Saturday, March 27, 2010

First Day in War-Ravaged Rafah

Yesterday I finally ventured outside the more privileged confines of Gaza City. For only $13, I took a 45 minute taxi ride down the coast to Rafah, a war-ravaged community where more than 170,000 homes have been demolished by the Israeli military since 2000. The city houses entrances to thousands of smuggling tunnels into Egypt, which mainly bring consumer goods forbidden under the Israeli blockade (food, cement, electric generators, batteries). They also bring weapons.

This was a sensitive time to be traveling to Rafah, since Gazans are expecting Israeli retaliation after militants killed two Israeli soldiers who had crossed the border into Khan Younis on Friday. On Friday night, Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers reentered Khan Younis, fought with militants, and then retreated. Most Palestinians had expected a much harsher Israeli military action, which could be yet to come. Areas along the border—particularly the smuggling tunnels in Rafah—are the most likely to get bombed. (Obviously, I'm not going near the tunnels during this period.)

As the taxi drove down the coast from Gaza City to Rafah, we passed the refugee camp of Deir Al-Balah, the city of Khan Younis, and then the city of Rafah. In all three places, the cartoon decorations outside the UNRWA schools (run by the UN and staffed primarily by Gazan teachers and administrators) were the only signs of color in otherwise gray and destitute landscapes. I saw hundred of destroyed homes and tent-like tin structures serving as temporary houses.

I spent my morning in Rafah observing activities at the Rachel Corrie Center, which was named in honor of the American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. An animated, assertive 23-year-old led an English class for 20 adorable little boys and held their attention throughout. A psychiatrist and a team of social workers met with parents of children with behavioral issues and academic difficulties. Every week, these counselors hold group therapy sessions for children suffering from post-traumatic stress. Often, they use art therapy (see picture) to draw out the kids’ emotions and help them try to process the horrors they’ve witnessed—dead bodies, Israeli bombings, gun fighting. Many children in Rafah startle easily and have phobias of airplanes. Bedwetting is common even among teenagers.

In the afternoon, I enjoyed a communal vegetarian lunch with the female family members of the English teacher. At the request of the Rachel Corrie Center managers, the teacher gave me hijab (a headscarf) to wear during my time in Rafah, which is a much more conservative community than Gaza City. Throughout the meal, curious neighbors and children came to visit and I got invited to a one-year-old’s birthday party.

One of the stories I’m considering writing from Rafah is about women who come through the smuggling tunnels to get married in Gaza. While the story of the smuggling tunnels-- particularly the tradegy of child labor in the tunnels-- has been widely covered in the media, the topic of people smuggling has not received as much attention. To my surprise, I was able to arrange an anonymous meeting with a tunnel owner within hours of inquiring about this issue. He met me in a shop filled with electric appliances smuggled from Egypt. It costs about $2000 to smuggle a person through the tunnels (some journalists have entered this way), but Palestinians and Egyptians often enter for free if they have relatives in the smuggling industry.

According to this tunnel owner, there were about 20 tunnels when he started five years ago and workers were paid $5000 to $6000 per day. Now, there are more than 1500 tunnels and workers are paid less than $30 per day. Tunnel workers used to come only from Rafah. Now desperate people (and children) from across Gaza are willing to risk their lives to earn some income. The underground wall being constructed by Egypt is likely to yield even deeper, more dangerous tunnels.

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