Besieged Palestinian Camp in Crisis
By LEFTERIS PITARAKIS, Associated Press Writer
RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Food and water are running low, there's no milk for the nine babies and toddlers, and the older children are terrified. For Khalil Shagfa's extended family of 55, as for thousands of others in this besieged refugee camp, the Israeli incursion has brought fear and deprivation.
Shagfa says Red Cross supplies have reached a mosque across the street but he can't collect them because of heavy Israeli fire.
"The milk is almost finished, the Pampers are out, we're tearing up old clothes and using them as diapers. And we're out of water, we ran out this morning," said Shagfa, 53, whose relatives are all trapped in their apartments in a Rafah building by the Israeli offensive.
Israel launched the raid Tuesday, less than a week after Palestinian militants killed 13 soldiers in Gaza. Forty Palestinians, including several children, have been killed and dozens wounded in the offensive, which Israel says is aimed at obliterating weapons-smuggling tunnels and rounding up militants along the Gaza-Egypt border.
Officials and relief groups warned of a humanitarian crisis unless water and electricity are restored to Tel Sultan, the area of Rafah that has taken the brunt of the incursion.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday it was working to get food, water and medical supplies to Tel Sultan's 25,000 occupants. The Tel Aviv-based group Physicians for Human Rights said Israeli restrictions on the movement of ambulances were hindering the evacuation of the wounded.
"We tried to coordinate a solution with the army, but have yet to see results," said Shabtai Gold, a spokesman for the doctors' group. "It's becoming more difficult to keep in contact with patients because of the lack of electricity."
Residents of neighboring Khan Younis smuggled two trucks with food, blankets and other supplies into Rafah on Thursday, using back roads to get around the army blockade. However, they were unable to distribute the supplies because it was too dangerous to enter the parts of the camp controlled by Israel, organizers of the relief mission said.
Fayez Abu Shammale, one of the volunteers, said the trucks had to sneak through olive groves within 100 yards of Israeli tanks.
"It is the least we can do for the people of Rafah," he said.
Residents said the most pressing need was for water — the supply of running water had been cut off, and many rooftop tanks have run dry or been pierced by Israeli bullets.
"My wife boiled the lavatory water to prepare the milk for our 11-month-old son," said Tel Sultan resident Salman Abu Jazar.
Witnesses said 37-year-old Khalil Assar was killed and two of his relatives were wounded by army fire Thursday as they tried to fix a bullet-riddled water tank atop an apartment building.
The army said several wells had been inadvertently damaged during the raid, but were repaired Thursday.
Shagfa said Israeli fire on the street outside his home left two people dead Wednesday and the building's facade riddled with bullets.
"They kept firing sound bombs, the kids were screaming," he said. "They woke up calling 'Daddy, daddy, I want to hide.' They were terrified. They've been like this for three days.
"No one is sleeping," he added. "The younger ones are getting really restless, they want to go out, but it's too dangerous. It's a daily struggle — they just want to go out and get some fresh air, get rid of some of their energy, they're fighting a lot. They're frustrated. What can I do?
"The kids are asking lots of questions, asking us to tell the soldiers to stop. They say, 'Grandpa, go to the tank and tell him to stop.' I tell them that they will shoot at me. When I say that they say, 'But you're a big man, Grandpa, they can't shoot you.'
"I try and explain to them, but they're too young to understand."
An old cemetery in Rafah was reopened Thursday to bury seven of the dead; the new cemetery, located in the area of fighting, was out of reach.
At Rafah's small hospital and a nearby makeshift morgue, 25 bodies were awaiting burial. Relatives were unable to arrange for funerals because they live in parts of the camp controlled by Israeli troops and could not leave their homes. Islam — like Judaism — requires speedy burial.
Troops pushed farther into the crowded camp Thursday. Several families said they were forced to leap from windows as army bulldozers rammed their homes.
"Our neighbor stood on the roof of his house and pleaded with the army to let him get his grandfather out of the house, he's old and moves slowly," said Ahmad Ishta, a resident of Rafah's Brazil neighborhood. Four people helped the elderly man get out of the house.
Ishta, 29, said he and his family fled as a bulldozer attacked his house, and those of his aunt and parents nearby. They sought shelter at a school.
An army spokesman denied Israeli forces had destroyed houses in the Brazil area Thursday. The military said it destroyed homes only to uncover tunnels or when gunmen were using them to attack Israelis.