Yesterday in Rafah 11 ISM activists (from England, Scotland, the US and Italy) engaged in a major confrontation with the Occupying Israeli Army operating in the south of the Gaza Strip.
At 5 pm the activists were having a meeting at the ISM Rafah headquarters when they received word that armoured bulldozers were demolishing Palestinian homes in the Tel Zorab area. Immediately, they broke up the meeting before scrambling to gather their equipment (fluorescent clothing, megaphones and banners) before piling into a large taxi.
When they arrived at Tel Zorab they found a large group of Palestinians who were peering around the corners of buildings to watch the bulldozers at work and carefully avoiding exposing themselves to fire from the tank that accompanied the bulldozers or the military towers from which snipers dominate Rafah's border areas. Unfurling their banners the group approached the area of the where the bulldozers were operating to the cheers of the Palestinians.
Leaving their Palestinian supporters behind, the activists found two bulldozers working together to tear down a Palestinian home. The bulldozers were accompanied by a tank, which, upon seeing the activists, immediately began firing its machine gun into the air and at the rubble of a building that had already been destroyed.
Leaving a couple of activists behind to film and monitor the situation, the remainder advanced cautiously as the tank continued to fire into the air and at nearby buildings so that on a few occasions the activists were showered with shrapnel. Undaunted, the activists continued their advanced upon the war machines until they came close enough for the tank's crew to hurl sound grenades at them.
At this point the activists called the ISM Media Office who began to alert their consulates of their situation. During the course of the confrontation the British Consulate was called twice and responded by alerting the Israelis of that there were British nationals in the area and later, when the situation escalated, by demanding that their status as unarmed peace activists be respected. The Italian Consulate was closed and the Media Office was unable to contact any duty officers. The Duty Officer at the US Consulate was hostile but told the Media Coordinator that he would phone the US activists at Tel Zorab.
When the conflict escalated and the US activists told me that they had not been contacted I phoned the Consular Agent in Haifa who informed me that, if they were being shot at by Israelis, then it was the Israelis with whom they had an issue and that I should phone them. I told him that they had asked me to pass on a request that he phone them and it was his job to protect US nationals. The latter point did not seem to have occurred to him before but he still insisted that he was under no obligation to phone them but did agree to talk to them if they phone him. When I relayed this information to the American activists they contacted him only to be told that he would do nothing to help them and would not even inform the Israeli military of their presence in this area. The reason he gave for his refusal was that the activists had forfeited their rights as US citizens to consular protection by ignoring US State Department travel advice against going to the Occupied Territories.
When the activists began to block one of the bulldozers in its demolition work, the driver got out the vehicle and told them to leave the area since this was his land, not theirs and they had no business being there. They replied that this was not his land and that they were civilians in a civilian area and it was he, as a soldier, who had no business being there. The driver then got back in his vehicle and attempted to resume his work but was blocked by four activists who stood in his path.
A battle of nerves then took place as the bulldozer drove very close to the activists who stood their ground until he withdrew. This happened several times until the driver gave up and pulled back so that the tank could fire its machine gun over their heads before one of its crew opened a hatch and threw a tear gas canister. Unfortunately (for the tank crew) he had misjudged the wind direction so that the gas blew back into their tank.
Meanwhile, the bulldozer had approached the house it was trying to destroy from another direction but was blocked by four other activists who stood in its path, with their backs towards the partially destroyed house.
The British Consulate then informed the activists that they had received word from the Israelis that they intended to arrest the activists. Shortly thereafter an Armoured Personnel Carrier arrived on the scene and the activists positioned themselves so that they could easily withdraw towards the Palestinian areas. (Israeli soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip are generally terrified of the Palestinian resistance fighters and almost never venture out of there armoured vehicles. There are many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have lived all their lives under occupation and with tanks roaming their streets but have never seen an Israeli soldier.)
After the tank had created a smokescreen several soldiers in full combat gear rushed out of the APC and towards the activists who quickly withdrew so that the soldiers ran back into the APC without capturing any of them.
At this point an enormous explosion occurred as a rocket was fired from the Zorab tower into an abandoned Palestinian home.
The APC then began firing its machine gun at the feet of the activists as another bulldozer tried to resume its work before being blocked by a group of activists. Once again the bulldozer driver approached within inches of the activists before stopping. The bulldozer driver then began blowing his horn in a musical manner and then wrote down his phone number and held it to the windscreen while pointing at one of the female activists.
Shortly thereafter, the soldiers in the AP Crushed out to arrest the activists but failed again as the activists withdrew towards the Palestinians. When the soldiers withdrew to the APC the activists resumed their positions.
At one point one of the tank's crew climbed out of the top of the tank and tried to tackle one of the Italian activists but only succeeded in partially pulling off his trousers before he escaped. As the soldier fled back into tank, its machine gun fired into the windows of some Palestinian houses to cover him. (At no point were there any members of the Palestinian resistance in the area.)
At about 7 pm it began to get dark and the armoured vehicles began to withdraw. They were "covered" in their retreat by another rocket fired from Zorab tower which hit a nearby house and showered the activists with rocks.
The activists then left the area to by welcomed by the Palestinian spectators who cheered them and shook their hands.
This was the first action the Rafah ISM team has undertaken to prevent home demolitions since the murder of their comrade Rachel Corrie in a similar incident three weeks before.