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Saturday, 19 January, 2002, 14:12 GMT
Stripping Gaza of statehood dream
A blindfolded Palestinian man is transferred into detention following a raid on Rafah
Israel says Rafah is a sanctuary for Palestinian militants
Barbara Plett

Israeli soldiers peer through the narrow windows of a specially protected tank. They are patrolling the most dangerous frontline in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - on one side is Egypt, on the other, the Gaza town of Rafah. The Israelis guard a thin corridor in between.

Colonel Shlomo Dagan is giving a tour. He explains what the army is up against: it tries to stop Palestinians from smuggling weapons through tunnels under the border, he says.

We have reached a military post now that overlooks Rafah refugee camp. What the soldiers see is an ominous warren of cinderblock houses.

"The houses are very close to the road and border," says Colonel Dagan. "The Palestinians are using those houses as a hiding place for the tunnels, as a hiding place to shoot."

This is the Israeli explanation for why the army bulldozed dozens of houses in the camp last week. The view from the post is now a wasteland of crushed cement, smashed roof tiles and twisted pipes.

The army said it was retaliating for a deadly attack against soldiers nearby, but this was also an attempt to wipe out the threat.

Displaced families

The view in Rafah depends on where you stand.

On the other side, I visit a Palestinian family which can now clearly see the military post across the flattened neighbourhood.

An injured Palestinian refugee boy
Some 600 Palestinians lost homes to Israeli bulldozers
Twenty-three people lived here, I was told - four different families. The army insists the houses were empty, abandoned after months of fighting.

That's news to Salam Jamah, who says he used to live here.

"The tractor and bulldozers destroyed all the houses," he tells me, "We were in here when Israel destroyed our belongings and our houses."

Salam's house is only partly demolished - there's broken furniture in the remaining rooms and outrage in the dusty air. The UN says hundreds of people were left homeless; it called the operation collective punishment.

The children follow us as we take a closer look at the destroyed area. It stretches maybe 150 metres from the Israeli corridor. The Oslo peace agreement allows a 70-metre buffer zone.

Pushing the border

UN official Fuad Fagowi is showing me around. "They are creating a new buffer zone," he tells me.

Hamas supporters burn Israeli flags in Rafah
Hamas gunmen killed four Israeli soldiers at an army post in the area
This policy was stated quite openly by the general who used to be in charge of the Gaza Strip, Yom Tov Samia.

"The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) must raze all the houses within a strip of 300-400m in width," he told Israeli radio in June last year.

"No matter what the future (final) agreement (with the Palestinians) would be, this will be our border with Egypt. (Palestinian leader Yasser) Arafat must be punished; after each incident, another two or three rows of houses must be razed."

Fuad says that would destroy the whole camp, and displace 30,000 people.

In fact, the demolition of Palestinian infrastructure has become a common element of Israeli responses to Palestinian attacks.

Israeli bulldozers moved on from the camp to the Gaza airport, and turned the runway into mounds of sand and slabs of asphalt.

Destroying infrastructure

"Any country without an airport, without a free border, cannot be established," says airport security director Abu Omar. "That's why (the Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon is destroying the airport, the roads, the economics - everything we are able to use in our future country, he'll destroy."

I asked Michael Keating, a UN diplomat trying to resurrect some kind of political process, whether he agreed with the Palestinians that Israelis were deliberately destroying the potential for statehood.

"I don't know if they're deliberately doing that," he said. "But certainly the impact of what they're doing is to set back the prospect of a viable Palestinian state."

Back at the military post, the sound of a nearby grenade explosion interrupts the tour.

Soldiers barricaded behind the cement walls and camouflage netting do not question their task: they must destroy the threat.

But they are also destroying the Palestinian dream of a state, with borders that could keep out the Israeli threat that people in Rafah are facing.

See also:

19 Jan 02 | Middle East
Israel silences Voice of Palestine
12 Jan 02 | Middle East
Palestinians bury Hamas attackers
10 Jan 02 | Middle East
Israelis demolish Gaza houses
16 Jan 02 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Gaza's volatile border
15 Mar 01 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Gazans pushed into poverty
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