The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

Return to Rafah: Journey to a land out of bounds

Jennifer Loewenstein, The Electronic Intifada, 17 February 2004

Pictured, Maha, the wife of Ibrahim Aoda Abu Shatat, sits together with baby Zyad in her house during shooting at 3:30 AM. Their house is 40 meters from the border. (Johannes Abeling)

The border between Gaza and Egypt passes through a city called Rafah. Israeli tanks regularly drive along the border in the middle of the night and shoot randomly at the surrounding houses. Sometimes it is just shooting, sometimes without warning bulldozers come to destroy some houses ‘for security reasons’. The fathers in the area near the border stay up every night until 4:30 AM, in case the tanks come to their street and they have to quickly evacuate their family. The children mostly don’t sleep well because of the shooting. Many children have symptoms of stress.

Said Zoroub drives a white pick-up truck with the words “Rafah Municipality” painted on the driver’s side in Arabic and English, a gift from the Norwegians.[1] Less than an hour after my arrival in Rafah, Zoroub, the mayor, receives an urgent call on his cell phone. An Israeli bulldozer has struck a water main eight feet under the earth in the process of demolishing homes along the border between Rafah and Egypt. This has cut off the water supply to the western half of the city. From the passenger side of the municipality truck I get to survey the latest damage.

Outwardly Zoroub looks unperturbed, but his words belie the appearance. “We live each day here in a state of emergency.” On either side of the road the homes and buildings on the streets of Rafah are dotted with bullet holes as if suffering from a contagious disease. The nearer we get, the more ravaged are the buildings —crumbling from disrepair, caved in where tank shells and mortar fire have hit them during the night, their inhabitants make-shifting roofs, walls and doorways as needed. Lines of drying laundry hang outside the windows and political graffiti and posters of martyrs decorate the walls. Poverty and ruin define the city landscape. The edge of town is a no-man’s-land of rubble torn up and rolled over by the heavy tracks and claws of the armored vehicles that rule this terrain.

Puddles, stones and broken glass adorn the path alongside the homes on the city’s perimeter that the Israeli army has blasted into gaping gray caverns too treacherous to stray into for long. More and more children appear from the alleyways of the neighborhood to our left following us curiously toward the end of the street. Men and women come out to greet the mayor as we pursue the sound of the tank in the distance that is flattening the earth beneath it, its guns pointed toward us. A bulldozer is pushing up mounds of dirt and rubble behind it with a steady roar: more homes gone and no water in western Rafah until the Israeli authorities give clearance for the municipality to send out a repair crew that won’t be shot on sight. A boy points to a hole in a wall from where I can snap pictures without being easily detected. From the same vantage point, children can watch the progress of the demolition. I have only taken two photos when the mayor tells me to “get away now, it’s dangerous.” It is Thursday afternoon the 15th of January 2004.


There are tall IDF watchtowers everywhere along the Egyptian and Israeli borders with Rafah as well as between Rafah and the Gush Katif settlement bloc on the southeastern bend of the Mediterranean Sea. The beaches of Rafah, a short walk away for most of the city’s residents, have been off limits to Rafah residents since the beginning of the second Intifada denying them the only relief they have from the unbearable squalor of the Strip. Driving past the edge of the Tel as-Sultan district, the area exposed to the settlement watchtowers, the mayor picks up speed sensing our vulnerability. Many people have died along this stretch of road hit by bullets fired randomly by soldiers in the towers. The local boys nevertheless still attempt to use open spaces like this one as a soccer field on ‘quiet’ days.

Further on Zoroub points out an orphanage and new, prefabricated homes put up by UNRWA after the IDF incursions of October 2003 that left 1,780 people homeless, 15 civilians dead and dozens wounded.[2] There are people still camped out in tents, and public buildings still converted into emergency shelters.

Northwest of the town are the two fresh water wells rebuilt with emergency funds from Norway after the IDF destroyed them in January 2003.[3] A caretaker shows us fresh bullet holes in the walls of his trailer-like quarters and in the big blue sign along the fence outside announcing the gift of the new wells. He recounts how bullets have of late been ricocheting off the sides of the wells themselves advising us against standing there outside for long.

The day before, in East Jerusalem, a man named Roger from Save the Children told me not to go to Rafah, that it wasn’t safe. “I was there just two weeks ago working on a water project. I was talking to a guy manning a water pump. He was wearing a helmet and a jacket identifying himself as a city worker but he was so exposed, you know —in full view of a watchtower. Two days later he was shot dead.”

On the way back to the mayor’s house we pass fields of multicolored carnations and stop at a primitive flower factory. The flowers are cut and bound together for export to Holland —if the Israeli port authorities allow them to pass. If they dont get out within a few days they wilt and die even in the cold trucks. A man in the factory offers me a bouquet of red carnations. Driving back, Zoroub waves his hands in the direction of the field, “I wanted you to see something romantic in Rafah.”

Confronting the Wall

I left for Rafah on 11 January 2004 as part of a three-person pilot delegation to the city. We represented the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project, an organization founded in February 2003 to establish people-to-people ties between our two communities. Sistering projects are well known in Madison, Wisconsin — a Midwestern University town north of Chicago. Madison has official, City Council-approved sister cities with El Salvador, Nicaragua, East Timor, Cuba, Vietnam, and Lithuania among others. It seemed time, some of us thought, to build ties with a city in Palestine though a vote making this official has not yet been taken. Although in our first year we had had a number of highly successful local events and were welcomed by many in the community here, we were unprepared for the obstacles we encountered trying to get into the Gaza Strip.

Since the deaths of Rachel Corrie, Thomas Hurndall, and James Miller at the hands of the Israeli military in Rafah last spring, entrance into the Gaza Strip has been increasingly difficult.[4] What became clearer than ever to me as I struggled to get permission to enter the Strip this January was that internationals are being kept out for two key reasons: to hide as much as possible what is taking place daily and to avoid any further “mishaps” —i.e., the killing or wounding of internationals that might draw unwanted publicity to the area again.

The Israeli military forces kill Palestinians nearly every day in cruel and horrible circumstances. Most of the reports about these deaths and the unending atrocities against both the people and the land never make it into our media. When they do, they are packaged as justifiable violence against “terrorists” and “militants”, as “retaliatory strikes”or as actions of “self-defense”. With the US and Israeli media and foreign policy establishments spotlighting the “War on Terror” few stop to question the reduction of entire groups of people into often grotesquely caricatured national foes bent on destroying “freedom” and “democracy”. One result has been that nearly 3000 Palestinian deaths have had no effect on the majority of Americans —most of whom have no idea what is happening in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or elsewhere in the Middle East— even though their government is directly responsible for them. When an international dies, however, especially a young American girl like Rachel Corrie whose purpose for being in Rafah was to engage in non-violent resistance, damage control becomes necessary —despite concerted attempts by some to portray Corrie as a “terrorist sympathizer”.

On 4 January 2004 Israel issued a new series of restrictions designed to further isolate the Palestinian people and to prevent the situation in the territories from as much formal or informal international monitoring as possible. The restrictions require prior written authorization for all citizens attempting to enter areas technically under the control of the Palestinian Authority (those known as “Area A” under the 1993 Oslo Agreement). Persons wishing to enter Gaza “are required to fill out a form requesting entry and to submit it to the Foreign Relations Office in the Coordination & Liaison Administration in the Gaza Strip, situated at Erez crossing.[5] These requests take a minimum of 5 business days to process, can be rejected at will, and often require repeated and frustrating attempts, as people we spoke to affirmed[6]. Attempting to get into Area A without permission can result in legal action, deportation, and the prevention of future entry into the state of Israel.

The excuse for these restrictions, which have been more or less in place since the spring of 2003 but codified only recently, is to ensure the safety of foreigners entering the Palestinian territories, routinely described as “dangerous”. The real reason, however, is not only to keep out activists such as those belonging to the ISM (International Solidarity Movement) but to keep people in general away from the Gaza Strip. These restrictions follow other, equally unsettling policies such as the requirement issued last spring that all visitors to Gaza sign a waiver absolving Israel of all responsibility for death or injury caused by the Israeli military.[7] International humanitarian aid organizations and foreign journalists have sometimes, but not always been, exempted. Nevertheless, the short-term effect of such policies has been to discourage all but the most determined from going to the Gaza Strip, and sometimes the West Bank. Their long-term effect could be far more devastating.

Internal Checkpoints

We arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday the 11th of January and, after security personnel interrogated two of the three of us, headed for the Jerusalem Hotel in East Jerusalem[8]. We understood that saying we were on our way to Rafah in the Gaza Strip would draw unwanted attention. Nonetheless, we felt reasonably confident we would arrive at our destination if we made it past Tel Aviv because we had a letter of support from US Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), a long-time supporter of Israel but also of Madison’s sister cities.

Before we left, Baldwin’s State Department aide, Andrea Bagley, requested —and received — comprehensive information on the purpose of our visit, our meeting agenda during the week, the names and contact information of the Rafah municipal authorities hosting us, a clear and detailed description of our organization and its goals, and our full names and passport numbers. Her letter requested that the appropriate authorities in Israel honor our desire to visit Rafah and facilitate our entry into the Gaza Strip.[9] In addition to this letter, two of us had valid press cards from local media outlets desiring reports on our experiences in Rafah.

Journalists visiting Israel must have their press cards validated at the Beit Agron [press house] in West Jerusalem especially if they want to enter the Gaza Strip, as I made clear I did. I therefore went to the Beit Agron first thing in the morning only to be told my card was inadequate without 1) a letter of assignment from the organization that had issued it and 2) a fax from the Israeli Consulate in Chicago acknowledging that the media organization for which I was working was legitimate. I followed this up immediately, phoning Norman Stockwell at WORT radio in Madison asking him to fax a letter to Richard Pater at the Beit Agron. Stockwell also agreed to phone the Israeli Consulate to register WORT as a legitimate media source. Because there is an 8-hour time difference between Madison and Jerusalem I knew the process would take another day.

In the meantime, we decided to visit the American Consulate in Jerusalem to move ahead with our letter expecting this would prove more fruitful. As Americans, we got into the consulate relatively easily and were directed into a waiting room. Minutes later we were called up to one of the service windows where I presented our letter — on official Congressional stationery — to the American attendant saying that we hoped to get to Rafah to fulfill the obligations of our delegation asking that he help facilitate this.

The words barely made it out of my mouth before I was cut off by the curt reply, “we have nothing to do with Rafah and nothing to do with Gaza. Gaza is a dangerous place and you shouldn’t be going there. If you want to talk to the relevant personnel at the [US] Embassy in Tel Aviv, go ahead but I’m sure they will tell you the same thing.” He shoved the letter back at us over our naive protestations that this was from a US Congressperson. We were dismissed and went back outside where it was raining. This was our first direct experience with the extent of the collusion between United States and Israel.

I went back to the hotel to e-mail Andrea in Tammy Baldwin’s office. By the next day she had faxed another letter to both the US Consulate in Jerusalem and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv appealing to them yet again to assist us in our project.[10] Meanwhile, I telephoned Richard Pater repeatedly at the Beit Agron to follow up on my press card: the letter of assignment had arrived but not the telex from the Israeli Consulate in Chicago despite Stockwell’s repeated phone calls. Exasperated, I phoned the press division of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv and spoke to division Chief Paul Patin who was both sympathetic and helpful. He phoned Pater to vouch for WORT radio (it turned out Patin’s neighbors in Israel were from Madison, Wisconsin) and he promised to fax a letter on my behalf, which Pater received the next morning. I phoned Pater six times between 8:30 and 11:00am on Wednesday 14 January to inquire about the status of my press card. He kept putting me off saying there were still some “matters” he needed to look into. He refused to elaborate.

For reasons that are unclear to me, I was finally — around 2pm on Wednesday — issued an Israeli press card (valid for one week). Interestingly, this was just hours after a female suicide bomber, Reem Riyashi, blew herself up at the Erez crossing’s Industrial Zone killing three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli border policeman.[11] Word had it that Erez would be closed indefinitely. Hamas took credit for the attack.

On a hunch, I phoned an IDF spokesperson who, contrary to the rumors, said that with my press card I should have no trouble getting into Gaza. I put my suitcase in a cab and we drove off, arriving at the Erez crossing just before dark. There were 5 armored personnel carriers parked outside the visitor’s station but otherwise the crossing was empty. Three young soldiers in the visitor’s station sat huddled together with long faces. I handed them my passport and press card expressing my sadness over the deaths caused by that morning’s suicide bombing. “My friend is dead,” said the young female soldier who handed back my ID with the gate pass that finally allowed me to proceed.

That night the streets of Gaza City were flooded from torrential rains and waters gushing up from the useless, decaying gutters. Cars were stopped in the streets standing in half a foot of water and men were laying wooden planks from the curbs to help them cross shallower areas. The power had gone out in a good part of the city making it look more rundown than ever in the darkness. My taxi driver took a circuitous route around the worst areas and dropped me off at the Deira hotel hoping I would find a vacant room. In fact, the hotel was empty.

The desk clerk explained that all the journalists planning to stay there that night had cancelled their reservations because Erez was closed. To his surprise I explained that I had just come through Erez. Now I had the beautiful villa-style hotel to myself. I phoned my companions in East Jerusalem urging them to follow up with our Congressional letter at the US Embassy and then, at 8pm, gave a half-hour live interview to WORT radio in Madison as agreed. The next morning I left for Rafah passing the north-south checkpoint at Deir al-Balah with relative ease: we waited only 45 minutes before being allowed to proceed —unusual for a place where delays anywhere between 2 hours and four days are common.

The Terrorist Infrastructure

Bullets flew at us like hailstones when we left Naila’s home that first evening in Rafah. For two hours I’d sat together with Sumaiya, the mayor’s wife, and her sisters and their children watching their wide eyes and smiles as, one by one, they stood before me to attempt a sentence in English looking to me for approval and then running away in gleeful embarrassment. The older girls passed around dinner, pastries and coffee and Noof, Said Zoroub’s beautiful 17-year-old daughter, asked me what I thought of Islam and if I would tell her what the bad things were that people in America said about it.

Some of the kids were roughhousing in the background when the power went out leaving us in darkness. The littlest boy, Karim, let out a shriek calling, “mama!” and someone went to look for a battery-operated lamp. Electricity, like water and phone lines, is never taken for granted.

We decided to leave when the lights came back on and Talal, the mayor’s friend, came to pick us up, but we had to cram ourselves back into the doorway when bullets flew at us from the watchtower in the distance hitting the side of the building or shooting past us into the night. I would never have left that doorway had I been alone, but for the others the routine for these episodes of indiscriminate firing was to pause for a moment to wait for quiet, then dart into the car and duck down below the windows while the driver sped away. Up the road two cars had collided racing away from the same scene, their drivers looking dejected standing there in the middle of the dark street surveying the damage.

Back at the mayor’s home, I received a call from Laura Gordon, the last American ISM activist in Rafah[12]. Would I come by the office and meet her friends? They were planning a demonstration for Friday. Had I heard that Tom Hurndall had died? Ten months in a coma and peace finally came. The martyr’s posters had already been printed with his young face looking out at us. Now they would be plastered along the city walls next to all the others. The demonstrators would march up Keer Street the next morning to stand at the place where he’d been shot in the head attempting to pull two children out of the line of fire.

Tanks barrel down Keer Street when major invasions into Rafah begin. It is a wretched slum-like street that dead-ends in a large mound of earth, stone blocks and rubble across from the no-man’s-land between it and the IDF’s positions. On Friday morning I stood on top of that mound gazing across the way at another fortress-like bunker harboring Israeli guards. I couldn’t see them but I sensed their eyes on us. The demonstrators, almost all children, wore bullseye placards on their shirts and carried the banners, “Palestinians and Internationals are Targets for the Israeli Army.” A young girl pointed to a small hole in the wall of the building at the end of Keer Street, the mark of the bullet, I was told, that ultimately killed Hurndall.

I have heard many say that the Gaza Strip is a prison with the sky for a ceiling. Its inhabitants live surrounded by electrified fences, motion censors, barbed wire and metal barriers, except along the sea coast where Israeli gunboats patrol the shores. Israel prevents most Gazans from leaving the territory or traveling freely even between its overcrowded camps and towns since it is controlled by extensive checkpoints that can turn half-an-hour’s travel into a four day journey. Its military can choose to close off sections of Gaza from all contact with the rest of the Strip whenever it pleases, although residents of the 17 illegal settlements, which take up more than a quarter of this tiny area, can travel back and forth to Israel with ease on the Jewish-only roads[13].

The Gaza Strip is far more than a prison, however. One need only spend time in Khan Yunis or Bureij, Jabalia or Nuseirat, Gaza City or Beit Hanoun to recognize the flaw in the prison analogy. In Gaza you are more than an inmate in a giant penitentiary. You are a walking human target, shadowed by hired killers who can destroy you and your surroundings at will. Your home belongs to bulldozers and dynamite, your cities and refugee camps to F-16s and helicopter gun ships. In Gaza your livelihood is diminished each day by an impoverishment that is as deliberate as it is merciless. There is neither escape from desperation nor refuge from terror. Nowhere is this more evident than in Rafah.

Since 29 September 2000, the Israeli army has killed 275 people in Rafah, more than three dozen of them since October 2003. Seventy-six of the dead have been children. It has destroyed a total of 1,759 homes, 430 of them since October 2003 displacing a total of 12,643 residents, 2,894 since October 2003. Unemployment is nearing 70% in Rafah, with a poverty rate of 83.4% as of the end of the third quarter of 2003.[14] Malnutrition affects a large number of Rafah’s children as does Post Traumatic Stress Disorder[15].

Rafah, a city with a population of about 120,000 (smaller than Ramallah, Nablus, Gaza City, and Hebron) has lost more people than any other city in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the beginning of the second Intifada. It is the poorest of all Palestinian cities, and its Shaboura district is the poorest section of Rafah. There, whole families live together in one-room shacks made of corrugated iron with dirt floors and sheet metal, cardboard and tarpaulin roofs. Children run barefoot in the streets, ill-clad and ill-fed. Nowhere in Palestine will one find conditions as miserable and destitute as they are in Rafah, where approximately 80% of whose citizens are refugees sometimes two and three times over.[16]

When Israeli tanks came rolling through the streets of Rafah in October 2003 the western media reported they were looking for tunnels linking homes in Rafah to Egypt for the purpose of smuggling weapons. The Palestinian leadership was failing to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure” and so it was up to Israel to do the job itself. We are supposed to accept unquestioningly that such tunnels and the trickle of weapons they deliver pose a serious threat to Israel’s massive military arsenal, and that the process of searching for these tunnels necessarily involves the destruction of 2,000 people’s homes and all of their possessions.

To doubt this would jeopardize the logic of continued occupation and of the greater “war on terror” Americans and their Israeli allies must fight together. It could lead to the more likely conclusion that the level of death and destruction routine in Rafah are part of Israel’s plan to clear —at whatever cost to the inhabitants— a wide area in between the Egypt-Rafah border in order to turn it into a closed military zone under direct Israeli control and to terrorize and intimidate the Palestinian population.

Establishing a CMZ (closed military zone) will remove the last international boundary between Palestinian territory and a country other than Israel guaranteeing that the Gaza Strip will become permanently quarantined. It will complete the destruction of the Gazan economy since trade with Egypt will, for all practical purposes, cease. It will advance the process of gradual, internal flight away from Gaza’s border regions into the already overcrowded refugee camps and cities of the interior. Devastation and the implosion of an entire society will be accelerated with the United States’ blessing.

Just after the October incursions, Amnesty International issued a statement labeling Israel’s actions a war crime and calling for a halt to the extensive demolition of family homes. Two weeks of destruction, dispossession and death during which time Israeli forces found three tunnels and no weapons.[17]

“Gaza is a Dangerous Place”

Heavy tank and machine gun fire blast the nights wide open in Rafah. For six hours straight I listen to the continual pounding of bullets and tank shells outside my window. Now and then an unidentifiable explosion interrupts the shooting, a silent pause creeps over the skies, and the routine begins again. But the silence above me is not absolute: in the distance on the ground I can hear the non-stop rumble of machines at work; bulldozers devouring the edges of the town.

On the morning of 17 January, Arij Zoroub knocked on my door to find out if I was all right. She wanted to know if I’d been afraid. I told her I was angry. How could I explain the feeling of being transported away into a nightmare world where you expect the next blast to come through your wall —and that you almost wish for it so you can end your impotent seclusion? that in your mind you stand in the shadowy, cracked-open homes where the ragged partisans shoot back at the army and pray for them to hit their targets.

On the roof of the mayor’s house, Arij points past the homes behind us to survey the night’s damage: The familiar flattened landscape gapes back at me like a dead man’s eyes. More homes gone and part of a mosque destroyed. Dozens more people displaced. Disproportionate force unleashed against pitiful guerrillas determined to fight back and to drag all of Rafah in with them if necessary. What difference will that make? Israel’s message is clear: we will destroy you, if not in death then in life.

In the two weeks following my departure, at least 30 more homes vanished from Rafah and nearly 600 more people were displaced. Seven more people died, including an infant, while two more men were the victims of Israel’s “targeted assassinations” policy. Both were unarmed when they were executed.[18] A photojournalist contact sent me photos from the latest violence. These are the images that best summarize life in Rafah, the kinds of images that clutter my memory when I think back to my brief stay this January, even after the hours of working visits to the municipality, youth centers, women’s organizations, the ministries of health and education, popular refugees’ committees, and a rehabilitation center for the deaf; after days of note-taking and conversation about moving forward and building bridges between communities[19].

Before leaving Gaza City I’d found emailed messages from US Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s office waiting for me online. The same friendly aide, so eager to assist us when we started on our journey, had received correspondence from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. Now her tone was official and serious. She was “urging” me to get out of Gaza away from “potentially dangerous areas and situations” and was conveying the State Department’s concern that American Citizens not be “exposed” to such dangers.

She had attached three items: a letter from Alison Dilworth of the American Consulate in Jerusalem informing her that American Citizens should not be traveling to the Gaza Strip; a “Public Announcement: Warden Message” issued by the US Government on 15 October 2003 (just after an official American convoy traveling in the Gaza Strip was hit by a bomb) recommending that all Americans in Gaza leave immediately and that their evacuation be facilitated by the Israelis; and a “Worldwide Caution” issued by the US State Department on 22 December 2003 warning American citizens abroad about the potential threat to their lives from Al Qaida[20]. It seemed the office of our US Congressperson had been made to fall into line with the US policy of sanctioning Israeli actions.

When I tried to leave Gaza through the Erez Crossing on the evening of 17 January, Israeli soldiers ordered me to stop before I passed the last barricade. I was left waiting for more than two hours in the dark surrounded by concrete blocks. If I moved forward, I knew I could be shot. I shouted repeatedly at the soldiers in the Israeli bunker at the checkpoint to please let me through because I had a flight to catch. My shouts were met with sarcastic remarks and threats, “Erez is closed, go back” and “we heard you the first time; you can be quiet now”. Only after continuing to holler that I was an American citizen and needed to leave was I finally instructed to proceed through the electronic security gate. At the window of the bunker, a helmeted young soldier grabbed my passport and stamped it huffily saying that he hadn’t been able to let me through before he’d gotten clearance from a higher authority. A voice behind him echoed guiltily, “We are just little screws in a big machine”. Would this be the justification years hence for the horrors of the Israeli occupation?

The air was cold when my taxi drove me off into the night.

Jennifer Loewenstein is a freelance journalist and human rights activist. She lived and worked in the Bourj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in South Beirut, Lebanon during the summers of 2000 and 2001, and worked at the Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza City, Gaza for 5 months in 2002. She has participated in delegations to the Occupied Palestinian Territories and was among the first internationals into the Jenin Refugee camp after its destruction during “Operation Defensive Shield” in April 2002. In February 2003 Jennifer founded the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project and visited Rafah in January 2004 for its first delegation to the city. She has written and spoken extensively about her experiences. Jennifer teaches Professional Communications at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.


