, I thought I would try to take a look. Monsour’s brother Rafat took me upstairs where there was nothing more than a short patio and a small bedroom. Rafat and I took turns poking our heads around either side of the walls to catch glimpses of the bulldozers and other armored vehicles moving in the night. The bulldozers looked immense, standing about 9 meters high, slowly chugging past appearing almost twice as large as the armored vehicles. Eventually more came past, but in the end we returned to our seats in the hall for some tea.

Monsour’s youngest brother, Nidal, an ever smiling young man, told me as we descended the stairs that “no animal lives here. Just humans.” Shortly after, just as our conversation turned to learning Arabic, a donkey began bleating aloud far in the distance. The half-honking, half-squealing sound startled me and I asked Monsour what it was. He told me it was a donkey, but that in their tradition such a sound means that the devil is coming. I tried to ponder the old-wives-tale as if it would prove prophetic, but I eventually scoffed at the idea.

Not long after, Rachel went up to the porch to take a phone call from Jenny, another ISM member stationed in a home not too far away. They began debating what to do if in case the bulldozers began demolishing anything. Almost on cue, a loud detonation sounded. Then gunfire erupted not too far away. I ran up to the porch with my camera and Nidal followed. He explained that the detonations, which gave a low nad dull rumble, were Palestinian homemade grenades being throw at the tanks and bulldozers. As he explained this to me, a gunbattle erupted in full.

A few short cracks from single-fire Kalashnikov’s were repeatedly answered by heavy blasts from Zelda APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers with an added gun platform on top). The bursts sounded like an amplified zipper, and its echo resonated through the refugee camp for seconds after. I began to gauge my surroundings, noting the thickness of the porch’s high walls and where I could duck down if needed. Nidal and Rachel hardly flinched at the gunfire and I began to grow accustomed to it. After a few minutes I realized that it was safe enough to poke my head over the concrete porch walls to check if I could see anything. The battle was going on several houses down and past an orchard so really nothing was visible.

Meanwhile, the monstrous D9 military bulldozers began their work. Rachel called around to known families to confirm that the Israelis were demolishing a mosque that stood just at the end of a road. It was difficult though to hear any sound of demolition over the din of the gunfire. Bursts came from different areas and their echoes prevented us from knowing their origin. Rachel wanted to know what to do. Did ISM want to try to get in front of the bulldozer? The loose plan was to bring battery-powered lights to wave while walking up to the demolition. We had a megaphone with which the ISM usually identified themselves. In the past they had been successful only sometimes in actually delaying or preventing a demolition with their pretense. But all of those cases were in the day time.

I pressed myself up against the wall of the porch thinking. Rachel again asked, “Ben, what do you think we should do?” I knew that had I been proposed this scenario hours before, and given my video equipment, I would have said yes. But the night was too much. I balked. Yet my reasoning was valid–the short cracks of rifles from around the area indicated Palestinian resistance fighters. If we wandered out into the darkness, we could be shot from either side. More heavy bursts erupted. My heart was racing, but I rather preferred my position on the porch.

Cold winds swept in, prompting Nidal to jump around complaining. He began making jokes about the situation. “So Ben, shall I go get you a rifle?” No, I said, I want an RPG. He laughed and shook my hand. How could I blame his reaction? This was his nightly liferisking death just by living in his home, and constantly fearing that it may not be there in the morning. By now the rest of Nidal’s family had gone to bed. His elderly grandmother somehow slept up against the wall facing the bulldozing–but then again, I don’t think they had a choice.

Peculiar wooshing sounds echoed from a distance away. They clearly came from inside the camp. I asked Nidal what they were, and he said that they were probably just distant gunfire. But I thought that there was no way guns would echo like that. It was only the next day that we found out that the Palestinian resistance launched several small and inneffective rockets from Salah Ad-din Street, about 200m away.

Rachel was again on the phone urging Jenny to come over with a portable light. They figured they could discuss things then. Just as she was getting off the phone, a tremendous CRACK CRACK pierced the air sending us both to the floor. There was likely a resistance fighter not far from the house. We cringed each time he shot, even though the reality was that the sound meant that he was shooting away from us. It was the inaudible gunbursts which would be potentially fatal.

Jenny somehow managed to wander the dimly lit camp streets to make her way into the house. I realized that I certainly would not have done such a thing alone, then again she had already been in Rafah for several months. At 28, the small woman from England was quite adept at her ISM work. As she arrived, we stood outside waiting. Loud bursts again came from not more than a few meters away. The others turned to look while I almost literally jumped up. Well, they do return fire, I though.

It was at this point, now sitting in Monsour’s hallway discussing plans, that the telltale sound of a small motor soared overhead. It was the lawn-mower buzz of an Israeli spy drone. I alerted the others to the fact that while they planned a means to move around the gun battle to the vicinity of the mosque that the drone would see them. My fear was that while a tank may not notice us slip by in the dark, a drone’s infrared eye would see us coming and could tell the tank to open fire even before it realized we weren’t combatants. This gave Rachel some pause. “You know,” she sighed, “I never really realized that.” Phew. Another concrete reason not to risk my life tonight, I thought. Indeed, the resistance fighting all but ended once the drone emerged. Apparently the Palestinians recognized its potential to point out their locations and they melted away into the night. It was now coming on two- o’clock and I was drifting off in my chair while Rachel and Jenny continued to ponder ideas. Finally, they too concluded that a night-time action was too risky. Reprieve. I rather knew I would regret the sort of thrill, but perhaps for one of the first times in such a situation, I thought the better of it. Hell, I figured, I’m already risking quite a bit just by sitting next to the gunfire.

Nidal offered to escort Jenny back to the home she was staying at. Abu Ahmed, her elderly host, was apparently a rather cranky man that didn’t like her wandering out into battlefields late at night. Rachel and I ascended back to the narrow porch to see if anything had changed. One of the bulldozers had begun pulling back, with the drone soaring around overhead. As it chugged by, I made some vain attempts to film it. It was a beast, an infernal contraption with no face and clearly no soul. Its abstract form reminded me of the futuristic tanks from “The Terminator” crushing all beneath its triangular steel treads. To the credit of the total absurdity of the home demolitions in Rafah, I observed that the bulldozers actually emit a beeping sound when reversing, just like normal construction vehicles. It went a long way to showing how the Israelis had transformed the machine for solely malicious purposes.

But its companion was still at work. Now without the gunfire we could hear the sounds of demolition. The mosque was being eviscerated and grinding metal reverberated across the refugee camp’s narrow roads. The building sounded like it was dying. The metal groaned and screamed, dulled only by the thud of falling cinder. The mosque had once been a principal center of the community in the camp and now it was breathing its last. I must stress that this image wasn’t simply a literary allusion–for that night for the first time in my life I was anthropomorphizing a building. I also had to realize just how angry I was becoming. There was nothing to do but sleep.

Rachel and I slept in a small bedroom adjacent to the porch on the second- story. This was the area where the family would expand into as it grew, if the house was to be given a stay of execution. The room was barely any warmer than outside. I shuddered and paused again to listen to the surroundings. The drone kept up its incessant buzz above the area, while in the distance large pistons and motors wheezed. Every now and then I could make out the sound of collapsing concrete. I shivered as I crept into bed. My pillow was rock hard. I fell right to sleep.

BAM! CRACK CRACK CRACK! Typically there is a subtle transition from a state of sleep to waking where one fades out of a dream. Instead I woke up into a nightmare. The house was practically shaking as shells and explosives went off around us. Gunfire spewed from all around. Barely able to remain conscious, yet scared out of my mind I struggled to gain a perspective. The drone was gone. Seizing the opportunity, the resistance must have waited in ambush for the returning bulldozer. At this hour I couldn’t even muster much moral support. All I could think of was my safety.

As the chatter of guns and thuds of explosives went off all around I did a quick scan in the dark of my situation. The far wall facing the Israeli pathway was stacked ceiling high with blankets and pillows. Good. To the right, where the Israelis had attacked the mosque, Rachel was sleeping and would probably take a bullet before me. Good. I found myself taking a sort of fetal position as I sunk back into bed. I was cold, scared and dead tired. I fell back asleep.

The next morning we woke to Rachel’s phone. The ISM had a meeting with the Rafah Water Municipality to help guard their workers as they set off to repair wells demolished by the Israelis a few weeks before. In a total daze I threw on my coat and got myself ready. As I plodded down the open-air stairwell and into the hallway a machinegun let off a sustained burst. I just shook my head.

Nothing will end in Rafah. Rafah is the end.

BEN GRANBY can be reached at: