Saturday, June 11, 2005
Deadly rainbow: One year after Israel’s incursion, pain and questions persist
By Mohammed Omer | Special to the Vermont Guardian
RAFAH, Gaza — The Israelis called it “Operation Rainbow” and insisted the name was generated at random by a computer. To the men, women, and children of Rafah who endured the slaughter, it was a bitter footnote to a week of horror.
In Greek mythology, the rainbow was a bridge between Earth and Olympus, between men and Gods. In the Old Testament, after sending a flood that destroyed the world, God set a rainbow in the sky as a sign of peace and renewal. But in May 2004, the shells and bombs in the night sky over Rafah brought only death. “Operation Rainbow” is an appropriate name in only one way: A year later, the images are still vivid, the evidence of Israeli violence directed at a civilian population undimmed.
After nearly three years of the intifada, the residents of Rafah were familiar enough with incursions — helicopters overhead, tanks, and shelling, followed by bulldozers that destroyed homes, infrastructure, and lives. Operation Rainbow, like the others, was undertaken “for security reasons,” ostensibly to find and destroy alleged smuggling tunnels running from Rafah under the border into Egypt. But in May 2004, the Israeli Army began far from the border in the northern part of Rafah, tearing up streets, destroying electric, water, and sewer lines, flattening whole blocks, even bulldozing Rafah’s small zoo.
Israeli snipers commandeered taller houses and took up positions on the rooftops, shooting at anything that moved and killing two teenagers whose “hostile activity” was taking down laundry from a clothesline and feeding pet doves. As the week wore on, people ran out of food, water, and medicine. Ambulances were pinned down and could not reach the injured. The morgue in Al Najjar hospital overflowed and a commercial refrigerator that usually stored vegetables was pressed into service to hold corpses when no one could venture outdoors to bury their dead.
A year later, the pictures from that time –- mere pixels on a computer screen, after all — still sicken. For the first time, I have had to write warnings and apologies for the overwhelming gore of my photos. But the images are still easier to bear than the flesh-and-blood reality of standing next to a hospital gurney full of bits and pieces of what had been, only moments before, living people.
The international outcry seemed slow and muted. Before Operation Rainbow ended, 60 Palestinians had been killed, hundreds injured, many of them permanently maimed, hundreds of houses destroyed, and thousands of people made homeless. On May 16, the Israeli Apaches shelled a peaceful demonstration of hundreds of unarmed men and boys, killing several and injuring scores. They were asking for food and water, asking the international community to intervene. The Israeli Army tried to say the Palestinians fired first, but dozens of journalists — many of whom came under fire themselves — had photos and videos to prove the demonstrators were unarmed.
At that point, even the Bush administration, usually a reliable yea-sayer to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies, couldn’t avoid voicing an official protest. The Israeli Army withdrew, but a few days later — as Peter Hansen, then commissioner of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, toured one of the destroyed neighborhoods — an Israeli sniper killed a 3-year-old girl just a block away from the UN party.
A year later, 53-year-old Abu Sophi Adjarewaan spends much of every day at the mound of rubble that was once his home. Normally, this patriarch of a large extended family is a fish-seller in the outdoor market, but the few local fishermen who can still work rarely get their catches past the Israeli checkpoints now. Nothing has been remotely normal for him and his family since their home was destroyed.
He sits on a small, black sofa outside what was once a sprawling family compound. His married children and their children salvaged what they could, but Abu Sophi still seems to be in shock. He says he inherited the house from his parents, and like many family homes, it grew as his sons married and had children. He was born in the house and it represented everything he had ever accomplished. It was to have been his legacy to his children. Now he sits in the rubble.
His little granddaughter stands at his knee with four or five of her friends close by. They listen intently as he says, “We should be back here. We will be back rebuilding here some day. The Occupation will end. There should be an end to this injustice.”
Eighty percent of the families in Rafah are below the poverty line, even by modest local standards. With money, work, and hope in short supply, Abu Sophi’s optimism quickly dissolves into questions without answers. “I hope, I hope, I hope,” he goes on in a whisper, “I can find someone who will ask the Israeli Prime Minister, ‘Sharon, why did you destroy my house? How did it make your country better or safer or happier to destroy our lives?’” Tears are streaming down his wrinkled face into his white beard as he asks, “Why, Sharon, why?”
Like everyone in Rafah, I have my own questions. Some, of course, look to the future: Can a just peace be negotiated? Will the ceasefire hold? But in Rafah, one never escapes the past, so I also ask: Who is truly responsible for Operation Rainbow? Was it just the Israeli bulldozer drivers, helicopter pilots, and the snipers, or the generals who gave the orders, the politicians who set policies, and the international leaders who condoned them with silence?
Does responsibility extend even further, to those whose taxes support the government? Or to the media in the West who ignored the reality or buried it in the back pages?
Even more often I wonder, why are good people so indifferent, so complacent. Decent people who could never dismember a child are somehow too busy to write a letter, sign a petition, or march in a protest. Don’t they understand? Silence kills as surely as bombs and bullets.
Mohammed Omer lives in Rafah, and has worked as a guide and translator for delegations and foreign journalists.
Attacks escalate as withdrawal approaches
GAZA — Despite a ceasefire agreement signed in February and Israel’s reluctance to conduct new ground operations in Gaza, the battle continues between Israel and Hamas, the main Islamist movement in the Palestinian territories. Since late May, the Israel Air Force has turned to the use of pilotless drones to take out Hamas militants before they can fire rockets, according to WorldNet Daily.
Officials won’t identify the exact drone Israel has been using, but said it is similar to America’s MQ-1 Predator, a system guided by a ground control station that receives real-time video feeds from sensors on the drone and images from a satellite.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are scheduled to meet June 21 to discuss implementation of the truce package, including the handover of more West Bank towns. The process has been delayed due to disagreement over how to disarm militants in areas coming under Palestinian control. Israel wants to use force, while the Palestinians hope to bring armed opponents into the security services.
Hamas reportedly has been launching frequent rocket and mortar attacks against Jewish settlements in Gaza slated for evacuation. Analysts warn that the attacks could escalate as the withdrawal continues, allowing Hamas to claim it has driven out Israel.
Some skeptics also fear that Hamas will use the territory to stage attacks deeper inside Israel after the scheduled August withdrawal. Israel’s Center for Special Studies claims that Palestinians have smuggled several rockets and anti-aircraft missile batteries into Rafah from across the Egypt-Gaza border since February.
On June 1, Al-Jazeera reported that Israeli forces stationed along the border with Egypt in the Gaza Strip opened heavy gunfire at the nearby Yebna refugee camp and Al Sha’out quarter in Rafah.
Local residents said that a huge blast was heard, followed by heavy gunfire directed toward houses, causing structural damages to some of them. No civilian casualties were reported.