Rafah, a buffer zone of rubble where families have to live on a football field

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Palestinians whose homes have been demolished by the Israeli army in Rafah's refugee camps are now living packed into dangerously cramped and unhygienic conditions in the changing rooms of a football stadium.

Up to 45 people are in one small room, while others are in rooms that open on to filthy, mosquito-ridden lavatories. Still others are living in the ruins of their homes, sheltering under four floors of fallen concrete that could collapse farther at any moment.

From the extent of the destruction, it has become clear that the demolitions, which began two weeks ago, are not just aimed at finding tunnels used by Palestinian militants to smuggle weapons, as the Israeli army claims. The intent is also to clear a broad swath of land adjacent to the Egyptian border, which runs next to Rafah, and create a de facto buffer zone to make the building of tunnels far harder.

The destruction in Rafah, the only Palestinian city close to an international border, is extraordinary. Entire streets have been bulldozed. The road still passes up the middle, but on either side are just mounds of rubble where houses used to be. In other places, a few useless walls have been left standing.

In the first raid alone, 150 homes were demolished and more than 1,500 people left homeless, said the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Unrwa. And the destruction did not end there. The Israeli army has made fresh incursions, demolishing more homes in other parts of the refugee camps around Rafah. The number left homeless is now believed to be more than 2,000.

The Israeli army said the aim of the demolitions was to find and destroy the tunnels under the Egyptian border, which are used by Palestinian militants to smuggle in small arms and ammunition. But from Fatha Othman's house in Block L, the worst-hit area, it is clear that the raid was about more than that. Mr Othman's house is the last standing in a street that abruptly ends in ruin. The sprawling refugee camps have been moved back from the border altogether.

In the first raid, the Israeli army found only three tunnels. But those demolitions have created a new buffer zone of rubble between the refugee camps and the Egyptian border. The houses used to run right up against the border here. Now, in Block L,a strip of wasteland 300 metres wide separates the border and the nearest house, Mr Othman's.

The cost for the people of Rafah has been severe. Not far from Mr Othman's house, Huda abu Shumeeileh was standing forlornly amid the ruins of her home. She still lives here, with her sister, her husband and their 10-year-old son, even though the weight of four floors of collapsed concrete is bearing down on the only roof still standing, and may fall on them at any time. In other parts of the house, the walls are standing but the roof is open to the elements, and cold winter nights will arrive in the next month. This is one of the less-damaged houses - most of the families could not even do this.

Rafah's football stadium is being used as emergency accommodation for those who cannot find anywhere else to stay. The first aid room, which measures just 5 metres by 5 metres, houses 45 people from the extended Absi family. The women and children sleep inside, but there is not enough room for the men, who sleep outside around a wood fire, huddled together for warmth. Next door, the Rasras family lives in one of the changing rooms. It's a larger room, but only 11 people sleep inside, because it opens directly on to the filthy lavatories. A putrid miasma hangs over the room, and the air is thick with mosquitoes.

Even in the more hygienic first aid room, the Absi children are sick with coughs and stomach pains after two weeks of the cramped conditions.

Nafez al-Absi explained how his family lost all its belongings in the demolitions. "They demolished our house on the first day, between 11.30pm and midnight. The house was 100 metres from the border. The bulldozer started to smash the wall of the house. I put the lights on and showed them one of my children to show that there are children living here. They shot at us when I did that. After that, everybody started leaving in a panic. We didn't take anything. On the way they shot at us. My father was hit in his back."

Mr Absi showed the scar on his own leg where a bullet went straight through the flesh. From the other homeless came similar stories. As the bulldozers advanced, there was hooting. There was no time to stop to pick up their belongings: they lost everything beneath the rubble.

Tareq Rasras got married last week in a tent hastily set up on the football field. As a married couple, he and his wife will qualify for more assistance from Unrwa. The Rasras family says the couple were planning to marry before the family house was demolished. In all, though, 10 couples rushed their marriages through in the tent on the same afternoon, in the hope of getting an apartment from Unrwa.

"In spite of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's destruction, we will continue to live," says Mr Rasras' elder brother, Rejai. "He can demolish every house but we will live."

Out in the rubble of Block L, Mr Othman has moved all the furniture out of his house, except a bed where his adult son, who was wounded in the first raid, lies. His other two sons have already moved to rented apartments with their families, and Mr Othman is too scared to sleep here at night any more. "I expect them to come and demolish this house at any moment," he says.

¿ The Israeli army dynamited three empty apartment blocks in Netzarim Junction, Gaza Strip, yesterday in retaliation for a deadly Palestinian attack on a nearby Jewish settlement.

Troops cleared more than 2,000 Palestinians from nearby homes before triggering the explosions.

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