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Darkness at Noon

Rafah.

Some say they heard it at 10 A.M. – others said they heard it at 11 A.M. on Wednesday: Loudspeakers calling the men of Tel Sultan to leave their homes and proceed to the Omariya School. The refugee neighborhood of 25,000 souls has been under complete military occupation and curfew since dawn Tuesday. Communication with residents, and between them, has been solely by telephone. Their sense of time has become vague since they cannot see the street with their own eyes. They hardly dare an occasional peep to look at what is happening right beneath their windows. There are reports that snipers have situated themselves in the taller buildings to shoot at “anything that moves.”

The call to the men to come down is heard mainly in the Badr neighborhood, in the western part of Camp Canada, which is part of Tel Sultan. However, it was heard in adjoining streets as well. S., who lives one street east of Camp Canada, heard the loudspeakers at a distance. He concluded that the sound was coming from one of the many armored vehicles in the neighborhood.

“I didn’t quite understand what they were saying. It was too far. But later on, I compared what I heard with what friends told me on the telephone. The soldiers called to the armed men to come out with white flags, with their hands on their heads, and their weapons above their heads, and to go to the police station in Tel Sultan. The second announcement said that men between the ages of 16 and 60 should come out with nothing but their identity cards – nothing else, not a cell phone – and go to the Omariya School. They didn’t exactly say if it meant [Camp] Canada residents or everyone.”

Some say that they heard that men from 16 to 40 should come out, and that the Palestinian police should also appear with their weapons. People who were questioned said that they did not see armed men or police coming down from their homes to relinquish their weapons. Only unarmed citizens came down.

Telephone conversations with Christian residents of Tel Sultan revealed a certain degree of confusion: Was everyone expected to come down with their identity cards and assemble at the school, or only “Canada” residents? How safe was it to come down? And what would happen to someone who came down to a street where the soldiers had not issued the call? In some cases, according to one phone caller, women and children, assuming that soldiers would not shoot at them, decided to join their husbands and fathers to create a sort of human shield. Those who came down discovered that the asphalt streets were dug up and destroyed. However, they did not find a single soldier, nor did they see any tanks. Someone said that they saw a tank at the end of their street.

“People started walking in the empty streets, just to walk around for a few minutes. Suddenly, the soldiers started to shoot. Soldiers the residents could not see, firing. I heard the shots as well,” S. said.

Frightened and confused, people froze in their places. S. carefully looked through his window and saw people standing next to the Beirut Pharmacy in the central Shara al-Nus street. “People didn’t know if they should continue, keep walking, go back or stand still. They didn’t know what to do, because there weren’t any soldiers to tell them. They just started shooting at them.” People waited like that for half an hour. Then, since they did not see any soldiers, they returned home.

According to M., people started screaming in panic after the gunfire, screaming, “Allahu akhbar [God is great].” They ran to a nearby mosque, and then went home. They did not know what the army intended to do. They did not know if anyone in the outside world, two kilometers away, knew what was happening. They did not know what was rumor and what was truth. Ambulances started to circle the neighborhood. That led the residents to conclude that there were wounded who had been shot by the Israel Defense Forces. Confusion and panic grew steadily.

Shock waves

Names and numbers surfaced throughout the afternoon: Saber Abu Libda, 31, Shadi al-Maghari, 42, Osama Abu Nasser, 42, Halil Abu Sa’ader, 73. There were some injured, among them brothers of Abu Libda.

The IDF Spokesman’s Office reported: “During IDF activity in the greater Tel Sultan neighborhood, IDF forces called on armed persons to leave home and to turn themselves in. While the armed men were turning themselves in to the IDF, Palestinians opened fire at them. IDF forces shot at the sources of the firing, and identified that two of the shooters had been hit.” This news had not yet created shock waves in Rafah, and three of the four bodies had yet to reach a hospital when the city was inundated with reports of shells and missiles used to disperse a demonstration.

The loudspeakers were heard once again in Tel Sultan, according to S. The men were to assemble in Omariya School. This time, S. said, people in the street adjoining Canada also came down from their homes. “Now soldiers started giving them instructions. In tanks [armored vehicles of all types; the Palestinians call them all tanks – A.H.].” S. said the soldiers screamed the announcement, “Whoever wants to save their own life will come down and proceed to the school. Those who don’t, can die at home.”

