Stories beneath the Khan Younis rubble
By Yasser Baraka
October 07, 2004

New Page 3

Six-year-old Suad Matar is a child like many others in the Nemsawi neighborhood of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.

Seized from her bed by her mother, Awatef, as Israeli forces approached the area, her family is now homeless.

The Matar home was just one of 47 to be reduced to a pile of concrete rubble that night clothes, books, toys and furniture buried in 30 minutes by a huge, gloomy bulldozer tearing through rooms one by one amid deafening roars and the crackle of gunfire. A further seven homes were left unsafe for habitation, according to the UN.

Suad woke up the next morning in a white tent pitched several hundred metres away from her house, her mother boiling water in the dust outside. Her elder brother, Sofian, has rescued some of her books, now battered.

The Nemsawi neighborhood, funded by the Austrian government - hence the name (Arabic for Viennese) - is home to many Palestinian refugees.

Awatef, a midwife, and her husband Bilal, an accountant, are third-generation refugees who fled their hometown of Majdal, now known as Ashkelon, in southern Israel, during the 1948 war that Palestinians call the Nakba(Catastrophe).

Bilal and his 14-year-old son Sofian survey the rubble of their house, examining the damage. Sofian lifts several bricks to reveal what used to be his desk.

"I don't know what to say, but I'm not alone. The entire neighborhood is homeless, and they're as shocked as I am," says Bilal, looking at the other demolished houses.

Israeli forces often demolish Palestinian homes in order to create what Israeli military officials call a "buffer zone" more accurately no-go zones guarded by tall watchtowers with mounted machine-gun turrets. Such areas surround each of the 21 Israeli settlements spread throughout the Gaza Strip.

In the 48 months of the Palestinian intifada, 4,022 houses have been completely demolished in the Strip, in addition to 19,371 houses partially damaged by Israeli forces, according to Palestinian sources.

Osama Al Farra, the mayor of Khan Younis, arrived with a delegation from the municipality to survey the damage, telling Arab Media Watch that the city had been declared a disaster zone a long time ago and that the aid coming to it was not enough to compensate for the daily destruction by Israeli forces.

"Unfortunately we're not offered the necessary relief aid by the Palestinian Authority or by international organisations to cope with this destruction. This wave of house demolition is unprecedented in the city, and the human tragedy is beyond imagination," Farra said.

Families lacked the tents, utensils and food supplies they need, he added.

Bilal and Sofian continue their search in the rubble, uncovering Bilal's Palestinian passport.

"As if this would help," he says, referring to Israel's closure of the Palestinian territories, preventing almost everyone from leaving. Bilal smiled bitterly as he tucked the passport in his pocket.

Israeli military sources say most of the houses destroyed in the operation were uninhabited, a claim Sofian dismisses as nonsense, walking through the piles of concrete and iron, picking up a toy or a notebook, pointing to a closet's half door protruding from the rubble.

"There were people here. We children played together after school. They fled their home with us last night. Now they have moved to the city center to live in a rented flat," Sofian said.

Suddenly a child appeared, shouting: "Tank, there's a tank coming." Everyone fled.

"They might scare us today, but we'll return tomorrow," Bilal said, catching his breath a few hundred metres away, the sound of gunfire filling the air. "I'm determined to rebuild my home exactly where it was."