[1] Norway has provided development assistance to Palestine since 1993 to “help prevent any further disintegration of the political, social and economic basis for the peace process.” From 1999-2003 Norway pledged NOK 1.3 billion in aid to the Palestinian Territories making these areas one of the single largest recipients of bilateral aid from Norway since 1994. There was evidence of the Norwegian development assistance all over Rafah (indeed it is sobering just how much international aid in general is holding together the infrastructures of Palestinian cities, towns, and refugee camps). The two new fresh water wells on the outskirts of Rafah are one example of emergency Norwegian aid.

[2] The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published a report on 28 January 2004 detailing the consequences of IDF operations in Rafah. It found that “Some of those made homeless by IDF operations moved into smaller units, which in most cases are insufficient for the size of the family. Others have migrated northwards in search of accommodation, or —in exceptional cases— moved into abandoned dwellings adjacent to the buffer zones that were left by other families fearful that their homes would be targeted. An increasing number of families whose homes were destroyed are relying on tents for shelter. Tents are being provided by UNRWA and ICRC.” The homeless figures I quote above are from this report. Others estimated the number of people made homeless during the October 2003 raids at around 2000.

[3] For a report on the destruction of Rafah’s two fresh water wells in January 2003, see “Danger: Rafah’s fresh water wells,” by Amira Hass of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, 5 February 2003. The wells provided about 50% of the drinking and household water to the city of Rafah and Hass suggests they were deliberately destroyed.

[4] Rachel Corrie was an American ISM (International Solidarity Movement) activist who was crushed to death by a bulldozer in Rafah on 16 March 2003. She was standing in a flat, open area wearing a bright orange vest and carrying a bullhorn shouting to the bulldozer driver to stop the demolition of family homes. According to an Israeli investigation, her death was an accident. Tom Hurndall was a British ISM activist shot in the head on 11 April 2003. He died in the UK in January 2004 after lying in a coma for ten months. Like Corrie, Hurndall had been wearing a bright orange vest with reflective stripes. He had been trying to move children away from an area where there was active IDF firing. A Bedouin soldier in Israel has recently been charged with killing him. James Miller was an award-winning cameraman making a film in Rafah on how violence was affecting children. He was shot in the neck by Israeli gunfire on 2 May 2003 while wearing a jacket marked “press” and waving a white flag as he approached Israeli troops. He died while awaiting evacuation.

[5] To view the document on the new, 4 January 2004 Israeli restrictions on travel into the Palestinian Territories go to:

[6] While in East Jerusalem, my companions and I spoke to a number of individuals who had faced difficulties getting in and out of Gaza including the acting manager of the Bookshop at the American Colony Hotel, Peter Huff-Rousselle, and a young man working for the World Bank who asked not to be named. Their experiences were significant in that these two were indirectly or directly (respectively) involved with international aid organizations for which such restrictions might have been more relaxed.

[7] To view a copy of the Gaza Waiver absolving Israel of responsibility for the deaths of internationals at the hands of the Israeli military go to:

[8] I was not interrogated but my companions, George Arida and Francis Bradley, were each questioned and searched in an ordeal taking more than two hours. There are many possible reasons for this. It is significant to me, however, that I have yet to be questioned in Tel Aviv although I have been to the West Bank and Gaza Strip on many occasions, have written extensively and critically on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, have worked in Gaza City, and have Syrian and Lebanese stamps in my passport. I tend to think the ease with which I pass through security in Tel Aviv is related to my Jewish last name, Loewenstein.

[9] A copy of the Bagley/Baldwin letter and all further correspondence between myself and Congresswoman Baldwin’s office can be found at the MRSCP (Madison-Rafah Sister City Project) website:

[10] See footnote 9.

[11] There are numerous articles on this Hamas-sponsored suicide bombing focusing on the fact that the bomber, Reem Riyashi, was a 22 year old married mother of two. See, for example, Chris McGreal’s “Palestinians Shocked at Use of Suicide Mother” in The Guardian on 27 January 2004. What has been left out repeatedly is that the victims in this case were all associated with the Israeli military (three soldiers and one border police guard) and the bombing took place on occupied land making the attack arguably wholly legitimate.

