Death Toll Soars in Gaza's Rafah Camp, Backbone of the Intifada
By Stephen J. Sosebee
The killing of four young Palestinians and the wounding of another 70 unarmed civilians the evening of April 1, 1992 in the Rafah refugee camp demonstrates anew how far removed peace seems from the Holy Land. The action by well-trained Israeli border troops, who produced the shocking number of dead and wounded victims by spraying automatic weapons fire into a crowd of unarmed men, women and children, was no aberration for this camp. Since the start of the intifada, Israeli Defense Forces, including undercover "death squad" units, have employed lethal gunfire many times against the nearly 100,000 Palestinians residing in Rafah, and especially against the more than 50,000 in its huge refugee camp.
This most recent "April Fool's Massacre" in Rafah, which took place on the eve of Eid al Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, is only one of several large-scale bloodlettings perpetrated against the civilian population of this border town in the occupied Gaza Strip. It also is the third massacre in the past four years to occur in a Gaza refugee camp on or around the Islamic holiday.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has recorded throughout the uprising the nature and level of casualties among the refugee population in Palestine. For reasons that are unclear, the people of Rafah have endured nearly twice as many gunfire injuries, particularly from live ammunition, as the inhabitants of any other refugee camp of equal or greater size in Gaza. Nearly 100 of Rafah's residents have been shot dead by IDF troops over the past four and a half years.
From the beginning of the intifada to the end of January 1992, UNRWA recorded 2,524 Rafah refugees injured by live IDF gunfire. The second highest toll was at nearby Khan Younis camp, whose nearly 40,000 residents have suffered 1,203 live ammunition injuries. At Gaza's Jebaliya camp, the largest refugee camp in occupied Palestine, residents have suffered 1,283 gunfire injuries so far in the uprising.
"The army is more aggressive with the people here because we are stuck at the end of the world," explains Khalid, an UNRWA employee and resident of the Shaboura quarter of Rafah camp. "Journalists seldom come to the Gaza Strip and, if they do, it is almost always to Gaza City and the north. The soldiers can deal with us as they like, and that means they can shoot anyone anytime for any reason."
"We are stuck at the end of the world."
The April Fool's Day massacre is, in fact, the seventh such tragedy in Rafah since the uprising began in December 1987. Every resident vividly recalls each of the other six:
”¢ On April 16, 1988, the day after Israel's assassination of PLO leader Khalil Al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) in Tunis, three were killed and dozens more were injured in Rafah as IDF forces killed a total of 13 Palestinians throughout the occupied territories that day.
”¢ On May 19, 1989, the IDF shot five Palestinians dead and injured 16 others in the Shaboura quarter of Rafah camp.
”¢ On June 16, 1989, three Palestinians were killed and 40 injured by gunfire in the Shaboura quarter outside a mosque.
”¢ On July 8, 1989, three youths were fatally wounded by gunfire in clashes with Israeli troops in the camp.
”¢ On Dec. 29, 1990, four Palestinians were killed and 590 injured (170 by live ammunition) and clashes after an Israeli undercover unit ambushed two masked youths writing on walls in Shaboura.
”¢ On March 27, 1991, 20-year-old Samil Abdul Al was assassinated by an undercover Israeli unit in the camp. In demonstrations the next day, 16-year-old Sa'id Abu Murr was shot in the head by a long-range sniper and 70 others were injured in what was called by UNRWA "indiscriminate use of lethal force" by the IDF.
As Rafah has endured the most civilian casualties during the uprising, its inhabitants believe it also has been the backbone of the popular revolt. "An Israeli general said once on the radio that the only way to break the intifada was to defeat it in Rafah," says Majdi, a wanted Fatah activist from the Block J quarter of the camp. "We know that we must show the courage and lead the way for the liberation of our people. All of Rafah, young and old, are united to meet this challenge."
In addition to the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed civilians by soldiers in Rafah, the IDF has also employed "special units" of undercover soldiers to kill activists and youths wanted for leading the resistance to the occupation. Well over a dozen youths have been shot dead by Israeli undercover units during Rafah ambushes where, in most cases, the youths could have been apprehended, as they presented no real threat to the lives of the soldiers.
The special units, which were described by Palestinian leaders in an East Jerusalem press conference in late March as "death squads," generally operate with two objectives. One is to shoot or capture masked activists participating in intifada-related activities. The other objective is to find and kill specifically targeted individuals. Members of these death squads, which often include Israeli Druze soldiers, wear civilian dress, speak Arabic, and drive unmarked Palestinian cars. This has enabled them to penetrate huge and militant refugee camps like Rafah.
The Shortest Path to Martyrdom
"The youths here realize that to wear a mask and to become active may be the shortest path to martyrdom," says Mohammed, a member of Islamic Jihad in Rafah camp. "But for us, such a death is an honor."
Honor or not, the April 1 massacre in Rafah, now referred to in Islamic Jihad posters throughout the camp as "Al-Eid" massacre, must be seen, along with the increase in settlements in the occupied territories, as the manner in which the current Israeli government plans to "reconcile" itself with the Palestinians under occupation.
Rafah residents expect this steady tightening of the screws on Palestinians under occupation to continue so long as the United Nations Security Council remains unwilling to force Israel to abide by Resolution 681 of Dec. 20, 1990, which deals with the protection of the Palestinian people under international humanitarian law.
In that resolution the Security Council called upon Israel to recognize the de jure application of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 to the occupied Palestinian territories and to abide by its provisions. Until the international community applies the measures used against other states in violation of Security Council resolutions, it appears that Israeli death squads will continue to operate, Palestinian camps will experience more massacres, and the Middle East will continue the downward spiral that makes any land-for-peace settlement seem far away from the congested streets of Rafah camp in Gaza. ❑
Stephen J. Sosebee is a free-lance writer and president of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund.