Outside Rafah's main Awda Mosque on May 21, people were gathering
for funeral processions. Nine people were reported killed the day
before, and in keeping with Muslim tradition, they should all be
buried as soon as possible.
But with the complete isolation of the Tal Al Sultan neighborhood
still in force, some families were unable to attend and some of the
funerals had to be postponed. However, the funerals of Asma and
Ahmad Moghaia, siblings who had been killed in Tal Al Sultan on May
18, the first day of the Israeli army's "Operation Rainbow," could
no longer wait.
The two had been lying in the freezers of the tiny morgue at the
Abu Yussef Al Najjar Hospital, Rafah's only hospital, since
Tuesday, and the family had been unable to claim the bodies for
burial. As Asma's body was finally wrapped in the traditional white
shroud, only a single grieving relative waited to take her and her
brother to the mosque for prayers.
"It's been three days," said Mohammad Abu Ahmad, 34, a cousin,
before getting into the ambulance with Asma. "Their parents phoned
and asked me to make the arrangements."
Operation Rainbow started early on May 18, ostensibly to locate
arms-smuggling tunnels into Egypt and arrest armed Palestinians.
The relatively lengthy lead-up to the operation, complete with a
petition to the Israel High Court on May 16 that tried and failed
to secure an injunction against threatened house demolitions, led
people in Rafah to expect the worst.
When it became clear, on May 16, that the operation was going to go
ahead, many decided to leave. On the day after Palestinians
worldwide marked the 56th anniversary of the Nakbeh - when in 1948
some 800,000 Palestinians fled their homes within the so-called
Green Line and what became Israel, thus creating the present
Palestinian refugee problem, some of those same people and their
descendants once again packed their belongings and headed off to
temporary dwellings hastily arranged by UN agencies or the
municipality of this, the poorest Palestinian town in the Gaza
Strip and West Bank.
On May 16 and 17 there was a steady exodus from areas of Rafah
residents expected would be targeted first. By the evening of May
17, the areas closest to the border with Egypt, Block O and Yubna
refugee camp, were ghost towns.
Ahmad Radwan, 26, an unemployed laborer, left Block O on May
"My wife and children went to stay with relatives in Khan Younis,
but I won't leave Rafah. This is where I was born. I am not going
anywhere," he said.
On May 20, he was sharing a room with 11 other people at the Rafah
Elementary Girls School, a United Nations Relief and Works Agency
facility that had been converted into a temporary refugee camp. The
room was an ordinary classroom, and desks and tables had been
stacked in a corner. Uncomfortable-looking thin mattresses were
laid out on the floor.
Radwan could have been worse off. Some had fled Block O and Yubna
to go to Tal Al Sultan, where the relatively wide streets, its
distance from the border and the lack of past fighting made them
identify it as a safe area. But it was this neighborhood, next to
the Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam, toward the Mediterranean
Coast, that unexpectedly became the center of Operation
Tanks, APCs and House Demolitions
The operation was the biggest Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip
since the intifada erupted in September 2000. Some 100 tanks and
armored personnel carriers (APCs) were deployed, and by May 17 they
had separated Rafah from Khan Younis and the rest of the Gaza Strip
to the north. By May 18, Tal Al Sultan had been taken over and
isolated from the rest of Rafah, and a 24-hour curfew was imposed
on residents. On the evening of May 19, the army also entered the
Brazil refugee camp and adjoining Salam neighborhood in another
part of town.
As a result, the UNRWA school on May 20 saw a new influx of people.
Abu Khalil arrived from the Brazil camp with only the clothes he
"They destroyed my house. The tanks came last night, and today the
bulldozers came," said Khalil, 58, also an unemployed laborer. He
said the only warning came when Israeli soldiers announced through
loudspeakers that, "You have five minutes to leave your houses.
Otherwise, we will demolish them over your heads."
Throughout the duration of Operation Rainbow, the Israeli army
consistently denied most accusations of house demolitions. Some
statements from Israeli officials even accused Palestinians of
ripping off the roofs of their homes to claim compensation. (When
asked about this, Abu Khalil just shook his head. "I wouldn't swap
the Eiffel Tower for my house.")
