'They have no humanity. They didn't even give us two minutes to get out'
Last month, Israeli troops swept into the Rafah refugee camp in Gaza, bulldozing hundreds of homes and leaving around 60 dead. Israel says it was looking for terrorists, but by the time the army withdrew, 1,600 people were homeless. What happens to the people whose houses are destroyed? Chris McGreal asked six families to show him what they salvaged from the rubble
A father and daughter sit on top of what was once their home. They are all that remain of the large family that once was theirs.
The Al-Akhras family
There is nothing left of the Akhras' family's home. Even the cloths blowing in the breeze above their heads, providing a pathetic, makeshift tent to the once nomadic Bedouin family, are borrowed from luckier neighbours. A large round metal bowl is all that they recovered from the rubble of their house after it was bulldozed by the Israeli army.
"There were 10 rooms here," says the 50-year-old patriarch, Ghazi. "Thirty-three people lived in the house. There was me, my wife, my seven brothers and their wives, and all our sons and daughters."
It was 10pm when the bulldozers came. "All the people were fleeing their houses, but one of my brothers is handicapped and was trapped in the house. We had to carry him out as the bulldozer was hitting the building."
All that remains of the house is a mound of concrete and dirt. The destruction by the bulldozer was so complete that some of the walls have been ground to a rubble reminiscent of the rocky desert beyond the fence.
Like many other families in Rafah, the Akhras family has been made homeless before. Ghazi came from Yibna after the Israeli army, under the command of Ariel Sharon, then military governor of Gaza, bulldozed his home in 1971. "We bought the house here from the Israelis. We had the documents to show it. We saved nothing, not even the documents," he says. "This is more than the catastrophe of 1948 for us. In 1948 there were no Apaches shooting at us."
Akhras, who worked as a builder in Israel before the intifada, cannot afford to rebuild. "I have no money to do it. Now we are all homeless, living in houses of relations. During the day we come and sit on the rubble, under the tent, because the relations do not want us in their house all day. At night we go there just to sleep."
The Abu Ghali family
Aziza Abu Ghali is exhausted by her fury and can barely stand. "My husband is 90 years old and has nowhere to sleep. The Jews are just demolishing our houses. I was shouting at the bulldozer driver: 'Don't you have children?' They kill our sons and put us in the morgue. We are praying to Allah to show them the suffering that they show us."
Aziza is one of the few in her street who remember how they all ended up in Rafah in 1948, just as the Israeli state was being created. She was born in the now extinct village of Yubna, which was erased and replaced with the Israeli town of Yavne. Four of her children - three sons and a daughter - were born there also. "The Jews used their guns to make us go away. They tell lies about this now, saying we ran away on our own. Who would leave their home unless they had to? We only left to save the lives of our children. I was a young woman then. I never imagined that the Jews would still be doing this to me."
When the bulldozers came this time, Aziza was asleep. Her husband, Yousef, was in a bed in a neighbouring room. Their son and his family lived across a small yard in two other rooms.
All that was recovered from the wreckage was Yousef's wheelchair. The corner of his bed sticks out from the rubble. Their fridge is tossed on top, wrecked. A metal ceiling fan, its blades buckled like a withering flower, hangs from a surviving wall.
Yousef's son, Sobhi, a nurse in a UN clinic, says his father was lucky to escape. "All day there was shooting. There was a tank near our house and I was afraid to even put my head out of the door. There were Israeli snipers on the top of the buildings. It was dangerous just to show your face.
"I was awake the whole night. I could hear sounds of houses being demolished. At first light I could hear my father knocking at my mother's room saying he wanted to go to dawn prayers. He is almost totally deaf. I wanted to call to him and tell him to stay indoors because they might shoot, but he came out and I had to rush to rescue him."
The family sheltered for a few more hours until the bulldozer's attention turned to their own house, home to 13 people. "I saw the house was about to be demolished. I just picked up my son and my father and dragged them away. We ran out into where the shooting was. The bulldozer driver was indifferent to us. They saw us and knew we were inside. We had just a few minutes to get away. We were crying and shouting at them. I was carrying my father on my shoulders. I don't think he even understood what was happening."
