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June 3, 2004

Celebrating Life in Rafah


by Ramzy Baroud

Rafah, Jenin, Khan Yunis, Zeitun: Foreign-sounding names of so distanced and disturbing a reality. All that we know of them is what the media have selectively determined to impart, if we are interested to hear the story.

The Rafah refugee camp, a small strip of land at the southern edge of Gaza was the target of Israel's most ruthless attack in years. Between May 17 and 20, forty-three Palestinians were killed, mostly civilians. Among them were nine children, most of them struck by missiles while protesting peacefully with flags and banners. "End the Siege on Rafah," declared a white banner, torn and saturated with blood.

Media reports said Israel was responding to the killing of 13 of its troops by Palestinian militants.

Homemade land mines killed the Israeli soldiers. However, the blasts were exacerbated by the large amounts of explosives hauled by Israeli armored vehicles, apparently on their way to blow up Palestinian homes somewhere in Gaza.

Even before the Rafah atrocities subsided, U.S. President George W. Bush told AIPAC lobbyists that Israel had the right to defend itself.

Can logic be any more fallacious?

Israel's murder of civilians is sanctioned as self-defense; Palestinians, once again, are labeled "terrorists."

Israel can assassinate any Palestinian at the time of its choosing with a ready-to-serve verdict. It killed and wounded hundreds of civilians in those "targeted killing" sprees. Yet, Palestinians are condemned if they show the mere desire to respond. Even the targeting of occupation soldiers is taboo.

So what is it that Palestinians are permitted to do in self-defense, in accordance with the twisted pro-Israeli Bush doctrine?

How about marching in a peaceful demonstration?

In Rafah, that too could not be tolerated. It was handled with resolution and vigor, the same way any "terrorist" threat deserves to be handled. A missile fired from a U.S.-supplied Apache helicopter was all it took to eliminate that option of resistance.

"Photos below are too graphic," read a warning posted on a Palestinian website of images of dead civilians in the tragedy-stricken refugee camp. They were of the dozen bodies piled up in a local farmer's cooler since the hospital's morgue was overfilled with victims.

One picture refuses to escape my mind. An olive-skinned child with slightly opened eyes. Dead. An unknown hand holds the child's wholly disjoined arm closer to the dead body, as if he is telling the camera: "This arm belonged here." The boy was nameless. I quivered. The feeling of being that boy's father is horrifying.

In the case of Israeli victims of suicide bombings, reality can be equally gruesome. But Bush dares not use the same logic when Palestinians fall victim: "Palestinians too have the right to defend themselves." Never once has he uttered these words. So what else should Palestinians attempt, now that even peaceful protests are crossing the line?

Peter Hansen, the chief of the United Nations agency for refugees in the region, confirmed that in Rafah refugee camp homes were toppled on their dwellers.

Even as Hansen himself walked through the camp assessing the damages, Israeli soldiers were still shooting. "We have now confirmation from the hospital that a girl was shot and killed in one of the two gun bursts we heard," he said.

She was Rawan Abu Zeid, a 3-year-old girl from Rafah. Her peers said that she was skipping on her way to the candy store. Two bullets struck her, one in the head and the other in the neck. Was she taken to the same makeshift morgue, or did her tiny body find room for itself in the local hospital?

This time I implore an answer: What must Palestinians do to stand up to the Israeli occupation without being blamed for their own misery, now that suicide bombings, fighting occupation soldiers, protesting peacefully, huddling in fear with one's family in one's own home, or coveting a piece of candy from a nearby shop warrant so violent an Israeli response? Of course, we are expected to pay little attention to the Palestinian victims, to ask who are they and who will pay for their death. In fact, few of us bother to find out what can be done to help those fortunate enough to evade the bullets and the bulldozers.

But enthusiastically we indulge in analyzing Ariel Sharon's motives, as if such senseless murder might possibly adhere to some kind of logic.

Is it blatant revenge that compelled the killings? Is it another campaign of ethnic cleansing of areas adjacent to the border with Egypt to establish yet another Israeli "security zone"? Is it a round of muscle flexing prior to a partial pullout from Gaza?

Whatever the reasons, the fact is, Sharon will not cease his murdering of Palestinians with impunity. His logic, however twisted, will prevail as long as the United States government continues to supply him with all the weapons, money and political clout needed to defy international law. His victims will maintain their status among the "unimportant people," and shall be reprimanded if they even dare to vent violently, because by doing so they veer off from the teachings of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

In a few days, the name Rafah shall yield to make room for more important headlines. It might be a few more days before another foreign-sounding Palestinian name associated with tragedy and death is introduced, and with it a long list of Israeli pretenses, coupled with a quote or two by President Bush somewhere on his fundraising trail: "Israel has the right to defend itself." Chances are the Rafah morgues shall be emptied and dusty yellow bulldozers shall remove the debris of over 230 destroyed homes. Whose morgue shall be filled next is hard to predict.

As for the refugees of the devastated camp, left alone atop the debris of their homes, scores of death certificates and hundreds of wounded to care for, they, astonishingly, have a way to cope. For one, they insist that there are millions of people around the world who care about them. Someone chanting for their rights and freedom anywhere in the world feeds them with urgently needed hope for one more day.

Speaking to Gaza's Voice of Freedom Radio, Moawiya Hassanein, a physician in Gaza City, told the station that by the time 40 Palestinians were killed in Rafah, 39 others were born. I am "so happy because the births were some compensation for the human loss," he said.

A Palestinian friend of mine, who is living far away from home, told me that as she witnessed the images of the victims of Rafah, she felt a strange and overpowering sense of pride. She said, "If I had not been born Palestinian, I would've wished to be." I understood, and I too felt the same.


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  • Ramzy Baroud is editor-in-chief of the Palestine Chronicle. His book The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle is now out in paperback.

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