On May 20, while Rafah municipality officials claimed that more
than 40 homes had been destroyed, and UNRWA, had counted more than
30, Israeli army spokesmen would admit to only five. Only when the
operation was winding down on May 23 did that number rise to 12. On
May 24, after the operation ended, UNRWA had counted 45 destroyed
Palestinian homes in Rafah, leaving some 575 people homeless. The
Israeli army by then was talking about 56 demolished
Presumably, those structures would have included the greenhouses on
one of the roads leading into Tal Al Sultan, where, around noon on
May 21, several international aid trucks carrying emergency
supplies had gathered. They were waiting for permission from the
army to deliver humanitarian supplies to the besieged residents of
Tal Al Sultan, who since May 18 had been without water, electricity
or phone lines. Some were eventually allowed through along with
Rafah municipality workers who reconnected the water and
Earlier that morning, Ibrahim Fayez Braika, 21 had worried about
his family's greenhouses. The Braika house is one of about six on
the road leading into Tal Al Sultan, a block of homes separated
from that neighborhood by an area of farmland and greenhouses. The
Braikas grow onions, potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes in their six
greenhouses, immediately behind their house.
Outside the window in the direction of Tal Al Sultan, an Israeli
army bulldozer was driving back and forth, apparently leveling the
ground. Braika's 4-year-old brother Falah pointed at them. He
appeared to be under the impression that the Israelis were
harvesting the land.
The night before, said Braika, pointing out the window toward the
bulldozer, the Israeli army had destroyed three houses and a number
of greenhouses there.
They had also damaged a neighbor's house. Abdel Karim Dahlis'
living room that morning opened straight out onto the road courtesy
of a gaping hole caused, he said, by an Israeli bulldozer.
"It happened around midnight. We were asleep. We don't know what
they were doing. But it was a bulldozer and it crashed through our
wall and brought the asbestos ceiling down over our heads," Dahlis
said. Two of his nine children were lightly injured.
"They did this for nothing. We were not doing anything. We were
sleeping. Now I'm on the street."
By the time reporters returned to the road with the aid convoy some
four hours later, Dahlis' house had disappeared completely. So had
the row of greenhouses, at least 10, on the right side of the
Another demolished "structure" was the Rafah Zoo in the Brazil
Camp. There, too, even as journalists were picking their way
through the twisted metal of demolished cages and where there was
now an open wasteland, Israeli army spokespeople denied any
knowledge of any damage to the zoo. That, too, would change. Later,
the army admitted it might have "damaged a wall." When confronted
with this assertion, Mohammed Ahmed Juma, the zoo's co-owner,
simply shook his head. "Look around you," he told reporters.
Around him, children and volunteers were trying to locate some of
the animals that had disappeared. Some were found dead under the
rubble. Others, including wolves, foxes, a python and an ostrich,
were loose. The animals Juma had been able to recapture, among them
a frightened kangaroo and a sneezing ram, were being kept in a
The army version, meanwhile, evolved further. While still only
admitting to causing damage to a wall, the army now placed the
blame for any further damage on "Palestinian explosives." Only at
the end of the day did an army spokesman acknowledge that indeed
Israeli tanks had "opened a road" through the zoo, and then only
because "Palestinian explosives" blocked the way ahead.
Asma (16) and Ahmad (13)
"Palestinian explosives" were also initially cited as the cause of
the deaths of the Moghaia children, 16-year-old Asma and her
13-year-old brother Ahmad on their rooftop in Tal Al Sultan on May
But when reporters finally gained entrance to Tal Al Sultan on May
22 there was no evidence of shrapnel from explosives on the Moghaia
family's rooftop. On the wall at the top of the stairwell leading
to the roof, beside what appeared to be bloodstains, there were
four bullet holes. In the corner of the step below was a pool of
"This is where Ahmad was shot," explained Asma and Ahmad's brother
Ali, 26, who was first on the roof that day. He and his father
Mohammad Ali, 49, an unemployed construction worker, were both
calm, almost meticulous, as they recounted the day's events.
