One of the 120 homes demolished by the IDF in the Brazil refugee camp belonged to architect Manal Awad. This was the third time since 1948 that her family has been left homeless – and the second time that Ariel Sharon was responsible.
Now all 19 people are crowded into a tiny two-and-a-half-room apartment belonging to one sister, on the edge of the destroyed area of their refugee camp. The curtain blowing in the breeze allows intermittent glimpses of the view from the window: mounds of rubble all the way to the end of the street. This is the Awad family: Mother, elderly aunt, son, daughters and their families. On Thursday, May 20, two bulldozers approached their home, threatening to raze it with the occupants still inside: Operation Rainbow. The 85-year-old aunt barely managed to climb out. She says that in 1948, when she fled from her first home, and in 1972, when the IDF razed her home again, it was easier for her – she was still young then. One of the daughters, architect Manal Awad, says that it’s not just stone walls that have been destroyed, but also memories – in the photographs and books that are lost forever. Her sisters tried to save the coffee table that she had designed, but couldn’t. The table was crushed along with the other contents of the house. Among the wreckage, the only thing she could find was the new narghile she had bought for her brother in Tunisia.
The IDF did its work very thoroughly here: The houses and their contents were completely crushed. Here and there, some recognizable items can be seen – part of a dress, a smashed water boiler, the torn pages of a book. Entire houses have been wiped off the face of the earth, and now they are just mounds of dirt. The chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, said without batting an eye: “We know of 12 houses that were demolished since the start of the operation.” Platoon commander Brigadier General Shmuel Zakkai corrected him the next day, saying the actual number was 56 houses.
But neither figure is correct. In the Brazil camp alone, according to Mustafa Ibrahim, an experienced investigator for the Palestinian civil rights commission, 120 houses were destroyed. Visiting the place, it’s hard to count, but one sees that many dozens of houses were demolished, judging by the many mounds of rubble. All the talk about smuggling tunnels also appears less than credible. The Awad family’s home, for example, is approximately 800 meters away from the Philadelphi corridor; there are no tunnels that long. This was demolition just for the sake of it, a punitive campaign of vengeance against innocents rendered homeless for the second and third times.
In Operation Defensive Shield, we destroyed the center of the Jenin refugee camp – 350 houses – but the destruction was dense and concentrated. There were battles there as well. In Operation Rainbow, we demolished houses in a scattered fashion, without a battle, so that the Brazil camp now looks like Sarajevo in 1993. It’s hard to find the logic in the demolition campaign: A group of houses here and another one there, this house yes and that one no, seeming more the result of whim than any real planning. To the 120 houses in the Brazil camp that were thoroughly destroyed must be added a similar number of houses that were partially destroyed – not to mention the crushed cars, the roads and utility poles that were uprooted, or the Taha Hussein school, part of which has been reduced to rubble. The residents describe how the bulldozers approached from all sides; they were trapped inside their homes, and terrified. (One resident telephoned me then and told about his neighbor and the man’s 12 children who were trapped in a house that was about to be demolished, begging for something to be done to save them.)
This past Sunday, long after the end of the operation, as a bonus, we demolished another 23 houses in the adjacent Block J, in another nameless, forgotten operation which doubtless is of tremendous security importance.
Manal Awad sits in her modest office in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City, tearlessly mourning her demolished home. She is the director of the Women’s Mental Health Center in Gaza. She is 30 years old, dressed in an elegant sport jacket and speaks fluent English. She was in her office when the bulldozers arrived at the family’s home, where her mother and aunt and sisters were. They had sent her brother out of the house before the bulldozers came, thinking that if it was only women left there, they’d be safe.
“I’ll never forget that day. My sister called and told me there was a tank next to the house. I told her not to dare peek out the window. We’re experienced – in Tel al-Sultan, they shot at anyone who peeked out of the window. On the radio I heard that they were starting to raze houses with people still inside. We were afraid that this time it would be especially bad, but in our worst dreams we never imagined that our home would be destroyed.
“I tried to reassure my sister, but when I called back she told me that the bulldozers were right in front of the house. I told her: You have to get out of the house immediately. She said the guest room was already collapsing. They were afraid to go out because there was a bulldozer in front and another one in back, as well as tanks. My mother took a hammer and tried to break through the wall to get to the neighbors. My sister brought a ladder for them to climb out. My 85-year-old aunt, who walks with difficulty, managed to climb the first couple of rungs, but then she stopped and said she couldn’t go on. She said that in 1948, she could run away, but not now. My mother and sisters pushed her up, the neighbor pulled from the other side and she finally got over, I don’t know how.
