Another child gestures as if he were holding a rifle, then points down
“Tak! Tak! Tak!” he says, “Dangerous!”
He gestures for me to put away my camera. Bright sun glares in the street. Around a corner, sheltered by apartment blocks from sniper fire, vendor’s display oranges, bananas, potatoes, cucumbers, the green and gold of life-giving food piled on outdoor tables. I understand this boy is telling me that photographing the Salahadin tower may irritate the Israeli soldiers who sit invisible behind its tinted bulletproof windows, causing them to shoot.
Ten minutes earlier, while speaking with a local man named Hisham, I heard machine gun fire from the tower. Perhaps the boy’s fears are realistic. Can the soldiers discern from 400 yards away that my skin is white and I am American, not Palestinian? What measure of protection does racism give me, anyway? How easy would it be, if they shot me, to offer an official apology and state that the soldiers mistook me for “an armed Palestinian terrorist?” How likely is it that elements of the United States government such as the CIA, FBI, and Department of Homeland Security will brand me a ‘terrorist’ simply for coming here to live, speak with, and try to help the ordinary people of Rafah?
I put away my camera and walk down
As we walk, they point out bullet holes in shop doors. A city water tower nearby resembles the face of a smallpox survivor, scarred by the sickness of occupation. An apartment building, still under construction, already bears a dense pattern of bullet marks. Hisham pointed at the building where he and his extended family live. Although it is ¼ mile away from the Salahadin tower, since it is taller than the surrounding buildings, one wall is shot up like a rural American road sign. Hisham’s family was, of course, inside the building living while the bullets hit the walls. The poured concrete and cinder block walls of homes along Rafah’s dangerous perimeter protect against sniper fire as well as sun, wind, and rain.
After two weeks in Rafah, the assaults of the Israeli Occupation Force have taken on an elemental quality. Since the Israeli soldiers virtually never emerge from their armored bulldozers, personnel carriers, tanks, and towers, it is easy to see the IOF as an impersonal death machine bent on the destruction of all things Palestinian. I never see their human faces, only tank armor and gun muzzles. I know young men are inside the tanks, men with their own fragile bodies, their on hair and skin and eyes, minds and dreams—yet I awake at to the sound of explosions and wonder whose house was demolished in Rafah, whose sons are being shell-shocked into taking up Kalashnikovs and joining the armed resistance.
This is not war. This is occupation. This is a deliberate and gradual annexation of Palestinian land and resources, a brutal use of military force to corral Palestinians into smaller and smaller enclaves while the best land is taken for Israeli ‘settlements’ or colonies. From Al Hasash, in northwest Rafah, the red tile roofs of a nearby settlement are visible. About 3 miles of desert and 3 roads, one for tanks, one for army jeeps and trucks, and one for cars going to the settlement, divide those suburban-style houses from the urban jungle or Rafah.
Jihan, a local woman who often accompanies and works with the ISM group, is the only local woman who I have converse with at length. There are strict traditional gender roles and a rigid separation of male/female (i.e. public/private) space here. Generally women remain distant, quiet figures, preparing food in kitchens or eating and sitting in separate rooms. Grown women never speak to me in the streets, although girls sometimes approach smiling and asking, “What is your name?”
Jihan’s father was shot in the head by a sniper a few weeks ago, killed while driving down
Salahadin tower is a massive boxy grey structure, sprouting antennae and wires from its roof and flanked by sections of rusty steel wall 30 feet high. It looks like the bridge of an aircraft carrier, somehow misplaced at the end of a city street. It is one of many sniper towers located on the south, east, and west borders of Rafah. All are manned by Israeli soldiers who often shoot, with or without provocation, into the city. Salahadin tower looms deadly and ominous over rowdy kids, archaic Mercedes taxis, shopkeepers standing in doorways, donkey carts, and women walking. This is the face of occupation in Rafah: the technological sophistication of a nuclear superpower transformed into a depersonalized killing machine operated by restless trigger-happy teenagers. This killing machine is aimed at Rafah, and does not distinguish between adults and children, or between members of the armed resistance and civilians.