Yasser is an 11-year-old boy who lives along Gaza's border with
Egypt. I met him in April after the Israeli army had razed the homes
of more than 400 Palestinians, including his own. Tanks entered
the refugee camp near midnight, forcing the families from their
beds and bulldozing the houses in their wake.
"So we hate you," he says matter-of-factly when he learns that
I am American.
Like most Palestinians, Yasser believes it is the United States
that allows this to happen. I try to explain that many Americans
don't even know what his life is like. And then I hear him say,
almost to himself, "Yes, because if they knew, they would have to
In these southern regions of the Gaza Strip, daily life defies
such logic. It was here on
May 22, just hours after Israel's defense minister "ordered the army
to cease fire and to follow regulations for opening fire that are
activated when lives are in danger," that Israeli troops made three
incursions into areas under Palestinian Authority control, demolishing
one house and bulldozing Palestinian fields.
Wreckage in Rafah.
The next afternoon, 45 Palestinians, many of them young children,
were injured near the border town of Rafah as Israeli tank gunfire
and shell blasts pierced the stifling desert heat. Cease-fire or
not, residents say this was a normal day. "It is difficult to work,
to move, to sleep," says 66-year-old Hasan Tahrawi. "What can you
say when you see airplanes shooting, and tanks? There is nothing
I can say or do."
Israel has occupied Gaza since the 1967 Six Day War, when it defeated
the Egyptian army here. Peace agreements with Palestinians have
created areas of Palestinian Authority control, while leaving more
than 6,000 Israeli settlers on the remainder of the land. But since
the September start of the Aqsa Intifada--the Palestinian uprising
against continuing Israeli occupation and growing settlements--Israeli
incursions into Palestinian Authority areas have become commonplace.
On June 23, just 10 days after CIA Director George Tenet personally
set into motion a plan that called for several weeks of "calm" before
a return to talks, Israeli tanks again invaded the Rafah refugee
camp at 3 a.m., bulldozing another 20 homes. An Israeli army spokesman
described the demolitions as "engineering works," claiming it was
a response to shooting from the houses. But those who live there,
while admitting that Palestinian shooters do fire at Israeli positions,
were adamant that they certainly have not done so from these residences.
The Israeli incursions have met with feeble international protest.
The only time that Israeli troop movements in the Gaza Strip incurred
U.S. condemnation was in the week after the demolition of Yasser's
home--when the Israeli military invaded three swathes of Palestinian-controlled
territory, cutting off Palestinian population centers from one another.
The soldiers appeared to be preparing to stay, and only then did
Secretary of State Colin Powell issue a bluntly worded statement.
The army was gone in hours.
Since mid-April, however, the army has carried out similar incursions,
invading and then bulldozing Palestinian land more than a dozen
times. Other invasions have lasted just minutes and effectively
weakened the lines of Palestinian control set down in previous peace
agreements. "There appears to be no genuine security justification
[for these demolitions]," says Richard Falk, a member of a U.N.
commission to the area, "and even if there were, Israel could proceed
in a far less inhumane manner: giving notice, providing alternative
housing, offering compensation and making a demonstration of security
The town of Rafah feels encroached upon. To its east are Israeli
settlements that have
sprouted military hardware and bunkers since the start of the Intifada.
To its west on the border, Israeli tanks patrol and sometimes come
into the camp to carve an ever-larger security zone out of the Palestinian
homes. "All of my city is just a strip on the border, surrounded on
all sides by Israelis," says Rafah Mayor Said Zaru. "If they want
to demolish all of the houses along the border, they will demolish
the very center of the town."
Wreckage in Rafah.
In one of these invasions, Naima Awada, a kindergarten teacher
and mother of six, lost all she owned. On May 2 at 2 a.m., Israeli
troops opened fire on her house in the Brazil refugee camp, manning
bulldozers to demolish 18 homes. Naima and her husband grabbed their
children and fled. She points to her blue velveteen robe and bare
feet. "This is all I was wearing. Everything was destroyed."
But there is another memory, one she is almost ashamed to admit.
"When my husband counted the kids, he found Muhammad missing," she
says, wiping tears from her eyes with the ends of her scarf. "He
went back for him, and Muhammad was lying there, sleeping in his
bed. Five minutes after he pulled him out of the house, it was demolished
where they stood."