Afraid that they would be shot at again, people began to march through the ruined streets in the direction of a block of schools, with Omariya in the middle. There they would discover that the army had destroyed the walls between the schools, perhaps in an effort to widen the area in which the men were supposed to assemble. According to S., the people were not rounded up in Omariya, but in an adjoining school, whose name he does not remember. It appeared to him that more than 1,000 people filled the schoolyard. Some of them returned home after a short time. Others left at around 5 or 5:30 P.M.

“People continued arriving at the concentration site, and the soldiers told them that they didn’t have to come – that they should go home,” a friend of S. said. According to the friend, a university lecturer, soldiers randomly rounded up about 50 men. They counted a few heads and every fifth, or 10th, or “something like that,” was taken to the bus that was waiting outside. The same process was followed with a second bus. About 100 men were driven to Tel Zuarob, a sandy mount to the west of the neighborhood, where “they were asked whatever they were asked, they were checked however they were checked, three were arrested, and the rest were sent home.”

Fragments of information from Tel Sultan slowly collect to fill the puzzle of the last few days. They create a picture which is imperfect and incomplete. Under conditions of curfew and separation from the rest of the city, no one is willing to commit to the 100 percent truth of anything, unless it happened to them or to their family right next to them. Thousands of phone calls from the residents of the neighborhood to their relatives – who are so near, yet so far – make up the picture.

Instant curfew

The telephone is also the only mode of communication between the neighborhood residents and the world. Almost immediately before the neighborhood was taken over, at 1 A.M. on Monday morning, electricity was cut off to 70 percent of Rafah’s population. Thus, Tel Sultan residents, all at once, have been put under curfew and lack any way to learn what is going on. There is no television. The radios have no batteries.

The takeover astounded the neighborhood. Everyone had expected that it would to happen in the neighborhood adjacent to the border. They believed that the tanks would pass through their streets on their way to Yibneh, or Block O, or to the Brazil neighborhood, as they always had in the past.

There are no tunnels in Tel Sultan. It is very far from the border. Armed forces don’t amass there because “it doesn’t suit guerrillas,” as someone explained. The narrowest street is fully eight meters wide. People didn’t stockpile food, pita or emergency supplies.

The soldiers immediately announced the curfew when they entered. The armored vehicles entered the neighborhood accompanied by bulldozers. “The children peeked out the window, counted and announced to the family, `One tank, one armored transit with soldiers, one Merkava [tank], one bulldozer and so on,'” S. said. The bulldozer cracked every square of asphalt street, turned it over and crushed it. Some of the ambulances who hurried to Tel Sultan to evacuate patients on Wednesday could not do so because the road was destroyed, or because sand or a tank blocked their path.

Now the water is running out. All the wells in Rafah are in the area that the IDF has controlled. With the electricity cut off, the pumps must be operated by hand. Municipal workers have not been able to get to the wells. Judging by the diminished flow of water that began dripping out of faucets by Wednesday evening, neighborhood residents concluded that municipal workers have not yet been able to activate the wells. Like all Gaza residents, the neighborhood people depend on purified water for drinking and cooking. A truck playing “Fur Elise” normally sells gallons of bottled water. In a curfew, with asphalt streets crushed by IDF bulldozers, the truck has no chance of getting through.

S.’s family has a grocery store next to his father’s apartment on the bottom floor. Some of the neighbors daringly made their way to the store to buy something, keeping close to the walls of buildings. The neighbors on the other side are afraid to cross the street. Soldiers go up the tall buildings, enter the top floor and use the position to observe and shoot. The neighbors across the street shouted to S.’s family to throw them some supplies: pita, cigarettes, sacks of rice.

Trapped in their homes, the stunned residents counted five large explosions that shook the window panes and raised a cloud of smoke. Four homes were destroyed. They belonged to the murderer of the Hatuel family; high-ranking members of Fatah and Jihad organizations, who were killed; and a man who is said to be a smuggler, who directs things in the tunnels. The fifth explosion was a car. Someone passed the rumor that Palestinian fighters had blown up a tank. It was apparently wishful thinking, that S. was quick to correct. The soldiers had blown up a Subaru belonging to someone in World Vision, a relief organization.

It is hard to know how many positions the IDF has taken up in the camp. It appears that every few hours the IDF leaves one position and replaces it with another. The settling-in process is always the same: They go up through a house. A tank is on the street. Residents of the higher floors are ordered to go down to the bottom floor. Then the soldiers take up their positions in the place with the narrowest windows, like the shower. That is where “they put in their snipers.” The assumption is: “Anything that moves on the ground, this is the end of it.” Because the snipers shoot.

AMIRA HASS, author of Drinking the Sea at Gaza, writes for Ha’aretz, where this story originally appeared.