Homeless and angry, Palestinians call for justice

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The Independent Online

As an Israeli bulldozer began to destroy his house in Rafah's Brazil neighbourhood, Ibrahim abu Hamad, 40, was still in it. He was talking on his mobile phone to his employer - the Israeli boss of a construction company in Tel Aviv. Meir Grimstein, who has known Mr abu Hamad for 15 years and who did his own military service in Gaza, had telephoned to ask how his employee was doing. "When I told him the bulldozer had started to demolish my house, he said: 'I don't believe you. I know where your house is. It isn't near the border.'"

As an Israeli bulldozer began to destroy his house in Rafah's Brazil neighbourhood, Ibrahim abu Hamad, 40, was still in it. He was talking on his mobile phone to his employer - the Israeli boss of a construction company in Tel Aviv. Meir Grimstein, who has known Mr abu Hamad for 15 years and who did his own military service in Gaza, had telephoned to ask how his employee was doing. "When I told him the bulldozer had started to demolish my house, he said: 'I don't believe you. I know where your house is. It isn't near the border.'"

But when Mr abu Hamad persuaded him otherwise, "he said 'how can I help you?' I told him: 'You can't help me. The bulldozer is already here. It's too late.'" For by now Mr abu Hamad, his wife and seven children had fled to the back of the house as the bulldozer rumbled on through the front, lumbering to a halt within five metres of the rear wall to leave them room to escape while waving a white cloth in the hope that it would stop the tanks shooting at the sand around their feet.

Mr abu Hamad, like other Palestinian migrant workers, has not been able to leave Gaza since March. But contacted by telephone in Tel Aviv yesterday, Mr Grimstein said he still hoped that Mr abu Hamad would be able to return to work.

He wasn't on the spot, he said, so he wasn't in a position to express a view about the demolitions in general, but no, he didn't think it was fair in Mr abu Hamad's case. The supreme irony of losing his home in a painfully short few minutes during the height of the army's incursion into Brazil camp last week was not lost on Mr abu Hamad. "I build houses in Israel and the Israelis destroy my house here," he said.

The story is illustrative. The army was very slow to admit the destruction was happening at all. Now it has said that houses would not have been demolished were it not for the activities of Palestinian militants - including the killing of five Israeli soldiers 12 days ago. But the question, as last week's Amnesty International report highlighted, is whether the scale of demolitions is remotely proportionate to the security needs routinely cited by the military.

Mr abu Hamad, who has the trust and confidence of an Israeli employer, is no militant. His house does not disguise a tunnel. His experience helps to underline why the Shinui Party leader, Tommy Lapid, has led an Israeli cabinet revolt against the Rafah demolitions. Whether Mr Lapid, the Justice Minister, was consciously invoking memories of the Holocaust when he said the television footage of an old Palestinian scrabbling for her medicine in the rubble of her home reminded him of his own grandmother (he now says he wasn't), his opposition to the demolitions is significant.

A survey by the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem found that since the beginning of "Operation Rainbow" - the benign military name for an operation which has killed more than 45 Palestinians in eight days - 67 homes have been destroyed, making more than 750 people homeless, most of them now sheltering in rudimentary accommodation at UN schools. This comes on top of what B'Tselem estimates to be 116 homes destroyed the week before last, making 1,160 homeless, after five Israeli soldiers were killed when their armoured troop carrier was blown up by Palestinian militants. That brings the running total to 183 homes. B'Tselem counts not individual buildings - many of which are multi-occupied - but total dwelling units.

A visit to the Brazil district of the camp suggests that, if anything, that figure may be a conservative estimate. For in one small section of the Brazil neighbourhood off Nile Street and identified locally as Blocks 71-72, local residents enumerated at the weekend nine separate buildings - 206-210 inclusive, 213-15 and 219 - that had been destroyed during last Thursday's high-intensity phase of the incursion. The buildings' units house from one to seven people each and accommodated 25 families in all.

These are mere numbers, which say nothing of the human cost to those in the block such as Mr abu Hamad and his neighbours. One of those, Samir Mansur, 47, who worked as a taxi driver on the route between Rafah and Gaza City, last week lost not only his 12-member family's home, but his only means of earning a living. His 1984 yellow Mercedes taxi lay uselessly mangled, up-ended, and half buried in yet more rubble of another neighbour's home. What will he do now? "What can I say? I have no house. I have no money. My life has been destroyed. My children's future has been crushed. This is an earthquake. You can understand an earthquake because it is from God, but we cannot accept it from the Israelis," he said.

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