Rafah on the brink

“Located on the southern tip of Gaza, Rafah is a Canaanite town described as Rafia by the Greeks and the Romans. The town has some ancient mosques and archeological sites, including a mosaic floor. Rafah’s beach is beautiful, offering sand dunes and date palms.”

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities still hasn’t updated its website. If they do, they might want to add a few caveats: Try to ignore the sound of machine gun fire at night. Don’t get too close to the edge of town near the border, you may be shot. P.S. Unless you are a resident of the Israeli settlement of Rafiah Yam, the beach is out of bounds.

Rafah, a governorate of some 160,000 people, with the vast majority living in the city and refugee camps between which it is hard to distinguish, is perhaps the hardest hit of all Palestinian areas as a result of the Intifada. With some 90,000 registered refugees, the area, according to municipality estimates, has a poverty rate, calculated by the World Bank as those living under $2 a day, of over 75 percent.

Add to that repeated Israeli incursions into the city, the number of homeless as a result of house demolitions –” last month alone, depending on who is counting, some 45 (Israeli army figures), 180 (United Nations Relief and Works Agency figures) or 250 (Rafah municipality figures) houses were demolished. With an average occupancy rate of eight per dwelling, anywhere between 365 and 2,000 people were made homeless –” and the acute lack of funds and services, Rafah can only be described as a full blown humanitarian crisis and a complete administrative nightmare.

Crossing borders

Ziad Al Abed, Head of Palestinian Border Security, is sweating in his trailer near the Rafah-Egypt border. Outside the makeshift office, agitated people waving their passports are looking for his help or an explanation, or simply someone to complain to. Hundreds of cars are parked every which way, and Abed’s deputies are trying their best to impose some order on the chaos, to sort out disputes about places in the queues, and to keep hot, impatient and fasting people from each other’s throats.

“It’s a kind of collective punishment,” sighs Abed, resigned to the mess. “The Israelis go slow so as to make our lives hell.”

He estimates that of an average 1,500 would-be travelers a day, only 150 are let through. The rest are forced to return to their houses, or, if the Rafah-Gaza City road is closed, to find some relatives or acquaintances who can put them up locally.

“The Israelis have broken every agreement they signed with us,” he says. “Look, they destroyed our offices, which were nearer the border, and have not allowed us to build new ones. At the moment we are stuck in these,” he gestures at the trailer he’s sitting in, “and we’ve rented a wedding hall as our main office. Passport control by day, weddings at night.” He laughs.

It used to be so different. Not far from the bustle of the border crossing is Gaza International Airport, now unused and unusable, its runways having been torn up by Israeli bulldozers.

Mohammed, one of two airport security guards, is happy to receive guests. The airport retains all the trappings of national symbolism, from the Palestinian flag to the passport control booths and the pictures of President Arafat.

The pristinely decorated walls, built with funds from various donor countries, whose influence and pressure probably ensured the building’s survival, are still impressive, though in places covered with “martyr posters”. The place is spotless; it is still being cleaned every day. Mohammad is not clear why, but at least, he explains, it keeps the cleaners in work.

He stops us from going out onto the runway. The runway lies at the very southwestern tip of Gaza, right up against the Green Line. “It’s not allowed to go out there,” he says. “You might get shot.”

Nowhere to run to

Rafah’s population is in large part made up of refugees. Some two thirds of the population can trace their families to towns and villages inside Israel from before 1948. Now, largely dependant on international humanitarian agencies such as UNRWA for their sustenance, many are in real danger of becoming refugees again, but this time with nowhere to go.

The Yubna refugee camp, almost indistinguishable from the city, was the hardest hit in October’s Israeli incursion. The camp lies right up against the Egyptian border, and the Israeli army claimed that the dwellings they demolished there were being used to house arms smuggling tunnels that ran underneath the wall that separates Rafah from Egypt (there are two walls now. The Israeli army has been building a new, iron wall, taller and more imposing than the old concrete one and with more watchtowers. It’s also built some ten meters inside the old one, taking up more of Rafah’s territory).

Whatever the reason, the result has been that the edge of the camp is further from the wall, with the houses closest to the wall reduced to rubble. A swath of open land, some 20 meters wide, separates the habitable areas from the wall and is no-go area. I am warned not to stick my head around or go into the open area where I can be spotted from the watchtowers; high concrete structures covered in camouflage netting with a square concrete platform at the top. Soldiers, say residents, will shoot on sight.

In the narrow alleys of the camp, some people have erected tents close to their former houses. There is nowhere else to go. “We’ve put them up in the football field,” says Rafah’s mayor, Saeed Zuroub. “But that’s all we can do. We can’t even get to parts of Rafah [a part of Rafah, Muwassi, on the sea front and the other side of the Rafiah Yam settlement has been completely isolated]. How are we supposed to resettle these people. There are more and more people and less and less land.”

Overcrowding for the living and the dead

The situation would be completely disastrous, says Mayor Zuroub, if it was not for the way the community has reacted. “We have a community here which helps each other. If you don’t have food one day, your neighbor will give you a plate of ful [fava beans], and you’ll live. That’s how it works.”

In addition to grappling with overcrowding and homelessness, and repairing the infrastructure, one of the problems the municipality is wrestling with is the lack of burial space.

The Maqbara al Sharqiya, the Eastern Graveyard, is Rafah’s newest graveyard. Funerals are, as per tradition, performed as soon as possible after death. Some graves, for the wealthier, are marked with proper gravestones. Many are simply marked with two concrete breezeblocks at either end of the body. Depending on the distance between the breezeblocks, one can estimate the size of the body and guess at the age.

In the three years of the Intifada, according to municipality figures, some 259 people –” including 46 children –” have been killed, and there are plenty of fresh graves at the Maqbara al Sharqiya. But it is already running out of room, and with no allocation mechanism, people simply find any available space they can to bury their dead.

A committee has been set up to find more space for the dead, but as yet, have not been able to find a suitable empty plot for a new graveyard or persuade the Palestinian Authority to give up scarce land for it.

With all this, it is not surprising that the Intifada has hardened people’s attitudes towards the peace process and the Authority. According to Zuroub, “during Oslo, 60 percent of Palestinians were behind Arafat for peace. But people found that Arafat and the Israelis brought no peace, and now, nobody trusts them. They are big liars. And that includes Arafat.”