A few dozen militants could be seen trickling
into the Block O neighborhood of Rafah along the border with Egypt in the southern
Gaza Strip Monday afternoon. They said they came in anticipation of a major
Israeli army operation in the area.
That operation may become the biggest that Israel has undertaken in the Strip
since the beginning of the Intifada.
At several points during the day gunfights erupted between the fighters and
the Israeli army. One militant appeared to be holed up in a heavily damaged
white building facing the Israeli position at the Sallah Eddin gate on the border.
At one point the Israeli army attacked the position with a rain of bullets from
a heavy machine gun.
The army build-up started in the morning and by the early afternoon Israeli
forces backed by tanks and helicopter gunships had cut Rafah off from the rest
of the Gaza Strip. Forces at division level were to be deployed for the first
time in such an operation.
The actions followed last week's fighting along the Egyptian border inside
Rafah where Israel maintains control.
Early Sunday morning helicopter gunships fired missiles at targets in Gaza
City. But the army's actions seem concentrated on Rafah, where Israeli press
reports said it intended to target tunnels under the border that militant groups
allegedly use for smuggling weapons.
The troops also planned to take on militants who killed seven Israeli soldiers
in two different incidents in Rafah last week.
The army reiterated a plan it had earlier aired. It is considering digging
a deep trench along the border to counter smuggling, it said.
Palestinians expect widespread demolition of houses in two neighborhoods along
the border: Block O and Gishta.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia appealed to the United States Monday
to stop Israeli destruction of houses in Rafah. Qureia was meeting U.S. national
security adviser Condoleeza Rice in Berlin.
Qureia had earlier called the Israeli actions in Rafah "ethnic cleansing...and
collective punishment of innocent civilians."
Rice was reported to have said she would ask President George Bush to help
end the confrontation.
Late Monday groups of militants were still converging on the two neighborhoods
where they expected the Israelis to attack.
One group of masked and armed men wore t-shirts that bore the logo of the Democratic
Front for the Liberation of Palestine, DFLP. The leader wore a black mask and
held an improvised-looking rocket launcher clutched against his body. He introduced
himself as Abu Kassem and said he was 33 years old.
"The Israelis will only enter this neighborhood over our bodies, when we are
martyrs," he said.
He said the fighters were encouraged by the success in their confrontations
with the Israeli army last week.
"All groups now coordinate their actions and we cooperate," said Abu Kassem.
"Together we will fight until the liberation."
By the time sporadic fighting broke out in the afternoon, Block O and Gishta
resembled ghost towns. Almost all inhabitants seem to have packed up, loading
their furniture onto donkey carts and leaving the area to the militants.
But some of the families in Block O waited until the last minute to leave their
"Maybe they were not going to come in and destroy my house," Abu Hani Abu Anza
But the shooting nearby convinced him it was time to leave. Aided by three
of his sons, he emptied his simple home of his meager belongings. Two of his
sons carried out a large bird cage full of yellow and green canaries.
"How I feel about this, there is nothing left to feel," said Abu Anza.
For some families, it seemed almost too late at moments. One donkey became
paralyzed by fear the moment the shooting started. Outside the heavily damaged
al-Nurayn mosque, its owner desperately tried to get the animal moving under
loud encouragement from a handful of bystanders. Eventually the cart moved on.
In the Gishta neighborhood the Palestine Bank was operating as if there was
no imminent threat. The side and back of the building bear the scars of the
fighting last week, when holes were punched into the walls.
Bank manager Anwar Abu Nahla seemed unperturbed. "We are a formal institution,
we should provide some stability for the people," he said.
The bank had taken the precaution of removing expensive equipment, and it had
prepared an alternative office in the center of town.
Later in the afternoon, the fighting subsided around the time the schools closed.
Incredibly, a procession of uniformed young schoolgirls walked into the area
where minutes earlier shots had rung out. "We are going home," one said.