“It was the first time in my life that I ever heard my mother cry like that. She’s a strong and sensitive woman, but she never cried that way. Not even when my father died 23 years ago and she was left alone with six daughters and a son and an elderly aunt. She fought for us all her life and now I felt that she needed my support and I wasn’t by her side. I was helpless. It wasn’t easy to hear her crying on the telephone. She said to me: `I won’t leave the house.’ Those were the last words I heard from her. My sister said: `Now it’s the end. We’re running away.’ I didn’t know what happened to them, whether or not they were alive. I only got the good news an hour later – they had reached the neighbors. They thought that the bulldozers would stop and not demolish the neighbors’ house, too, but that also turned out to be wrong. My mother was so angry and shouted against Sharon and against Bush while the bulldozers were pursuing them to the neighbors’ house. It was also demolished. My sister came out of the neighbors’ house waving a white flag. I tried to picture the layout of the street, to think where they could have run to, with the tanks there. I was afraid for their lives. All of those images keep coming back to my mind.
“In 1948, the family fled from our village near Ramle to a cave. In 1972, Sharon demolished our house in the Shabura camp, when I was a baby. Now this is the third house. My mother is a strong woman, but now she’s broken. It’s the end for her. She always dreamed about the first house that they fled from, but she was attached to the house in the camp. Now it’s all meaningless. Her life was for nothing. She hoped that our fate would be different. Peace. Maybe not peace, but at least a better life.
“I wasn’t with them, but I felt what they felt. I lost all my memories there. A house isn’t just walls. I can buy new furniture, a new refrigerator. But that’s not it. The photographs with the family history – every one holds a memory for me. Photographs of our loved ones and our joys and our sorrows – all destroyed. We also had a book collection. It wasn’t so big, but it meant a lot to us. Each one had his favorite books. Nothing is left. The house is destroyed. Life is destroyed. Thirty years of life was wiped out.
“When I was finally able to go to Rafah on the weekend, a friend offered to accompany me. I told her there was no need, that I was strong, but she warned me that I’d be in shock when I got there. She was right. Nothing was left of the whole street. We live in the old part of Brazil, and we always said that if they did demolitions, we’d just hear the noise, but that they’d never come close to us, because we’re far from the border. But for some reason they started with our house. I’m sorry that I’m just talking about myself … I hoped so much that I’d be able to save something.
“A week has passed and I have the feeling that it’s just going to get harder and harder. I thought I’d recover. It was a simple refugees’ house, but on the inside it was beautiful to me. I’ve been all over the world and seen some amazing houses, but I always missed that one.”
Here is where the family home stood. A pile of rocks. Manal’s mother, Shukrin, emerges from the ruins – a small woman in black – and here is Manal’s brother, too. And here is the Mansour family’s house, and the house of the Hassan family and the Hamad family. Nothing is left. The elderly aunt, Aliya, sits on the floor of the apartment that is their temporary refuge, staring at the carpet, her expression masked. Manal took her to see a doctor in Gaza; he said that her spine had not been injured during the escape with the ladder.
Aliya vividly remembers the first escape, from Abu Shusha, and the second escape from the Shabura camp, when Sharon came “to widen the corridor.” It’s the same now. Aliya tells about their first days in a cave after fleeing Abu Shusha, and how they trekked from there first to Yavneh and then to Gaza. Her niece Shukrin adds some details. They speak softly, the signs of the most recent trauma still very apparent. It happened twice in the month of May – May 1948 and May 2004. Only in 1972 did it happen in December.
Yusuf, the husband of one of the sisters in whose home they’ve taken shelter, chuckles: He hasn’t yet counted how many people are now living in his tiny house. “Like sardines, but at least everyone’s together.” This morning, when a Palestinian bulldozer came to clear away the rubble opposite his house, his daughter burst into tears. She thought the Israelis had come back to demolish some more.
We go outside to wander along the long pile of rubble. There is destruction on both sides of the sandy road. By one pile that used to be a house, children are still scavenging for pieces of metal to load onto a donkey cart. The apartment of Yusuf Bahlul (who once worked for Sonol in Gaza), on the top floor of an apartment building overlooking this refugee camp, took a direct hit from a shell and is also ruined and covered in soot. Everyone here speaks Hebrew, from the years when they used to work in Israel.
A small television table stands alone in a living room whose walls have all collapsed. In the Brazil camp, an old woman tries to push a crushed water heater. Her strength is gone. A post-disaster calm prevails. The Philadelphi corridor is visible at the bottom of the street, and every so often a menacing Israeli tank passes by. The stench of burst sewage pipes pervades the air as children display their latest finds from the rubble.
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