Doomed City: Visit To Rafah On The Egypt-Gaza Border

Both Egyptians and refugees from Gaza are living through the war that comes to them in Egypt both from across the border in Palestinian territory, and from Cairo's showdown in the Sinai.

Palestinian Family At Rafah Border Crossing
Palestinian Family At Rafah Border Crossing
Heba Hafify

RAFAH — It's dawn on a recent morning and Um Iyad, 65, stands on the porch of her house on the Egyptian side of the town of Rafah, which is split along the border with Gaza.

Iyad is watching the smoke rise up on the horizon where a streak of bombs just fell across the borders, shaking her house violently.

Boisterous thumps, flashing lights and horrified screams have been reaching into Rafah since the start of a vicious Israeli offensive on Gaza two weeks ago. Most Rafah residents have been suffering sleepless nights. However, Um Iyad has more to worry about.

Originally from Gaza, she now lives in Rafah with her husband and other members of her family*. Two of her daughters remain in Gaza. She doesn’t have the luxury to check up on her daughters and grandsons after every bombing, as the phone connection is down on their side most of the time. So she murmurs a little prayer as she watches the smoke rise up into the sky, turns around and goes back to her housework.

"But, you know, yesterday was the first time I got scared."

The household has a dynamic and upbeat vibe. Everyone wakes up at the crack of dawn and moves around all day, finishing chores inside and outside the house, a much needed but not entirely effective distraction.

Casual conversations flow over the sounds of the bombings. Playing games with the children is the main activity.

Gaza and the family members there are an ever-present backdrop which surfaces in the form of quiet supplications to God and short conversations that soon give way to discussions of mundane daily matters.

One day this week, as the Iyad family women are rushing to finish cooking iftar (the Ramadan meal that breaks the day's fast), the sound of shelling starts to intensify. The shelling tends to increase around sunset and dawn. The panic over food not being ready on time overshadows the bombings. The family sits to eat together silently while the shelling continues.

The eldest of Um Iyad’s grandchildren, 10-year-old Abeer, is the most scared by the shelling. When it starts around sunset, she shivers, then sobs, then throws herself in her grandmother’s lap.

The usually cheerful and helpful Abeer only objects when she’s asked to go alone into another room for an errand. She says, with a soft voice, “But I’m scared,” and no one asks her twice.

For two-and-a-half-year-old Mohamed, the family made a game out of the shelling. Whenever a drone appears over Gaza, someone will ask him, where is the plane? Mohamed points towards it and elongates the word, saying “Over theeere!”

His grandmother grabs him affectionately and tells him, with a mixture of playfulness and militancy, “Spit at the plane, spit at those motherfuckers, they’re the reason for our misery.”

Comic tales of terror

Um Iyad’s neighbor, also from Gaza, comes over with her kids at night despite the strict 4 pm curfew to pass the time, and plays with her two-year-old to console her through the shelling. “There’s the bomb,” she tells her, while pointing at the planes.

She doesn’t need to bring up imaginary beasts to scare her children into obedience as other mothers might do. She tells her four-year-old that the drones are targeting bad kids and will come for him if he doesn’t behave.

When she complains of her inability to check on her family members in Gaza because of bad phone service, Um Iyad voices her constant concern for her children.

“Even if you call them what difference does it make? Are you going to change the situation? I called my daughters and checked on them and my heart still burns every time I hear a bomb,” she says.

They discuss the night before, which everyone says is when the shelling resonated more strongly than ever, and it felt like the houses were going to collapse.

The neighbor recounts all the stories of the terror in comedy tales. She giggles as she tells the story of how she grabbed her husband’s arm while they were performing dawn prayers when the shelling got to its worst. Then she talks about her four-year-old who ran to his father and kept assuring him, “I’m not scared, dad.”

She talks about regular pregnancy troubles that she’s enduring, then she casually adds that the stress from the recent raid by security forces on their house — not an uncommon occurrence in Rafah residences lately — has made it worse.

When the shelling intensifies she hurries to leave, and says, “Well, at least if we get bombed I want to be home.”

The Iyad family has developed some expertise in detecting the different sounds of aircrafts and weapons.

They recognize the drone with its distinctive humming and red lights. They see it circling over their heads all day detecting targets for the combat aircrafts to bomb. The bomb sounds come in different forms, depending on their location and type.

Shot at from inside and out

Sometimes when the family hears the launching of the rocket, Abeer ducks, covers her ears and waits to hear the explosion with a terrified look. But sometimes the loud thump comes with no introduction, sending the kids running into their grandmother’s lap; and sometimes they’re preceded by a bright light that seems like it’s coming from next door.

The kids fall asleep on their mother’s and grandmother’s laps shortly after curling up there when the night shelling starts. Um Iyad thinks they sleep out of fear.

After they are taken to bed, and she can take a break from constant reassurance and consolation, Um Iyad finally confides in her daughter-in-law before going to bed, “But, you know, yesterday was the first time I got scared.”

Um Iyad’s experience with the Israeli offensive that has taken close to 200 Palestinian lives note: the toll has since passed 500 is not new, because offensives of this scope are becoming a biannual occurrence.

Rafah, which is a central border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, itself has been much more than a frontier to a strip under repeated attack.

Since military operations picked up last year in North Sinai as Egypt stepped up a campaign against terrorist activity targeting Egyptian security forces and posts in the area, Rafah has become punctuated with destruction.

Many of the main roads leading into and within Rafah have been closed down. The city is now filled with bare olive tree fields that the military cut down to eliminate hiding spaces for militants.

The rubble of demolished houses can be seen all over the town, from its entrance to its borders, and large holes in the asphalt mark recent booby trap explosions targeting military vehicles.

The border with Palestine is marked with a vast vacant land that was filled with houses the year before. Today, they have all been taken down as part of the campaign to demolish smuggling tunnels.

Rafah has been living under a 4 pm curfew for more than a year now, which has translated into dire economic inactivity.

Egypt’s military gave regular public reports throughout the last year of the number of tunnels destroyed between Egypt and Gaza, as well as militants killed during their operations there.

However, the operations have taken a toll on locals, most of whom are skeptical as to the Egyptian government’s ability to properly target militant groups.

While a considerable proportion of the tunnels have successfully been destroyed, locals encountered during Mada Masr’s brief trip to Rafah say that they live in constant fear of random arrests and violence from both the state and militant groups. They say the level of insecurity they are currently living with is unprecedented, and its victims are often innocent locals.

“I am from the doomed city," is how fruit vendor Mohamed Ahmed refers to Rafah. Ahmed says that his daily commute involves maneuvering around blocked roads and close calls with suspicious security forces. He says it is never safe to walk in the streets, with random gunfire breaking out at any time.

"Everything is more expensive now, people die every day. The state is showing off its strength but it is not differentiating between the good and the bad. We are only demanding the security that they keep talking about," he says.

Caught between two fires, and just as the customary warning shots from the Egyptian military started shortly after the curfew, Uum Iyad concludes jokingly, “The Egyptians are shooting at us from inside and the Israelis are bombing us from outside.”

*Names of the Palestinian family members in this story have been changed for their protection.

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