Map: Léopold Lambert
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Rafah: A Short History of Bulldozing in the Palestinian Border Town

Military strategies behind urban demolition

 

Despite — or perhaps because of — Rafah’s peripheral location, on the border between Palestine and Egypt in the Southern-most part of the Gaza Strip, the town has been at the center of decades of bulldozing violence against Palestinian houses and infrastructure. To give you a better idea what that means, consider the following historical episodes.

In December 1969, Ariel Sharon was named head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command after his decisive contribution to the 1967 invasion of the Sinai Peninsula — it was lead simultaneously with the invasion of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in Syria. In October 1970, the first Israeli settlement was built on the Gaza Strip, quickly followed by six others. The Israeli army thus sought to fully control Gaza and destroy the Palestinian resistance, particularly active since the beginning of the occupation three years earlier. In 1971, Sharon lead a mission of counter-insurrection that he proudly recounted in his memoirs (Simon & Schuster, 1989). Like other legendary counter-insurgency generals of colonial armies, from 19th-century French Marshall Robert Bugeaud to contemporary U.S. General David Petraeus, Sharon trained his soldiers to know the terrain on which they operate, and to think with the same rationale as the insurgents. In his book, he recounts the various tactics used to detect P.L.O. hideouts in Gaza’s urban fabric, some of which can be considered quite architectural: the systematic use of knotted ropes to measure homes both from the outside and inside to spot potential hidden rooms; the use of folded ladders to conveniently observe what is happening behind private walls.

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Photo: Math Knight 2011

As one might suspect, Sharon’s memoirs present the Israeli army’s actions as inoffensive to those in the Palestinian population not affiliated with the P.L.O. He only briefly mentions his decision to widen the streets of the Rafah refugee camp and the massive home demolitions that resulted from it. Indeed, 2,500 Palestinian houses were destroyed in the course of this operation via bulldozing, an act that would be replicated in Jenin’s refugee camp thirty years later, during the Second Intifada. Dense urban fabric always constitutes a problem for the counter-insurgency officer, who occasionally figures himself an architect and urban planner. The 16,000 inhabitants of Rafah, subsequently homeless, were offered to relocate in new neighborhoods nearby designed and built by Israel (called the Brazil and Canada housing projects) provided that they renounce their refugee status and thus their rights to return to their homes.

After the 1973 Sinai War and the subsequent First Camp David Agreements in 1978, Israel withdrew its troops from the Sinai Peninsula, after destroying all their infrastructure, lest the Egyptians use it. This technique was reproduced in 2005 during the disengagement of Israeli settlements from Gaza. Until then, the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt did not necessitate to be heavily materialized since Gaza was under Egyptian control between 1949 and 1967 and, later, both the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip were occupied by the Israeli army between 1967 and 1982. By 1981, Ariel Sharon had become Minister of Defense — he would soon lead the Israeli invasion of Lebanon — and the D9 bulldozers were already destroying a further 300 Palestinian homes in Rafah to carve out a patrolling zone for the Israeli army.

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In 2001, Sharon was elected Prime Minister by a wide margin during the Second Intifada, which he contributed to trigger by provocatively visiting East Jerusalem’s Haram (the Mosque Esplanade) in September 2000. Between 2001 and 2004, 2,500 Palestinian homes were destroyed by the Israeli army’s bulldozers in Rafah, in particular along the Egyptian border whose patrol zone was enlarged from a few dozen meters to 300 meters. The Palestinian contraband tunnels, which are used to bring in predominantly necessary products banned from the blockade, but also weapons for the resistance were sought out and destroyed. Many people died in their homes during their destruction, with a backdrop of international indifference that was only briefly interrupted by the murder of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old white American activist — this illustrate how Western outrage varies depending on which type of body is killed — who stood in the way of a D9 bulldozer that was about to destroy a Palestinian house in Rafah. The Yasser Arafat International Airport that was grandly inaugurated in 1998 was also a popular target for bulldozers, which destroyed its runway in 2002.

 

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In 2015, one year after the dreadful Israeli war on Gaza killed 2,251 Palestinians, the Sisi administration in Egypt, in power since the 2013 coup and hostile to Hamas, decided to create a 2,000-meter militarized buffer zone at the Gaza border to shut down the contraband tunnels. In March 2015, the demolitions began in a way that found strong historical echoes in the systematic demolitions by the Israeli army described above. It’s worth recalling that, in addition to the vital flux of contraband goods, Gaza also depends on Egypt for 22MW of electric power (about 20% of its general supply since the Gaza power plant was destroyed by the Israeli bombings in the summer 2014), as well as for the occasional opening of the Al’awda Checkpoint. The latter was regularly opened during the year of the Freedom and Justice Party (the governing avatar of the Muslim Brotherhood) administration lead by Presidend Mohamed Morsi (2012-2013), but the checkpoint remains closed under the Sisi administration.

These four historical episodes constitute only one dimension of the systematic destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and the territorial exclusion of its residents. They all feature the same instrument of destruction — the bulldozer, in particular the Caterpillar D9 model customized into a war machine by the Israeli army since the mid-1950s. Although bulldozers may appear to many as instruments of civil transformation, they recall memories of great violence for Palestinians, in particular for Rafah’s residents.