Along the edges of the camp, houses are now crumbling or without
a rear wall, exposing visitors to the Israeli army positions only
meters away. Personal belongings--a photo, a woman's robe, a broken
bowl--lie in the rubble.
For the people who live here, the ever-present army means a growing
number of deaths. "Any father would be sad," says Jalal Mahmoud
Sha'ar, whose 8-year-old, Bara, was killed by tank fire in the sand
just outside his home. "But we are sad for all our children. There's
no family here without someone who has died. But the shelling continues,
the problems go on."
Thirteen-year-old Muhammed Abed pulls up his shirt to reveal a
thick, braided scar down his belly. He and three of his friends
were playing by the Brazil Camp mosque when they found an object
he says was "shaped like a cup." Trying to see what it was, the
boys started to hit it. "Then it exploded and I saw my stomach and
my intestines come out," he remembers. Now he dreams of a loud noise
and seeing his innards in front of him. His friend, 13-year-old
Yahiyye Al Ayyan, died in the blast.
In the face of all this, Mayor Zaru feels overwhelmed: "Citizens
are really shocked by what the Israelis are doing here. We need
10 years just to treat the spirit of the kids." It should be no
surprise that Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere blame the United
States for what is happening to them. In public opinion polls, more
than 90 percent of Palestinians say that the United States, which
purports to be an "honest peace broker," is actually wielding the
hand of the Israelis.
Palestinian officials were initially heartened by a report issued
in mid-May from a fact-finding committee led by former U.S. Sen.
George Mitchell, which criticized Israel for the use of excessive
force and the continuing construction of settlements in the West
Bank and Gaza Strip. The report fell short of referring explicitly
to international law on which Palestinians base their claims.
Perhaps even more problematic, the report called for a return to
Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation, a prospect that grassroots
factional leaders object to out of hand. Over the years of interim
peace deals, close coordination between the Palestinian security
services, Israeli intelligence and the CIA against Islamist opponents
to Israeli-Palestinian accords have resulted in numerous well-documented
human rights abuses, from detention without charge to torture. "I
think that security coordination is finished with this Intifada,
according to the formula they used to work by," says Marwan Barghouti,
the West Bank leader of Yasser Arafat's faction. "I think that chapter
has closed in the history of the Palestinian people."
Israel, too, had strong reservations. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's
based on a coalition that refuses to halt settlement construction,
as recommended in the report. But both sides accepted the report,
not wanting to be the party blamed with killing the initiative. Israel
then took things one step further, declaring its "policy of restraint,"
in which the army would only open fire "when lives are in danger."
A Palestinian youth wounded
by a rubber
bullet is carried away during clashes
with Israeli troops in Ramallah.
Then on June 1, 22-year-old Said Al Hutari blew himself up in a
crowd of Israeli young people waiting to enter a Tel Aviv nightclub.
Twenty-one Israelis were killed and more than 70 injured in the
bombing, blamed on Hamas. Almost immediately, the Palestinian Authority
issued a statement against the "killing of civilians, Israeli or
The Israeli government did not respond with a severe military strike,
and international pressure forced Palestinian concessions. Arafat
declared a cease-fire and set about convincing Islamist parties
that this was not the time to continue attacks inside Israel.
But as international diplomacy progressed, it strayed further from
the intentions of the Mitchell report, separating Israel's security
issues from the causes of the Intifada. Tenet declared that political
issues would be dealt with only after several weeks of calm. And
when Powell visited the region in late June, he made it clear that
the Sharon administration would decide just when it is calm enough.
That approach has pulled the rug out of Palestinian support for
the Mitchell report. "Tenet's ideas have adopted the Israeli understanding
of Mitchell's report," explains Palestinian commentator Ghassan
Khatib. "Tenet has been working first on getting the Palestinians
to implement those articles in the Mitchell report that Israel wants
to see implemented, before discussing what Israel is supposed to
Inasmuch as the United States continues to arm Israel, providing
more than $3 billion in foreign aid annually, the Bush administration
cannot rightfully claim a non-interventionist approach. By not saying
much of anything, Washington is aiding the Israeli government in
its efforts to crush the Palestinian uprising with great and unwarranted
force. The long-term results of that policy will only be seen when--
and if--Palestinians like Yasser grow up.