From borderline to battlefield

The name “Philadelphi” has become infamous following Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcement of his plan regarding an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. It is the name that the Israeli army randomly chose to describe the strip of land separating Gaza from Egypt, and it has become the focus of attention ever since the Israeli debate over withdrawal started focusing on whether such a withdrawal should include an Israeli withdrawal from the Philadelphi corridor.

While the debate in Israel centers around the “security” aspect of the border strip, for Palestinians, the corridor has become synonymous with death and destruction. It is from the watchtowers along that road and the tanks, bulldozers and soldiers that come from behind the iron wall recently built there, that, in the border town of Rafah alone, over 300 Palestinians have been killed and some 2,700 houses have been demolished during the Aqsa Intifada.

The creation of the corridor, some 14 kilometers in length, was decided upon in the 1978 Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Then it was agreed that the corridor should be some 100 meters wide. When it was created, it split the town of Rafah into Egyptian and Gazan halves. Now, it is the expansion of that width already undertaken, and reported plans for further expansion, that has cost residents of the border areas so dearly and threatens to exact an even greater price in the future.

Two years ago, in remarks reported by the Israeli media, Brigadier General Tzvika Fogel of the Israeli army’s Southern Command talked of plans to extend the borderline in Rafah in some places to 500 meters. The army justified this as an effort to “create great difficulties for Palestinians to dig tunnels for arms smuggling.” At that time, ideas were suggested for resettling the residents of Rafah who would be forced to leave their houses in mobile houses. Fogel also said the extension plan could be completed in two months. Such a wholesale project was not undertaken. Instead, it seems the Israeli army has adopted a step-by-step approach.

Three weeks ago, the Israeli occupation forces implemented what was at first billed as the first stage of “Operation Rainbow,” ostensibly to locate and seal off arms smuggling tunnels into Egypt and arrest armed Palestinians. It was the biggest Israeli incursion into Gaza since the Aqsa Intifada erupted. The operation started after Israel’s High Court declined to extend a temporary injunction against house demolitions in Rafah that had been in force for two days. The High Court justified its decision by saying it was “unnecessary, as the prosecution and military officers stated that there is no intention to demolish more houses.” Simultaneously, the press relayed comments from Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon to the effect that many more houses would be bulldozed to “widen” the Philadelphi corridor.

While that operation officially came to a halt on May 24, reports of plans to widen the corridor continue, and Israeli media reports have suggested that the plans will include the following two stages:

The first stage will be the digging of a canal, 20 meters deep in some parts, between the Rafiah Yam settlement and Tarmeet, which is located across from the Rafah refugee camp on the Egyptian side. The canal will be filled with seawater or groundwater and equipped with electronic cameras while bridges are to be built to enable the Israeli army to move across. The project would reportedly cost around NIS 10 million and would be finished in a year.

The second stage is to expand the corridor to 200 – 500 meters –” reports vary –” and to empty that area of residential houses. Currently, the width of the borderline varies between 80-180 meters.

The corridor has seen many changes since the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987. Then the Israeli army changed the barbed wire that isolated the border from the Palestinian houses directly adjacent to iron rails. When the Aqsa Intifada started, huge cement blocks were lined up as protective cover for Israeli soldiers, and finally, in October 2002, the occupation army erected an iron wall 8 meters high mainly near the most active areas of Salahedin gate and Yubna refugee camp.

Along that wall, the military placed tall circular concrete watchtowers and electronic gates that allow the entrance of Israeli tanks and armored forces. Israel had originally planned to establish the iron wall along 10 kilometers of the border area at a total cost of NIS 250 million, but it stopped work in June 2003.

The watchtowers strike particular fear into residents. Equipped with different weapons and electronic cameras as well as well as bulletproof glass, the soldiers there have been known to shoot without hesitation or provocation.

It is its position as Gaza’s only border not with Israel that make most residents dismiss the value of the Israeli withdrawal plan, if the Israeli army retains control of the Philadelphi corridor. Ultimately, Gazans say, the whole Strip will still be firmly under Israeli control as long as there is Israeli control over the border. And while officials do not deny that there are smuggling tunnels, they say their use as arms smuggling channels have been vastly exaggerated by the Israeli army.

Instead, residents see the Israeli plans to widen the corridor simply as a form of collective punishment and point to the numbers so far as evidence. In the seven-day duration of “Operation Rainbow” alone, at least 45 Palestinians were killed in Rafah. Overall, over 300 people have lost their lives there.

Many more have lost their homes as Israel stepped up its efforts to control the corridor. In all, the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, UNRWA, has put the number of people left homeless in the Gaza Strip as a whole during the Intifada at over 21,000 people, 3,800 of them, according to the agency’s Rafah Emergency Appeal of late May, in Rafah that month alone.