MORAG, Gaza (Oct. 14)
When elite Israeli infantry units set off from this settlement-turned-army base in the Gaza Strip last week to hunt for arms-smuggling tunnels in the Rafah refugee camp, their khaki combat kits included an unusual kind of green: the four species of Sukkot.
It was ample evidence that Israeli forces would stay in Rafah, an impoverished city of 70,000 on Gaza’s border with Egypt, well into the holiday and possibly beyond.
But the fact that hundreds of Palestinians would be rendered homeless in the raid, while Jews worldwide left their homes to celebrate Sukkot in temporary hut-like dwellings, was an irony even the most hardened commanders did not expect.
“Ideally, the only sukkot we would be seeing here would be for the bad guys,” said an officer in the field, using a Hebrew word that can mean both “tabernacle” and “mourning tent.” “But this is turning into another humanitarian situation that, unfortunately, we have no way of avoiding.”
After leaving the camp on Sunday, Israeli tanks and troops rolled back into Rafah on Tuesday. Residents were still reeling from three days of fighting there that left eight dead, including two children, and wounded dozens.
Gunmen who fought Israel Defense Forces’ troops conducting the anti-terror operation were among the dead and injured.
Israeli bulldozers and sappers also razed at least eight buildings that had been used as firing positions or to conceal tunnels.
According to Palestinians and officials of the U.N. body administering the camp, UNRWA, scores more structures were destroyed. Israeli military spokesmen said they were hit during intensive clashes with Palestinians disrupting the anti-terror operation.
The result was even more homeless residents in the dismal refugee camp.
“Between 1,000 and 2,000 people have been left with nothing whatsoever,” UNRWA director Peter Hansen told Reuters. He said the relief agency would find it hard to fund the resettlement of the new Palestinian homeless.
International response to the operation was muted, despite censure from the United Nations and groups such as Amnesty International.
The muted response may have been a sign that other countries are beginning to recognize Rafah’s strategic significance as a terrorist stronghold and conduit for arms smuggling from Egypt. Not surprisingly, Palestinian terrorist groups are desperate to defend Rafah, which has seen about 10 percent of all Palestinian casualties in the intifada.
Having long turned a blind eye to the dozens of tunnels from Egypt that fuel Gaza-based terrorism, Palestinian Authority security forces in August sealed a few tunnels to demonstrate to the outside world its supposed willingness to crack down on terrorism.
Israel ordered its sweep of Rafah last week after announcing that they suspected Palestinians were trying to bring anti-aircraft missiles through the tunnels.
While no such ordnance has been found, Israeli troops did discover three new tunnels and destroyed them.
Rafah residents appear unbowed. In the brief hiatus on Monday between the weekend incursion and renewed operations, hundreds of Rafah residents led by Hamas gunmen marched through the camp’s rubble, vowing to carry out terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv.
“We’ll dig, and they’ll keeping digging in,” the Israeli officer said. “Even if no one on the outside cares, this fight will continue, because they know how important Rafah is to the Palestinian cause — and so do we.”