I Was a Human Shield
by Billie Moskona-Lerman / Ma'ariv
April 23, 2003

Bulldozers in Rafah erase homes to build an "Iron Wall." The families lose everything. Credit: Mohammed (wwwrafah.vze.com).
After US human rights activist Rachel Corrie was killed trying to stop an Israeli bulldozer from destroying a home in the Gaza Strip, Israeli journalist Billie Moskona- Lerman entered the Rafah Refugee Camp disguised as a "French reporter." Her harrowing account of 24 hours spent in a place where shooting never stops and walls are covered with bloodstain was published in Israel's respected Ma'ariv newspaper. As Ma'ariv observed, this report "provides a glimpse of Palestinian daily life that is very rare in the mainstream Israeli press." (This is an edited version of a much longer article.)

(March 28, 2003) -- I visited hell. It was my first experience under fire: Never did I feel so weak, so defenseless. I am not the same person I was before entering Rafah.

Rafah Camp is a big, ruined place with 140,000 people, a city that Palestinians agree is "the poorest, most miserable, most damaged place of all: 250 inhabitants killed in the Intifada, more than 400 houses destroyed. Half of those killed were children."

When I entered the apartment used by the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), the young people in the room were not quick to communicate. They are tired of the media; they have not yet come to terms with the death of their friend. Joe Smith, the only member willing to talk to me, offers to go to the Internet cafe a few steps away.

Smith is a 21-year-old guy from Kansas City. While in high school he read a book about peace activists. He went to Slovakia, joined anti-globalization groups and decided that what he most wants to do with his life is to devote it to those who don't have the privileges he has.

I leave Joe and walk through Salah A-Dn Street, Rafah's main street, with Muhammad, an 18-year-old resident who studies English in the university. [Muhammad's website, documenting the destruction of Palestinian homes is at www.rafah.vze.com.]

Muhammad shows me a site on the northern edge of the city where 400 houses had been destroyed. Inhabitants living in tents warn us not to come close to the tanks. "When they see something moving they shoot," a woman on a donkey warns. We half-crawl among the ruins, through the narrow alleys, careful not to raise our heads. The tanks are 200-meters away, guns at the ready.

The fear comes crawling up my feet and legs. We come closer to the tanks and I raise my voice: "Enough!" Muhammad yields to the French journalist: We get into a taxi and move on.

The next destination is the al-Ubur Airfield, which had been destroyed by F-16 airplanes. Then the ruined house beside which Rachel Corrie was killed.

"Where do you live?" I ask.

"I moved with my parents to a different house," Muhammad says. "Two months ago, they destroyed our home. I came from the university and found everything ruined. The computer. The books. The notebooks. My study materials. Nothing was left. They came and destroyed everything at a moment's notice, did not give any chance of taking things out. We were just thrown into the street. Me, my father, my mother, my three brothers, my grandfather. Believe me," he insists, "they had no reason. We are just an ordinary family, not involved in anything. They just destroyed our life -- in one hour."

Muhammad leads me back to the internationals' flat just as they are about to pay a coalescence visit to the families of people killed on the same day as Rachel.

A Faceless Enemy
In the bereaved families' houses, I hardly ever heard the word "Israelis." Even the word "soldiers" was rarely used. What the Palestinians usually say is simply "they."

This is not by chance. During the 30 hours that I lived there, I never saw a flesh-and-blood Israeli soldier. From the Palestinian point of view, the enemy has no face, no body, no human form. The enemy is hidden behind giant D-9 bulldozers, monsters as big as a house, at whose top there are squares of opaque reinforced glass. The enemy is hidden behind bunkers, guard towers, metal tanks and tons of khaki-colored steel, belching fire without warning.

And facing this enemy are the Palestinians that I see walking in the dirty streets, many with torn clothes, some barefooted, neglected, manifestly poor. You can see the traces of sorrow, apprehension, suffering, inadequate food. At 45, they look old.

Into the Night of Crying Bullets
On the night between Thursday and Friday [March 20-21], I accompanied Joe and Laura on a mission. After ten minutes of fast walking in empty alleys, we went into a long, narrow alley at whose end I could see a big pillar. When we came near, I could see it was a tall guard tower.

Joe and Laura raised their hands high and signaled to me to do the same. Our clothing was fluorescent orange, with silver strips to make it even more conspicuous. Joe held a megaphone in one hand.

A few steps before the tower, Laura abruptly pushed me into a small, dark entrance and whispered, "Quick, it's here." The door opened to reveal the smiling face of Muhammad Kushta. I felt relieved that we got to somewhere looking like a hospitable house. I did not realize what kind of night was waiting for me. I had not the slightest idea.

"Tfatdal, Tfatdal," he said as he opened the door, the greeting joined by his young wife Nora holding little Nancy in her hands. It was a quarter past eight when we all sat down on the floor by the little heater when suddenly it started. A noise which to my ear sounded very close -- a rolling, ear-shattering noise that sounded like hell. It was the first time that night that the house came under fire, and the first time for me to be under fire. My entire body was shaking. The noise was rolling by my ears like a series of giant fireballs. Shooting, shooting, shooting.