"Asma was collecting washing right here," said Ali, pointing to the
corner of the roof where the same clothes Asma would have been
collecting still hung, blood-spattered and bullet-torn. On the
floor below was another pool of dried blood where Ali said Asma
"Ahmad was feeding the pigeons," he continued, nodding at a pigeon
cage on the other side holding some 15 birds.
Ali and his father both believe Asma was shot first.
"Ahmad heard the shot and saw his sister, and he tried to run down
the stairs," said Ali, who did most of the talking. "I heard him
shout for me, but then he was shot and we didn't hear anything
Ali said more shots were fired when he got to the top of the
stairs. Besides the bullet marks at the top of the stairs, there
were also three bullet holes in the satellite dish near the
clothesline and behind where Asma would have been standing.
Ali recounted how he pulled his brother down the stairs. His mother
was screaming. He placed his brother in a spare bedroom and then
went up to get his sister.
"I had to crawl on my stomach to get to her, and when I got there I
could see her head was split open in the middle. I wrapped her head
in a towel, and then I carefully dragged her body across the floor.
I was flat on my stomach all the way. It took almost 15
The trail of blood is still there, from the corner of the roof to
"She was a good girl," said Mohammad Ali, quietly. "She was number
one in her class, she liked saying her prayers and she wanted to
become a doctor. She was a good girl."
The shooting happened at around 11:30 am.
"We knew there was a curfew on," said Mohammad Ali. "But there was
no shooting in the neighborhood, and we thought it was safe for the
children to be on the roof. We didn't know there were snipers
Snipers on the Abu Jalala Building
"There" is the Abu Jalala building, a three-story white structure
clearly visible from the Moghaia's rooftop. The building stands at
the end of the Salahin Mosque Street, where a T-junction has been
completely torn up by Israeli bulldozers.
Mohammad Abu Jalala, 21, is a business student at the Islamic
University in Gaza City. At around 10 a.m. on May 18, he said,
Israeli soldiers arrived and took over the building. The family of
nine was ordered to stay in its flat. "They wouldn't allow us even
to go to the bathroom without asking permission."
Shifts of two and three soldiers took turns guarding the family,
according to Mohammad. The Jalala family apartment is on the first
floor. They built the house during the Oslo years, in better times,
but never finished the top two floors, which are still
The soldiers left plenty of evidence of their stay, including
half-empty cans of by now moldy corn, half a loaf of white bread,
and tuna cans, all labeled only in Hebrew. A label on an unopened
can of corn depicted a smiling cartoon soldier pointing at the
There were also empty bullet casings. Mohammad had collected at
least 20 and showed them to reporters. On the top two floors and on
the stairwell between them, holes had been punched through the
The roof affords an almost uninterrupted view of Tal Al Sultan and
its environs. On one side it overlooks the hills that lead to the
Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam to the west and the Mediterranean
beyond, maybe a mile away. On the other side, the building
overlooks other rooftops, including the house where the children
died, about 150 meters away. At the base of a meter high concrete
wall at that corner was a watermelon-sized hole. Through it, the
bullet marks at the top of the Moghaias' stairwell were visible
with the naked eye. Next to that hole, lay a box. Its label, in
Hebrew, read: "20 rounds 7.62 millimeter ammunition for
Mohammad said they had no clear idea what the soldiers were doing,
though they could hear plenty of shooting. The soldiers only spoke
directly with Mohammad's father, who had worked as a laborer in
Israel and speaks some Hebrew.
The soldiers finally left at around 2 a.m. on May 19, said
Mohammed. They had been in the building for nearly 15 hours.
On May 23, an Israeli army spokesman said the incident was " under
"There were explosive devices detonated against our forces in the
area, and we have no specific information about any of our forces
mistakenly hitting the children," he said. But, "it is too early to
say anything precisely."
On May 26, Amnesty International called on Israel to conduct a
"thorough, independent and impartial investigation" into the deaths
of the two teenagers. In all, at least 45 Palestinians were killed
during Operation Rainbow, 12 of them children under 16, according
to hospital officials, including a 3-year-old girl who was killed
on May 22. At least 10 were killed when Israeli tank shells slammed
into demonstrators trying to enter Tal Al Sultan on May 19. The
Israeli army denies the demonstration was deliberately targeted.