After the cataclysm

January 23, 2009

In News

Bowen diary: Rafah rebuilds

01.22.2009 | BBC
By Jeremy Bowen

BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen is writing a diary of the conflict between Hamas and Israel.


No diary yesterday because I was finally getting into Gaza.

The word came from Cairo that the border was open, and amid the usual scenes of journalists trampling over their colleagues to get through the last few bureaucratic hoops – sometimes this trade is not very collegiate – we were in Gaza.

I am writing this on a rooftop in Rafah in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, looking down on the strip of land that runs along the frontier with Egypt.

This is the place where the tunnels into Egypt start, and it is full of activity.

Israel says that Hamas uses the tunnels to smuggle in arms.

One of its main war aims was to close them, to stop Hamas re-equipping its fighters.

The Israelis bombed the border land I can see from this roof very heavily.


The man who owns this roof – he has just brought up a tray of Turkish coffees, already sweetened with a taste of cardamom – says he moved his family out, but then came back, because he decided that nowhere was safe and that if he was going to die then it would be in his own home.

He showed me the stairwell he lay in during the worst of it, when the house was shaking and he thought the next bomb might come in through the ceiling.

The Hamas interior ministry in Gaza says 30% of the tunnels were destroyed.

I have no way of telling if that is true or false, but I can see from here with my own eyes that the dozens of tunnels are either operating or being refurbished.

Men are hurrying around purposefully with spades and shovels.

I can see a heavy bulldozer, horses and carts, and compressors that are roaring, pumping air down deep underground where Rafah’s tunnellers are working.

I have spent the last couple of hours with one group of tunnellers.

They were led by a man called Abdullah. Like all the other diggers in his group, he was young and wiry.

Their plot was covered, as all the tunnels are in Rafah, by a big plastic tent.

It was new. Bombs shredded the old one.

Abdullah picked up a long piece of shrapnel. He held it like a gun, and then like a guitar.

The edges of the shrapnel were jagged, each ridge sharp as the blade of a knife. Abdullah laughed, slightly hysterically.

He was lowered down into the shaft of the tunnel on a winch.

Down below teenage boys were filling plastic buckets with sand.

Before he disappeared into the ground Abdullah said the tunnel was damaged, but it could be fixed.

Back in Gaza City

A reason why the Israelis resisted calls for a ceasefire – and why the US abstained on the ceasefire vote at the UN – was that they were waiting for a reliable mechanism to stop the tunnel trade.

How exactly it would be done is still being discussed.

I have seen a clip of Israeli spokesman Mark Regev saying they were not surprised that Hamas would, as he put it, undermine the ceasefire.

The difference now, for Israel, was that there was international agreement to stop Iran shipping weapons to Hamas.

The exact relationship between Iran and Hamas is debated by experts on Tehran’s foreign relations.

I have seen no definitive Israeli proof that an arms pipeline runs from Iran to Gaza.

That does not mean there is not one. Hamas denies it exists.

The important point is that the bombing has not stopped Rafah’s tunnel entrepreneurs (who earn big money) digging.

The man whose roof I am on said, listen, what you have to realise is that the tunnels exist because of the blockade.

If the border crossings were open, he said, no-one would need the food and goods that come through them, and no-one would dig them.

If there really is an arms trade, as Israel says, it does not come down to money.

But it is a fact that the tunnels are commercial enterprises.

Even in Gaza, with an economy destroyed by the blockade, capitalism lives.

After we left Rafah we went on to the district of Zaytoun on the edge of Gaza City.

It is the home of the Samouni clan, farmers who were, as one of them said, caught between Hamas and Israel.

At least 29 of them were killed by the Israeli army in circumstances so brutal that the International Committee of the Red Cross broke its usual silence during the war to call for an enquiry into breaches of the laws of war.

Their case has been well publicised.

Most of their houses were bulldozed flat by the Israeli army. Civilians were left, the International Committee of the Red Cross said, without medical attention or food or water.

Among the ruins of their homes were families, mainly women and children.

Tears of a mother

I spoke to Zeinat Abdullah al Samouni. She is a woman of 35, and she sat on the ground nursing her eighth child, a three-week-old girl called Ansam.

Zeinat said the Israeli troops had herded several families from the Samouni clan into one of the houses.

She said soldiers came in and asked for the house owner. Her husband, Atiya, put up his hand.

A soldier shot him through the head at point blank range.

Then the soldiers sprayed the room with gunfire, she says. Her four-year-son was killed.

She carried his body when they were told to get out of the house. Then the Israelis demolished it.

Zeinat Abdullah al Samouni wept as she told the story.

So did her sisters and her mother, who also had stories to tell of loss and death.

1948 memories

The sight of those poor people sitting in the dust and rubble reminded me of images of the time that Palestinians call the Nakba – the catastrophe – of 1948, when almost a million of them fled or were driven out of the land that became Israel.

The same thought must have struck Zeinat.

She said that Israel wanted to drive them into exile, so it could take their land.

Official Israeli statements, made repeatedly, that they are not interested in one inch of Gazan land mean nothing here.

Palestinians see a pattern in Israel’s behaviour over six decades.

Still standing is the house that the Israelis used as their base.

Upstairs they have left behind bags for use with portable army latrines, full of faeces.

Downstairs there is graffiti, which the al-Samounis say was left by the soldiers.

One says “die you all”.

Another is a picture of a tombstone. On it someone has written, in English and Hebrew, Arabs, 1948-2009.