At sunrise on Sunday, the Palestinian residents of Rafah refugee camp awoke to the sound of Israeli gunships, helicopters, and bulldozers. Israeli forces, determined to uproot a network of underground tunnels dubbed a “gateway to terrorism,” blasted at the offices of known extremist groups as well as benign businesses and hundreds of homes.
The military ordered soldiers to kill as many “suspected terrorists” as possible–which, upon finding Arabs booby-trapping an army post, a mosque entrance and elsewhere, they did. So far 20 Palestinians including three children are dead, and 36 wounded. Two young teenagers were found with bullets in their heads. Several Israeli soldiers were also killed. The exchange of fire in Rafah is expected to continue for an undetermined time, although the Israeli military has said it hopes to be out within one week.
Palestinians weighed down by household belongings–beds, planks of wood, even washing machines–abandoned their homes and spilled into the streets, joining the at least 13,000 Gaza residents made homeless
as a result of Israeli operations since the second intifada started in 2000. The only local hospital, with just 50 beds and few supplies, is bracing for an overload. “We are getting ready for a disaster the city has never encountered,” one doctor told Maariv newspaper.
Diplomats and human rights groups condemned the Israeli assault, called Operation Rainbow. Amnesty International is criticized Israel for systematically abusing its Arab populations to grab land through forced eviction and home demolition, pushing mostly poor families from their homes over the past several years. Israeli settlements have grown by 50 percent in the past decade.
Nevertheless, Israel’s high court has three times rejected pleas by Rafah’s Palestinians, including scores of families and elderly residents, to keep their homes intact. The rulings justified the razings for security reasons.
A report released by Amnesty this week charges that:
The Israeli authorities contend that these demolitions are not intended to punish the families of suicide bombers and others known or suspected of involvement in attacks, but rather to “deter” potential attackers, who may refrain from getting involved in attacks if they know that their families will be made homeless and will suffer because of their actions.
Amnesty International considers these punitive forced evictions and house demolitions as a flagrant form of collective punishment, a violation of a fundamental principle of international law.
Israel, though, claims it must make extraordinary attempts to buffer against a spike in activity by suicide bombers and organized Jihadists. Guerrilla warfare makes identifying the enemy all the more difficult. Arms smugglers hide tunnel entrances under straw mats in residential backyards. Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon told Maariv, “Our hobby is not to demolish homes. In one case we demolished a house where explosive devices were placed, while two other houses were razed after Palestinian fire was directed from them.”
Earlier this month, Sharon’s party voted down his plan to evacuate the Gaza strip and parts of the West Bank, thus keeping Israeli settlers in contested regions that make ripe terrorist targets.
Israeli officials accuse neighboring Egypt of looking the other way while terrorists cart long-range, anti-aircraft missiles through underground warrens into the Gaza Strip, some weapons supplied by Hezbollah in Iran. Israelis have unearthed and exploded some 90 such burrows in the past four years, 11 since January. Two years ago the military uncovered a network of tunnels equipped with phone lines and electricity, and even an elevator.
Israel is even mulling whether to build a 60-meter wide moat to prevent Palestinians from digging under the Philadelphi Corridor along the border with Egypt. It has also considered flooding the passageways with waste water.
Militants are smuggling more than just rockets and ammunition through the subterranean routes, and the movement have accelerated over the past three months. The passageways serve as a black market trading conduit for contraband such as cigarettes, drugs and gold–not to mention auto parts, cloth and electrical supplies–commerce purportedly pumping millions into terrorist groups.
That’s why the Bush administration, proponents of the doctrine of preemption, recognizes “Israel’s right to protect itself.” Certainly Israel deserves to weed out the terror tunnels and destroy those armed militants who only aim to kill. However, its displacement of innocent civilians and its extrajudicial killings continue to outrage Amnesty, the United Nations and the Arab League.
The president and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice employ the relatively mild term, “troubling,” to describe actions by Israel that others don’t hesitate to call human rights abuses. Rice was optimistic Tuesday, after meeting in Berlin with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, that the Israeli fight against terrorism as well as withdrawal from Gaza will proceed in support of the “Road Map” to peace.
Bush’s approach to the conflict between Israel and Palestine is informed in part by his effort to please Jewish voters at home. To that end, he spoke with an appreciative American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Tuesday. His measured reaction to the latest Israeli aggression could salt the wounds in the Arab world at perhaps the most sensitive time for Middle East relations in recent memory.
Journalist and Rafah resident Ghazi Hamad, for one, condemns Israel and the United States:
Outside this very community center, there are families living in the soccer field. Some are staying in schools at night, and still others are living in tents in the street.
We told them that there are contacts between the Palestinian Authority and the United States, between Egypt and Israel. But who can say what will happen to these people in the coming hours? Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wants to finish off Rafah, and if he wants to level the whole place, he will.
While the Americans want to appease the Arab world by showing that they are meeting with our leadership, the truth will be written in my town, perhaps tonight. The common denominator between this American administration and Israel is their mutual wielding of power and violence. Together, Israel and the United States have chosen to isolate the Palestinian Authority.