Sunday, February 8, 2009

Israeli massacre election stunt?

Gaza tent camps stir memories of past exile
35 minutes ago

JABALIYA, Gaza Strip (AFP) — The homes of some 30,000 Palestinians were destroyed during last month's devastating 22-day Israeli onslaught, which killed more than 1,330 people and carved a vast swath of destruction across the besieged territory.

In recent days Gaza's Hamas-run government has partnered with international aid groups and local charities to erect hundreds of tents in the most devastated areas, a sight that stirs deep memories for Gaza's 1948 refugees.

Majid Asamna lived in a refugee tent in Gaza after fleeing what became Israel in 1948 -- now a new war has left him homeless again, along with tens of thousands of other Palestinians.

"I thought if I left I might never return, just like in 1948. And when I did come back, after the war, everything was destroyed," Asamna, 65, says as he surveys the sprawling ruins of six family houses crushed by Israeli troops.

"I'll never go back to (the Israeli town of) Ashkelon, and my children may never come back to this place. When they come in and kill people like this they make it impossible for anyone to live here."

Israel said the offensive was aimed at halting Palestinian rocket fire on towns and farms near the Gaza border -- including Ashkelon -- which have killed 21 civilians inside Israel since 2000.

But for Palestinians the war was the latest chapter in a tragedy that began 60 years ago, one in which bleak rows of tents are a recurring motif.

More than two-thirds of Gaza's 1.5 million residents are UN-registered refugees descended from the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel in the 1948 war.

Palestinian and some Israeli scholars have said Jewish militias expelled more than 700,000 Palestinians before and during the war that followed the creation of the Jewish state in a deliberate campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Palestinians refer to the expulsion as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

Other historians have said they were urged to leave by invading Arab armies and radio broadcasts. The fate of the refugees and their descendants -- now numbering 4.6 million -- is a core issue in the Middle East conflict.

During last month's war Asamna remained in his home after troops backed by tanks and helicopters roared into his neighbourhood, huddling inside with his 60 children and grandchildren for 11 days.

Then, after running out of food and water, they raised a white flag and marched out one by one, walking four kilometres (2.5 miles) to a relative's house in a neighbouring town, he says.

"They were still shooting. They shot at us while we were walking away."

When they returned after the war their farmstead had been flattened. Two six-door Mercedes taxis -- on which they made most of their living -- were crushed and half-buried in orchards plowed over by bulldozers.

Just up the dirt road from Asamna's ruined homestead local volunteers have in recent days erected dozens of white canvas tents surrounded by a short sand berm. They call it Camp Dignity.

The camp is just a few kilometres (miles) away from Jabaliya Camp, which was established in 1948 for some 35,000 refugees who were provided tents until the UN refugee agency (UNRWA) could build more permanent housing.

Camp Dignity is one of five new camps containing around 700 tents that have been established by the Hamas-run government to provide shelter to some of the 30,000 people it says lost their homes in the three-week conflict.

"We hate the tents, and would never want to return to them," says Dr Munir al-Bursh, a senior health ministry official overseeing the construction of the new camps. "But as you can see, they are still with us."

Most of the tents have been provided by the Palestinian Red Crescent society and UNRWA, Bursh says, adding that requests to import hundreds more have been denied by Israel and Egypt, which control Gaza's borders.

Since the Hamas takeover in June 2007 Israel and Egypt have prevented all but basic humanitarian aid from entering Gaza. Building materials are scarce, and reconstruction has been held up by the restrictions.

The Hamas-run government has demanded the opening of Gaza's border crossings as part of a long-term truce, while Israel -- which along with the West blacklists Hamas as a terror group -- has said the rockets must stop first.

On a recent day a few hundred people milled around the camp, sipping tea and socialising under the tents. Few appeared to have moved in permanently.

"It's worse than in 1948," says Ibrahim Shannan, a father of three whose house lies in ruins a few dozen metres (yards) from the camp.

"They have put a man on the moon, and here we are, living in tents," says the 27-year-old, whose family is from Gaza. "Now we are all refugees."

Shannan is still staying with relatives at night, sleeping 15 people to a room. He doesn't think the tents are thick enough to keep out the winter cold.

Others are afraid to stay in the tents after dark for fear Israeli troops will return. Bursh said he saw Israeli special forces prowling near one of the camps on Wednesday night.

Israel withdrew all ground troops from Gaza after it and Hamas declared separate ceasefires on January 18 but has launched tit-for-tat strikes as Palestinian militants have sporadically fired rockets from the territory.

Asamna, who fled in 1948, says this time he is determined to remain on his ruined land as long as he can.

"I don't expect things will ever get better," he says. "The Jews could come back anytime. No one who does something like this could possibly want peace."

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