The Al-Wawi family
Mousa Joma al-Wawi has a long history with Ariel Sharon. "We call him 'the bulldozer'. This is not the first time he's done this to us. The first time was in 1971," says the 54-year-old grandfather, standing amid the rubble of his home in the al-Brazil neighbourhood in Rafah.
Like many in Rafah, the latest round of mass demolitions was not the first time that Wawi had been bulldozed out of his home. He counts off the times he has had to flee his house.
"I was a refugee before I was even born. My mother was pregnant when she fled our village, Zarnuga, when the Jews came in 1948. The house is still standing. There's a Jew living in it. My mother moved to a tent in Khan Younis (a little north of Rafah) and then to Rafah, where I was born."
Wawi's introduction to the bulldozers came in the 70s, when General Sharon, as he then was, bulldozed about 20,000 people from their homes in the Gaza Strip to widen roads as part of his strategy against the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"Sharon destroyed our house. The UN and Israelis built us new ones in Yibna [a Rafah neighbourhood]. They sold the house to us. I have all my documents. The house had a tiled roof and two rooms. It was 1.5m high and 3m long by 2.5m wide. When we became a bigger family, we expanded it."
But the bulldozers were back in 1997, as the Israeli army destroyed the very homes it had built for Palestinian refugees about 25 years earlier. The Wawi family fled to the al-Brazil neighbourhood of Rafah and, over the years, built up a new home.
There were about 20 men, women and children crammed into the back room of Wawi's home on the corner of an al-Brazil street when the demolition squads arrived. They had not dared to venture out because of the bullets flying round the street, but now they had to escape.
"My brother lives next door," says Wawi. "We were all in this room and my brother came with a hammer and smashed a hole in the wall. The bulldozer was hitting the house. We carried nothing at all. We were just trying to escape by ourselves ... Some of the pigeons survived."
Among the rubble lies the water tank, pierced by bullets, a broken bedside table and the remnants of a wardrobe. A hanging basket of red flowers magically survived unscathed, and the family pulled some blankets, pillows and a child's toy plastic bike from the rubble.
Where will they go now? "This is still my home," says Wawi. "We will clean it and we will bring tents in. If they want to shoot me in my home - shoot me, my sons, my grandchildren - we cannot stop them. We are staying, no matter what."
The Mikkawi family
Rula Abu Abid grips her doll as if it is all she has left in the world. It is called Larla and its head is buried in the rubble of her home. Rula asked her grandfather, Hassan Mikkawi, if they would ever find it. The 61-year-old motor mechanic - "the most famous mechanic in Rafah" - reassured the five-year-old that one day they would have the strength to sift through the rubble to look.
One building in the family compound, which provided homes for two of his sons and their families, has been completely demolished. The armoured bulldozer ripped the front out of his own home, crushing furniture, destroying much of the living room and wrecking the bedroom. The surviving furniture is battered and splintered. Not much else was saved: a toolbox, a crate of onions, a large metal bowl, a bedside table, some blankets. Mikkawi's car was flattened by the massive bulldozer.
"I lived in America illegally for more than a year. It was 1996," he says, pulling out an Alabama driving license to prove it. "I had good work as a motor mechanic, but I came back here. I often wonder why, but I could not take my family to America. When I came back, we thought things would be peaceful. We thought there would be no more demolitions."
Hassan Mikkawi was six years old when he fled his own village, Zarnuga, as it was seized by the fledgling Israeli army in 1948. There were about 2,500 Arabs living there, many of whom ended up in Rafah.
"I remember the garden and the mosque. At that time there were no tanks, but I remember the shooting. I remember my mother and my father and my brother weeping. And I remember us running away and my father carrying some food and some clothes. It was the same then as it is now.
"We arrived in Gaza in 1948 and came to Rafah a year later. In 1967 the Israelis crushed our home and they wanted to send us to Sinai or the West Bank but we refused. My father built a house here. Two rooms with a bathroom. You can see we made it much bigger, much grander."
