Rafah Has Long Suffered Under Brutal Israeli Assaults

Rafah, one of the last refuges for Palestinians fleeing Israel’s vicious assault on Gaza, is now under intense bombardment. The episode is just the latest chapter in a long history of violence the small border town has suffered at Israel’s hands.

One child plays in the dirt while another lies down in the bright sunlight at the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza, January 25, 1973. (UPI / Bettmann Archive / Getty Images)

Israel continues to pound Rafah with intensive air strikes, having already killed over one hundred Palestinians, most of them children, and displacing thousands others, who have nowhere safe to go — except perhaps “to the moon,” to cite European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

The Sunday massacres seem to be only a prelude to the horrors to come, as Israel is now gearing up for invading the small refugee town, prompting mounting fears of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Rafah was believed to be Gaza’s last “safe zone,” where 1.5 million Palestinians, nearly two-thirds of the original Gaza’s population, are now taking shelter.

Rafah is a small and dusty city on the southern Gaza border with Egypt. On the eve of Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, Rafah was home to fewer than 300,000 Palestinians; by early February, the city had swelled to some 1.5 million in population virtually overnight. It now resembles a concentration camp choked with displaced Palestinian families, who are crammed into houses and tents, mostly in tented encampments, some of which encroach on cemeteries. Many are sleeping in the streets.

The city is on the brink of humanitarian calamity. Aid officials have described the Rafah camp as a “pressure cooker of despair.” Aid groups warn of a looming famine there as Israel continues to withhold humanitarian air to Gaza, blocking even flour shipments. Israeli soldiers are filming themselves destroying and burning food warehouses in Gaza to starve Palestinians.

Israel’s brutal assaults on Rafah in fact have a long history, and a stirring one. Over the past seven decades, Rafah has been the tragic site of repeated massacres by Israel and mass displacement.

A Bloody History

Rafah was known throughout history as the southern gate to Palestine. Before the yearslong Israeli blockade, it served as Gaza’s only link with the outside world. Following Israel’s “withdrawal” from Gaza in 2005 and the subsequent election of Hamas, the Rafah Crossing was shut down by both Israel and Egypt, thus sealing off the Gaza Strip on all sides.

Rafah had fewer than a thousand residents during the British Mandate. Come the Nakba — the mass displacement of Palestinians at Israel’s founding — thousands of displaced Palestinians flooded into the small and remote border town, tripling its population overnight and rendering it a large refugee camp.

But the Nakba was only the beginning. Frequently after 1948, Israeli forces would invade the Rafah camps, massacring scores of refugees and demolishing their homes.

On November 12, 1956, during Israel’s first occupation of Gaza, Israeli forces invaded the refugee camps in Rafah, rounded up male residents, and killed at least 111 people in cold blood. The bloodshed, known as the Rafah Massacre, was described by the Red Cross as “scenes of terror.”

About 1,200 civilians, out of a population of 330,000, were killed throughout the whole Gaza Strip; hundreds of prisoners were summarily executed. The bodies of the victims were dumped in the district of Tell Zurab, west of Rafah, where families had to risk curfews to pick up the bodies of loved ones and bury them, though most of the burials were carried out without identification. The scale of the massacre was so horrific that the head of the United Nations Observatory interpreted Israel’s atrocities as an attempt to wipe out Gaza’s refugees.

Violence and Displacement in War and Peace

During the 1967 war, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) captured Rafah along with the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, beginning Israel’s second and decades-long occupation of Gaza. The population of Rafah was nearly 55,000, of whom only 11,000 lived in Rafah itself. On June 9, the Israeli army bulldozed and blew up some 144 houses in the Rafah refugee camp, killing dozens of residents. That marked the beginning of a long and steady campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In summer 1971, the Israeli army under Ariel Sharon destroyed more than five hundred houses in Rafah as bulldozers plowed through the densely populated camps to create wide patrol roads for Israeli forces. These demolitions, which were part of Israel’s attempts to “thin out” the Gaza Strip, displaced nearly four thousand people from Rafah, many of whom relocated to the Sinai.

To ensure the permanent displacement of Palestinians from Rafah, Israel created the Brazil and Canada refugee camps, one south of Rafah and the other across the border in Sinai. The new camps, whose very names smacked of painful exile, were so called after the UN peacekeeping troops from the two countries who were stationed there. To receive a new home, refugees had to waive their rights of return, citizenship, and ownership, give up their property in the Rafah camp, and pay military fees.