[12] Laura has returned to the US and is doing a speaking tour across the country.

[13] Much has been made of the recent development that Ariel Sharon is planning to evacuate the 17 Jewish settlements in Gaza. There are in fact 23 settlements in Gaza, as noted by Amira Hass in “This mortal coil”, Ha’aretz, 13 February 2004. What he said was, “I have given an order to plan for the evacuation of 17 settlements in the Gaza Strip.” An order to plan for the evacuation is not the same as an order to evacuate, which is yet to be given. Nonetheless, many have known for years that Israel does not ‘need’ Gaza and that giving up the settlements there could provide some strategic leverage for Israel, keen to annex more Palestinian land in the West Bank for its settlements there with Washington’s approval. Indeed, some say that Sharon expects the West Bank in return for ‘giving up’ the Gaza Strip. According to Sharon, “It is my intention to carry out an evacuation – sorry, a relocation – of settlements that cause us problems and of places that we will not hold onto anyway in a final settlement, like the Gaza settlements,” (“PM: I gave order to plan evacuation of 17 Gaza settlements”, article by Yoel Marcus in Ha’aretz, 3 February 2004.) Other analysts, such as Mouin Rabbani and Amira Hass, have suggested that Sharons move is also, in all likelihood, a ploy to look conciliatory during his next visit to Washington, to refocus domestic attention on the Palestinian crisis and away from the scandals now rocking Sharon’s government, and possibly an attempt to explore a unity government with Labor. It may also be another attempt to divide any remaining Palestinian leadership within the enclaves that remain. The likelihood of the circumstances in Gaza being made easier for its Palestinian inhabitants even with the evacuation of all Jewish settlements is slim based on the extent to which Gaza is cordoned off from Israel and Egypt and under heavy IDF military control. In fact, the chances are considerable that the social and economic circumstances in Gaza will continue to worsen and that extremism within the political factions will increase.

[14] The statistics listed here were compiled by the Mezan Center for Human Rights based in Gaza City, Gaza. They do not include statistics on the number of homes destroyed, people killed or displaced between 16 and 22 January 2004. During this time 1 woman was killed and 8 people were injured. Seventy-two more homes have been demolished since the beginning of January 2004 and an additional 684 people have been made homeless. See “Report to the LACC on humanitarian consequences of the Israeli Defence Forces operations in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip,” published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 28 January 2004.

[15] On malnutrition in the Palestinian territories see, for example, “Palestinian malnutrition at African levels under Israeli curbs, say MPs,” by Ben Russell in The Independent, 5 February 2004. British MP’s on a visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories are quoted as saying, “Rates of malnutrition in Gaza and parts of the West Bank are as bad as anything one would find in sub-Saharan Africa. The Palestinian economy has all but collapsed. Unemployment rates are in the region of 60 to 70 percent&.It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a deliberate Israeli strategy of putting the lives of ordinary Palestinians under stress as part of a strategy to bring the population under heel.” On the incidence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among Palestinians, especially Palestinian children see “An Interview with Eyad El-Sarraj”(of the Gaza Community Mental Health Center in Gaza City, Gaza) in Tikkun, by Julie Oxenberg and Dan Burnstein, Nov/Dec 2003.

[16] Information on the situation of Rafah’s refugees was obtained in direct conversation with Zeyad Sarafandi, President of Rafah’s Popular Refugees Committee, on 17 January 2004 in the main Rafah office.

[17] Amnesty International Press Release, 13 October 2003. AI Index: MDE 15/091/2003 (public); News Service No: 234; Israel/Occupied Territories: “Wanton destruction constitutes a war crime”.

[18] See the UN’s OCHA reports for February 2004; also “Israeli Troops Kill Palestinian in Raid,” Al Jazeera, Sunday 8 February 2004.

[19] Brent Foster’s photographs can be viewed at: A detailed description of the people met and organizations visited during this trip to Rafah can be found at the MRSCP website:

[20] See attachments with correspondence from US Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin’s office on the Madison-Rafah Sister City Project’s website at