There were 16 people living in the house when the bulldozers arrived for the most recent demolition. The family ran, waving white headscarves. When they returned, the parts of the house that were not destroyed teetered precariously. A forest of scaffolding is all that keeps it standing.
Their parents cannot afford to pay for their schooling..
The Abu Hasaneen family
Raesa Khalel Abu Hasaneen has 10 children. Their small home was always a little cramped; the boys sleeping in one room, the girls in another. But all that is left now is the kitchen, where some of the children bed down next to a piece of netting where once there was a wall, and the bathroom.
"We didn't expect this to happen here. The Israelis say they are looking for [weapons-smuggling] tunnels but we are too far away from the border to have tunnels.
"We heard the bulldozer and we saw the walls shaking. I put my children in one room and I went to the bulldozer and said there were children in the house. The children were all crying. The driver kept bulldozing. I was crying and shouting and begging and waving a white flag.
"The men smashed a hole in the wall to the neighbour's house. They had pieces of wood and they were hitting and hitting. They all came to help us."
The family escaped, but not much was recovered from the rubble. A couple of kerosene lanterns and many of the children's schoolbooks survived, as did the kitchen furniture and fridge. But all the beds and clothes are gone.
"The children don't want to go to school in these clothes. They have been wearing them for days. They are ashamed," she says.
"This was my home for 22 years. I moved here when I married my husband. There's nothing better than this home. I am sleeping on the stone floor now, but I'm staying here for my dignity. I have no idea how we will rebuild it. My husband used to be a builder in Israel but he is not allowed to work there anymore. We have no money to rebuild.
"They only have malice against all Palestinians because the Jews don't want to see Palestinians as people. They just want to destroy us."
The Abu Masod family
Mohammed Abu Masod says the graffiti on the shell of his home and factory was nothing to do with him, but he sympathizes with its sentiment. Sprayed on to what had been one of the building's floors, now sloping precariously after an army bulldozer ripped the supporting wall away, is a Star of David next to a Nazi swastika. The equation deeply offends almost all Israelis, and Palestinians know it. But Abu Masod, sitting in the rubble of the business that fed his extended family, sees what he describes as a common lack of humanity between the two.
"They do not see us as human beings. They have no humanity. Look at the Jewish settlers: they live so well and we live so badly because of it. And then what little we have the Jews destroy. They didn't give us two minutes to get out. They were slapping us in the face. They called us terrorists. Who are the terrorists now?"
One in three buildings in Masod's street were demolished by the armoured bulldozers. All that emerged from what had been his factory, which made car carpets and seat covers, is a couple of ruined sewing machines, a few blankets and a battered car seat.
The Abu Masod family came from Wadi Hanin, a village that no longer exists inside Israel. Wadi Hanin was razed; Mohammed came to Rafah as a baby in 1948. He was living in Yibna in 1973 when his home there was demolished by Sharon's bulldozers in what was then, too, called an anti-terrorist operation. He moved to al-Brazil. "We were six brothers when we built this place. Now we are 40 people living in this building," he says. "This little factory, all the family lived off it. We made carpets for cars and chairs. We got nothing out of the building: the machines, our clothes, the furniture, our gold, food ~ nothing. We didn't even get the needles."
"There are about 20 sewing machines in the rubble. I lost tens of thousands of dollars. We bought all the machines from Italy. They were all new a few years ago."
When the bulldozers arrived, Abu Masod was in the house with two of his older sons, Jabr, 20, and Masod, 16. There were also five of his brothers and their 12 children, including six babies. "We were all in the house. We waved white flags and we were talking to the bulldozer driver. We said we had children in here. The army gathered all of the men, handcuffed us, covered our eyes and took as to the border for interrogation. The children were sheltering in a neighbour's house."
The destruction was thorough. One building was entirely destroyed and another, built above the ground-floor sewing shop, was partially collapsed and most of the contents smashed. On top of the rubble lies a sycamore tree that has been ripped from the ground.
"Now I am homeless in the street. I sleep here, in the rubble. The children sleep with the neighbours. I don't have money to buy food for the children so the neighbours are feeding them. I can't afford to rebuild. The clothes I'm wearing are all I have."