Peace proved to be equally tragic for Rafah. In 1979, Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David peace treaty, which returned the Sinai to Egyptian control. A new Gaza-Egypt border was demarcated across the city of Rafah, so that when Israel withdrew from Sinai three years later Rafah was split into Egyptian and Gazan parts, dividing families and properties by barbed-wire barriers.

The core of the city was destroyed by Israel and Egypt to create an extended buffer zone. Many houses and orchards were razed by the new boundary, demolished and bulldozed for “security reasons.” Rafah became one of the three border crossings between Egypt and Israel. (In anticipation of refugees being displaced from Rafah, Egypt is now building a concentration camp in the eastern Sinai Desert, an “isolated security zone” that would serve as an extended buffer zone with Gaza — surrounded by walls seven meters high extending from Rafah to the Mediterranean Sea.)

Rafah in the Intifadas

During the Palestinian popular uprising known as the First Intifada, Israel carried out several massacres in the Rafah camp, turning it into a killing field. According to a Palestine Liberation Organization bulletin titled “Rafah Refugee Camp: Bastion of the Intifada,” published in 1990, “Since the Intifada erupted in December 1987, hardly a day has passed without someone in the camp being killed.”

Rafah also became the site of brutal Israeli attacks during the Second Intifada. In early 2002, Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed the Yasser Arafat International Airport in Rafah, Gaza’s first and only airport, which had been hailed as a symbol of Palestinian aspirations for freedom.

In May 2004, the Israeli government, led by Ariel Sharon, approved another mass demolition of homes in Rafah, earning him the nickname “the bulldozer.” Of the 2,500 Palestinian houses that were destroyed in the occupied Gaza Strip in that period, nearly two-thirds were in Rafah. The demolitions displaced 16,000 Palestinians in Gaza; a quarter of them, more than 10 percent of the population, were from Rafah.

Most of the victims were refugees who became at least twice displaced. Human rights groups observed that demolished buildings had been scrawled on in spray paint with the phrase: “Sharon passed through here.” Human Rights Watch described the Rafah camp in the wake of the demolitions as a place “littered with rubble and empty of Palestinians.”

Since the Withdrawal

In September 2005, Israel officially withdrew from Gaza, leaving Rafah divided: one part under the Egyptian side of the border and the other under Palestinian rule. For nearly two decades since, Palestinian refugees in Rafah have lived under a joint total blockade, with no way in or out. In reality, the so-called withdrawal, or disengagement, has only made Rafah an easy target for Israel’s endless military raids and incursions, bombing campaigns, and ground invasions.

August 2014 was the bloodiest attack to date. Embarking on its Operation Protective Edge, Israel bombarded Rafah for four days, killing over one hundred people, wounding hundreds, and displacing thousands others. Entire homes and families were wiped out, including a family of twenty-three who were slaughtered by an Israeli F-16 missile. “No one is safe; no home, no hospital, no shelter,” one survivor related.

As hospitals came under intensive bombardment, people kept dead bodies in food refrigerators. In one chilling piece of footage, a farmer in Rafah opened a refrigerator in which he had kept vegetables and fruits, revealing corpses of children and young men and women lying on top of each other — soaked in blood and bombed beyond recognition, with only a few wrapped in white burial shrouds. The death toll across the Gaza strip was at least 1,680 civilians, and over 8,500 were injured.

An Amnesty International report, “Black Friday: Carnage in Rafah,” concluded:

There is overwhelming evidence that Israeli forces committed disproportionate, or otherwise indiscriminate, attacks which killed scores of civilians in their homes, on the streets and in vehicles and injured many more. This includes repeatedly firing artillery and other imprecise explosive weapons in densely populated civilian areas during the attacks on Rafah between 1 and 4 August. In some cases, there are indications that they directly fired at and killed civilians, including people fleeing.

Israel’s massacres in Rafah over the weekend mark the latest chapter in the bloody history of the small border town, whose people have been trapped in a death pit since the Nakba, and who are now facing a new round of ethnic cleansing at Israel’s hands. As Rafah has become the most densely concentrated refugee camp on Earth thanks to Israel’s continued displacement of Palestinians in Gaza, and as the IDF gears up for invading Gaza’s last “safe zone” for civilians, the scale of the impending horror is difficult to contemplate.