Arid agricultural land, now completely flattened, stretches out for miles amidst the hazy horizon, all the way into the Egyptian border.
Yet, disrupting the picture perfect image and serving as a constant reminder of the reality of Israeli occupation, is a rusty iron barrier, winding its way through the heart of this troubled southern town.
It is the Rafah separation wall, the lesser known counterpart of the now infamous apartheid wall tearing the West Bank apart. Moreover, the havoc wreaked on its behalf could be a foretaste of what is to come.
Though its construction started long before plans for a West Bank wall were even conceived, it has received scant outside attention.
Local Palestinian officials and activists alike have neglected it as they feel it does not threaten the borders of a future Palestinian state and are far more focussed on the barrier to the west.
Residents whose homes and farms have been demolished and whose entire livelihoods destroyed to make way for the wall, however, take issue.
Contrary to popular belief, the Rafah wall is someway inside Palestinian land. In addition, if the now barren landscape is any indication, its construction has come at no small cost to the Palestinian residents living here.
They are attacked on almost a daily basis by Israeli tanks, apache helicopters and armoured personnel carriers.
The wall was constructed over
“In the last three years, over 7500 people have lost their homes because they lived against that wall and [the Israelis] wanted to place it another 200m or so inside the border,” said Paul Mcann, Chief Public Information Officer of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
“So, where the wall is now, there were once mosques, shops and people’s houses,” he told Aljazeera.net.
According to Yusuf Musa, director of the Rafah Popular Refugee Committee, the Oslo accord gave Israel permission to build a “security” buffer zone of up to 70m from the Egyptian border.
Since the start of the second Intifada, however, the Israeli Army has demolished large tracts of land adjacent to the wall in a preliminary step to extend it even further.
“What type of buffer zone is this? It’s the new Berlin wall if you ask me.”
As he speaks, a barrage of high calibre machine gun bullets and powerful Israeli tank shells interrupt Musa and the bullets strike no more than 50m away as we both take cover.
“Do you hear that? This is what we go through every day for this wall,” he continued.
“The aim of the Israeli government is to create a state of cantons so there will be separation between Palestinian cities and between the Egyptian and Palestinian side,” said Musa.
The Rafah separation wall, which the Israeli army is now building with the help of hundreds of eight metre high rusty iron panels, currently extends from the edge of the Yibneh refugee camp to the Salah al-Din gate, formerly the passageway to Egypt.
According to Israeli military sources and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, it may eventually measure 12km in length stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the southernmost point of Rafah near the Negev desert.
While it is not clear where the wall will eventually end up exactly, residents fear it will wind its way around the city, isolating it completely from the rest of Gaza.
Anything that came in the way of
Rafah Mayor Sayyid Zorba believes that the construction of the wall will continue with the purpose of separating Rafah city from Israeli settlements such as Yam, Etsmona, and Morage and creating a road linking the settlements together.
Other Palestinian towns and villages in the Gaza Strip, such as Mawasi, al-Siyafa, and Dihniya, have already suffered such a fate and provide a foretaste of what’s to come: complete and utter isolation from their neighbours and a life under the mercy of the Israeli military.
Rafah was very much the testing ground for the longer wall that has become the centre of so much controversy in the West Bank, just as Gaza is considered the prototype for a future Palestinian state.
Following the Camp David negotiations of 1983 and the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, new international boundaries were demarcated, dividing the city of Rafah into two adjacent populated areas.
Shortly thereafter, however, Israel created its own boundaries. A 40m “buffer zone” was constructed dividing Palestinian Rafah from the Egyptian border. Since the start of the second Intifada in September of 2000, this zone has been further increased to over 180m in some areas and construction of the massive iron barrier began.
Israel alleges it has been necessary to increase the so-called security zone and erect a wall due to increased Palestinian activity near the border.
“It is a classic Israeli ‘security’ tactic: security demands that we build a wall, and the security of the wall demands that we destroy everything near it,” said Darryl Li, a formerly Gaza-based American human rights activist
The Gazan-Egyptian border is already under complete Israeli control, and according to Li, building a new wall there seems little more than an excuse to demolish the houses near it and confiscate more land.
The wall is seen as an excuse to
“My real fear is that tomorrow they’ll come up with another excuse to demolish more homes and extend the wall even further,” added Musa.
Construction on the Rafah wall is carried out in piecemeal style.
Activists say this is an intentional tactic on part of the Israeli military who hope its construction will go unnoticed. The wall began in agricultural areas in eastern Rafah, where several acres of agricultural land, including olive and citrus groves and greenhouses, were demolished.
This destruction has translated into hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial losses for residents of the area whose livelihoods depend on farming.
Construction then continued in the most densely populated areas of Blocks O and J, where more than 7500 people have been made homeless as a result. Three mosques and a sewage network were also destroyed, resulting in hundreds of water-borne illnesses.
“These houses are built brick by brick over years of labour and they are demolished and reduced to sand. The image of [Rafah] going from this vibrant city… and a wall going across the middle of it and reducing it to a ghost land, is a powerful one,” said Laura Gordon of the International Solidarity Movement.
Gordon is currently living with a family in the Yibneh refugee camp in Rafah.
But any effort to go near the wall for further investigation is met with deadly force.
“You can’t go to the wall… they’ll shoot you,” she said.
“What type of buffer zone is this? It’s the new Berlin wall if you ask me”
“They go around regularly making announcements in Arabic and Hebrew that anyone stepping beyond the place where there are houses into the militarised zone will be shot and killed… and I’ve seen journalists shot,” she continued.
Prior to the Intifada, the Israeli military had a barbed wire fence located near their military outposts on the border through which residents could pass to the Egyptian side with proper coordination.
According to Gordon, the wall has now been erected with military sniper towers every 100m looking over the town.
Many people, though, continue to question the significance of this wall in the grand scheme of things and compare it with its West Bank version.
Gordon emphasised that the two walls create different kinds of suffering.
“The effects are bad everywhere and felt differently. In West Bank, it’s about separating communities from their land. Here it’s about completely demolishing the community itself. It is a war crime either way.”
“It may be smaller in size but in Qalqiliya and Tul Karem you can walk up to the wall. Here you can’t. It’s like this invisible force tearing the community apart.”