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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 May, 2004, 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK
Hero-worship in the ruins of Rafah

By Alan Johnston
BBC correspondent in Gaza

Following the destruction by Israeli troops of dozens of homes in Rafah, BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston explains how many Palestinians see members of the militant Islamist organisation, Hamas, as heroes making a stand in the area.

Palestinian boys wave Hamas flags in Gaza
Hamas is seen by its supporters as a legitimate fighting force

We turned the corner slowly, and there suddenly, crouching in the headlights, was a masked gunman.

He was laying a roadside bomb. It was a rough-looking thing that appeared to be bound up with plastic clingfilm.

It was easy to imagine that the gunman had put the device together in his kitchen, but that just seemed to make it all the more menacing.

And as we moved slowly on through the streets you noticed that there were more masked men in the darkness.

The Hamas fighters were on patrol, and they needed to be. Their enemy was among them.

The Israeli army had moved into a corner of Rafah the night before. Its tanks sat at the end of the main street. Its soldiers were ransacking the Tel Sultan neighbourhood in a hunt for what they call terrorists.

For the Israelis the men of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are a constant, deadly threat.

'Martyrs'

From their ranks come suicide bombers, the kind of men who have taken hundreds of Israeli lives on buses or in restaurants.

And if you were an Israeli soldier, you'd probably rather meet the Hamas man in Rafah, than back home. Better to take him on in his own alleyways than find him stepping into your Tel Aviv café.

Map of Gaza

But many people in Rafah see the Hamas fighters in quite a different light - to them, the men in masks are heroes.

Armed only with light weapons, they confront Israel's tanks and helicopter gunships and they have died in large numbers.

In death they are honoured as martyrs for the cause of Palestine. Their hoods come off and their faces are revealed on posters plastered on Rafah's battered walls.

Prayers are always said for them at the central, Al Awda mosque. It is a solid block of a building that has about it the feel of a fortress.

From its minaret fly black and green banners, the flags of the fighters.

When the bodies emerge from the mosque, and the march to the cemetery begins, it is led by a van loaded with loudspeakers that blast out demands for revenge.

On the south side of town the Israelis have been demolishing houses that they say the fighters use as cover for attacks on the soldiers.

From the ruins

I met an old lady in a black veil trying to salvage what she could from the ruins of her home.

All down the alleyway, her neighbours believed that the Israeli bulldozers would be back, and that their homes would be next.

In the eyes of many people in Rafah, the fighters are making a stand
They were poor people, and they needed to save what they could.

They were loading worn out televisions and cookers and carpets onto donkey carts. And as they worked, the air was filled with the sound of gunfire from just a few streets away.

The old lady in the veil raised her voice above it.

"They call us terrorist," she said. "But they're the terrorists. They kill our sons, and they drive us from our homes."

She said that when someone does that, you have to defend yourself.

When I met a little boy, called Ala, I asked him what he thought when he saw the Hamas men move through the streets armed and hooded.

"We call on God to give them victory," he said.

"Terrible retreat"

In the eyes of many people in Rafah, the fighters are making a stand. And that is important because like all Palestinians they are haunted by memories of a terrible retreat.

A Palestinian boy and his mother sit in the rubble of their house in the Brazil section of the Rafah refugee camp
The UN estimates at least 1,600 people have lost their homes
Hundreds of thousands of them left their towns and villages in what is now Israel in the summer of 1948, the year that Arab forces lost out, and the Jewish state was founded.

For some the journey into exile ended in the tents of the Rafah refugee camp, at the end of the Gaza Strip, which was then under Egyptian control.

And the town that has grown out of the camp remains a place suffused with a vast sense of loss. Families from different villages have stuck together down through two generations.

I stayed in an area known as Barbera, where all the streets are full of the descendants of what was once the Palestinian village of Barbera.

They tell you that the old place, which was famous for its grapes, has become part of an Israeli township now, not far from the city of Ashdod.

One afternoon an old man came slowly up the alleyway on a donkey cart.

He was selling grapes, and he chose to make a small, cruel joke on these people of long lost Barbera.

"Grapes," he called out. "Grapes from Barbera."

A man lounging in the shade of a tree called back, "Barbera and its grapes have all gone."

"I know", said the old man gently. "Everything's gone."

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Saturday, 29 May, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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