With the first burst, Jamil moved his tea glass slightly. Nora held Nancy tightly. Joe and Laura went to the baby Ibasan who slept in the corner and her brother, and crouched over them. It lasted half an hour. For an hour-and-a-half afterwards, my body was till shaking. I did not yet realize it was just the beginning.

Jamil said: "I goes on like this every night. For two-and-a-half years."

"Why aren't you taking your children elsewhere, away from here?" I asked, after getting my voice under control.

"I have no money for another house," he answered, "every penny I had was invested in these walls."

A Dangerous Game
Jamil's house is the last in the row of houses fronting the Egyptian border. Twenty meters from this house, perhaps less, the IDF built a high fortification, destroyed all houses to the right and left, and stationed guns, tanks and mortars targeting the city.

This is the next house in line to be demolished. There is no way for Jamil to know in advance when the army will come with tanks or bulldozers. It will be Laura and Joe's job to try preventing the IDF from approaching the house.

Every night, with the beginning of the curfew, in the midst of firing, or in the face of IDF bulldozers, the ISM activists emerge to call out in English the text of international conventions and block the soldiers when they come to shoot, bomb or demolish homes.

Until a week ago, it worked. But on Sunday, March 17, all bets were off. A young woman human-rights activist was killed by an IDF bulldozer that ran over her. Her name was Rachel Corrie. She was 23-years-old.

Until the day Rachel was killed, the soldiers would always stop and turn back. But on that Sunday, the soldier driving the bulldozer did not stop, and Rachel was killed.

After her death, Rachel became a Shaheed (martyr). From all over the world, media flocked to interview the group of young people who had numbered eight and who were now reduced to seven.

A Bad Death
I lived with this group for 24 hours -- crazy hours, frightening hours of fear and apprehension. I understood what it means to live with death for 24 hours a day. A bad death. With guns, tanks and bulldozers targeting your home, your bedroom, your kitchen, your balcony, your living room. No way of defending yourself, nowhere to run.

At midnight, in Jamil's home, facing the shooting tanks and feeling that these may be my last moments, I threw aside the instructions not to expose myself. With a feeling of profound finality, I suddenly said: "I must tell you the truth. I am an Israeli journalist from Tel Aviv."

There was a moment's silence, then Jamil smiled and started speaking in fluent Hebrew: "Welcome, Welcome, Ahalan Ve'sahalan [an Arab greeting that has become part of colloquial Hebrew]. I lived for four years on Sokolov Street in Herzlia¬Āc. I have also worked on Abba Eban Street in Netanya. What I liked most was to eat cherry ice-cream at the Little Tel-Aviv Restaurant. Is it still open?"

Rains of ammunition came down on us on that night. The shooting went on continuously from 1.30 to 4.15, near the first light. My teeth did not stop chattering. "It is verrry near," was the only thing I managed to say for four consecutive hours. Jamil and Nora, with their three babies, tried to calm me. "The soldiers know us. You hear it so close, because they are shooting at the wall near us."

"So, they never hit your house itself?" I ask him with an enormous burst of hope. "Oh, sometimes they do. Look at the bullet holes."

I raise my head and look. The ceiling is full of holes. The walls are cut up. So is the kitchen wall near the tap, near the table, in the toilet, one centimeter from the children's beds. Every night, once the shooting ends, Jamil closes the bullet holes with white cement. The walls are patchwork. If you dare approach the window, you can see that Jamil and Nora's home is surrounded by ruins.

The bullets are whistling and Jamil makes his family salad and omelettes and bakes pita bread on a traditional tabun oven. The bullets whistle and we are eating. With a good appetite. We bend down whenever the shooting seems to come closer. It is incredible what human beings can get used to.

A week ago, Jamil took up a big black marking pen and wrote on a piece of cardboard: "Soldiers, don't shoot please. There are sleeping children here." He wrote in big Hebrew letters. Rachel Corrie had climbed on the outer wall to hang it. Now Rachel's face appears on a Palestinian martyr's poster that hangs on the living room window. Jamil smiles sadly and tells me: "What can we do? When Allah decides our time has come to die, we die. It is all in Allah's hands." It does not reassure me.

Then I said that my own sons might be among the soldiers shooting at us, not knowing that I was in the house they were shooting at.

And that was the moment we started to look at each other and laugh. Three babies, two Americans, a Palestinian couple and an Israeli woman all sitting around a big bowl of salad, with bullets whistling through the air -- we started to laugh. A laughter of despair, of apprehension, of relief at the human closeness which we suddenly found.

I knew that, with some luck, I would get through the night, but Jamil and Nora had no escape. They were doomed to raise their three babies under live fire. And then Laura opened her mouth to reveal that she was Jewish, too. And it turned out that the fiery Alice, the group's "Jeanne d'Arc," was also Jewish.

"And the soldiers," said Jamil, "they, too, are just 20-year-old children who have to stand out there, alone in the dark, shaking, within the cold steel."

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