Israeli destruction of homes fuels hatred in Gaza

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The Independent Online

The residents of El-Kararah, a scattering of Palestinian smallholdings in the Gaza Strip, were preparing for bed when the Israeli armoured bulldozers came to flatten their homes and to drive them off the land.

The residents of El-Kararah, a scattering of Palestinian smallholdings in the Gaza Strip, were preparing for bed when the Israeli armoured bulldozers came to flatten their homes and to drive them off the land.

For days they tried to convince themselves that the huge, sinister machines they had seen gougingorange groves up the road would never come as far as their hamlet. Surely, they thought, the Israelis would just raze the land by their military base - scene of recent attacks - but would let them collect their harvest in peace.

They were wrong. Yesterday they described how they were turned overnight from Gazan residents, who had lived on the strip for generations - surviving the 1967 war and ensuing Israeli occupation - into the latest Palestinian refugees.

The bulldozers came at night - three armoured machines crowned with machine guns and backed by Israeli tanks - and began uprooting their orange and olive orchards, transforming them into a moonscape of twisted roots, broken tree trunks and rubble.

The villagers say that, as the bulldozers crashed into their houses, they grabbed their children and whatever possessions they could carry, and fled on foot, weeping and screaming. Several of their cattle were crushed to death as the bulldozers flattened the cow sheds.

The villagers briefly tried to stay on the land by holding a sit-down protest, until Israeli soldiers began firing bullets at them. They spent the first night, shivering and bewildered, huddled in the open. Now they live in stark poverty in tents supplied by the Red Cross and the Palestinian municipal authorities, in a palm grove near their former homes.

"They have devastated our houses, and they have devastated our lives," said Samir Abdeen, a grandmother in her mid-fifties, "I can't understand why they did it. And I can't understand what they are doing on our land in the first place."

The razing happened two days after two Israeli settlers had been killed, and five children severely injured, when a Palestinian roadside bomb blew up a school bus about a mile up the road - the main north-south route in the 40-mile strip. The bomb attack, on 20 November, was close to Kfar Darom, a small Jewish settlement infiltrated only a day earlier by a Palestinian gunman, who killed two Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli army bulldozers started almost immediately, flattening acre after acre of the surrounding Palestinian orange groves. For the Israel armed forces, these were "security measures" to ensure that guerrillas could not creep up on bases or the Jewish settlements, built illegally on occupied land, which the Israeli military protects at huge cost.

It is also clearly part of a policy of clearing land around Israeli army bases, to deter crowds of rioters from attacking their soldiers with rocks and petrol bombs - acts which for the last 10 weeks have been met again and again with deadly fire from Israeli troops. Within a few days, hundreds of acres in the area - including land defined as under Palestinian autonomy by the Oslo accords - had been destroyed.

But for the Palestinians this is justcollective punishment. This part of El-Kararah - home to 14 adults and some 40 children - was a mile from the bomb, and hundreds of yards from the sensitive Israeli-controlled stretch of road used by settlers from Kfar Darom to get to nearby Gush Katif, a cluster of Jewish settlements. "We were convinced that we were safe," said Moussa el-Baouk, 19, "Nothing had ever come out of our area. But then we were attacked without warning."

Israel's strategy of punishing an entire population - with economic closures, curfews, home demolitions and by flattening olive groves - appears not to be producing the desired result, at least among the 1.2 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Israel's internal security forces said last week that anarchy is prevailing in Gaza, with at least nine armed groups operating outside of Yasser Arafat's control. No one expects the current lull in violence to last.

And no Palestinians will say that their appetite for the intifada has been anything but strengthened by Israeli tactics. "The Israelis are very mistaken when they use such measures," said Qassem Ali, bureau chief of Ramattan news agency, "When the Israelis hit hard, radicalism grows."