By: Robert Fisk in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip.
Source: The Independent, April 12,1
IN ANY other place, it would be a scandal, an outrage. If Palestinians had wilfully destroyed the homes of 200 Israelis, there would be talk of barbarism, of "terrorism", grave warnings from George Bush to Mr Arafat to "curb violence". But it was the Israelis who destroyed the homes of at least 200 Palestinians early yesterday morning, bulldozing their furniture, clothes, cookers, carpets and mattresses into the powdered concrete of their hovels until one end of Khan Younis looked as though it had been hit by an earthquake.
So of course, it was not "terrorism". It was "security". The old sat like statues amid the garbage tip that the Israelis had made of their houses. Many of them, such as 75-year old Ahmed Hassan Abu Radwan, had been driven from their homes in Palestine - in his case from Beersheba - in 1948; now they were dispossessed by the same people for the second time in 53 years, courtesy this time of Ariel Sharon.
Maybe it is possible to shame history. But what happened in Khan Younis yesterday, however the Israelis dress up their vandalism with talk of "security", was a disgrace.
It wasn't the first time Israel had destroyed Palestinian homes in Gaza. They learnt the principle, if such a word can be used, of collective civilian punishment from the British. In 1993, they blew apart the apartments of more than 100 people because a Hamas gunman had taken cover among the buildings. They were at it again last week.
But yesterday was on a new and unprecedented scale as a battery of bulldozers was sent to pulverise the houses above the sea from where, according to the Israeli army, shots had previously been directed at their occupation soldiers. As the machines careered up the road from the coast just after midnight, thousands of people ran screaming from their huts and concrete shelters.
Many of them fled to the nearest mosque where they seized the loudspeakers and appealed to their neighbours "to take arms and resist". To the apparent surprise of the Israeli army, that is just what their neighbours did.
As Palestinian rifles were turned on the bulldozers, at least two Israeli tanks raced up the same road and began firing shells into the nearest apartment blocks. An Apache helicopter gunship appeared out of the darkness, launching missiles into the same buildings. And as old Ahmed Hassan Abu Radwan and his family remember all too clearly, a crane suddenly moved out of the darkness, a clutch of Israeli soldiers in the bucket from where, once the crane's chain had hauled the container to its highest point, the troops opened fire.
The firefight lasted for four hours and left two Palestinians dead and 30 wounded, 12 of them critically, among them a Reuters camera crew hit when a shell shattered the wall behind which they were standing.
Ariel Sharon, the biggest bulldozer of them all, had taught the Palestinians another lesson. But picking one's way through the muck and dust of 35 houses, it didn't take long to realise that the lesson they had grasped was not quite the one Israel had intended.
Mariam abu Radwan, a cousin of old Ahmed, put it very eloquently yesterday afternoon. "We have no life anymore," she said. "This is the destruction of our life. Let them shoot us - please let them shoot us - and we can die here. And let the Israelis die too. No one is looking after, no Arab countries, no foreign countries also."
One of the dead was Riad Elias, a Palestinian security forces officer, who was presumably fighting the Israelis when he died, but the second, Hani Rizk, was identified to me as a cleaner at the local Naser hospital, the same hospital to which his body was taken before his funeral yesterday afternoon.
Ibrahim Amer, a 35-year old agricultural worker who says he was hit in the back and side by machine-gun bullets from a helicopter as he ran (he lay in bloodsoaked pain in the Naser hospital yesterday afternoon) saw Rizk running in the street "when a spray of bullets from the helicopter ricocheted against a wall and hit him. He had at least 12 bullets in his body." A Jewish settlers' road, forbidden to Arabs, runs along the sea-coast below this end of Khan Younis.
At least one family told me they did not always stay in their home "because of the shooting". Ask anyone amid the rubble yesterday if shots had, in the past, been fired at the Israelis from here and the answer was invariably the same: "I never saw anyone." Which is not quite the same as saying that no one ever fired. But like the nightly shelling of Beit Jalla village, the Israeli onslaught on Khan Younis was more than disproportionate; it was a deliberate attack on civilians. The only record of the event was made by a Palestinian Reuters camera-crew who were filming one of the Israeli tanks from 50 metres away.
"We were on the second floor of a building and some bullets from a helicopter came into our room," Mohamed Shenaa, the Reuters sound-man, told me from his bed in the Naser Hospital. "We tried to look after the camera and were standing with our backs to a wall when the wall was destroyed and I was thrown six feet into the air." He has wounds in his back, thigh and left arm.
As usual, shots were fired into the air at the two funerals yesterday afternoon. Just three hours earlier, Wail Hawatir, a Palestinian military doctor was buried, the victim of the previous night's helicopter attack on what the Israelis called a "Palestinian naval base" (in fact, the Palestinians have "navy" personnel but no navy) so the day began and ended in usual Gaza fashion: with funerals. Needless to say, Mr Bush was silent.
INDEPENDENT 12/04/2001 P13