# PALESTINE /// Rafah and the Bulldozer: Four Historical Episodes (1971-2015)

Rafah - Map by Leopold Lambert for The Funambulist (June 2015) - Copy
Map created by Léopold Lambert for The Funambulist (2015) / Access a high-quality version here (12MB) (license: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0)

This is the second article accounting to my current research about the bulldozer used as a weapon of war by the Israeli army. The first one was about the Jenin refugee camp during the Second Intifada in 2002, while this one will briefly describe four historical episodes of such destruction in Rafah, a city separated by the (militarized) border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. For the occasion, I created the map above, that can be complemented by another one, made a year ago, at the beginning of the last Israeli siege on Gaza.

EPISODE 1 /// 1971: “Pacification” of Gaza by Ariel Sharon

In December 1969, General Ariel Sharon — the same who was Prime Minister during the 2002 siege on Jenin — is named at the head of the Israeli army Southern Command after his determining contribution of the 1967 invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. In October 1970, the first Israeli settlement is built in the Gaza Strip, quickly followed by six others in the 1970s. The Israeli army thus wants to fully control Gaza and destroy the Palestinian resistance, particularly active since the beginning of the occupation three years earlier. In 1971, Sharon thus leads a mission of counter-insurrection that he recounts in his memoirs (Simon & Schuster, 1989) . Like other counter-insurgency specialists of colonial armies, from French Marshall Robert Bugeaud (see past article) to U.S. General David Petraeus, Sharon trains his soldiers to know the terrain on which they operate, as well as to think with the same rationale than the ‘insurgents.’ He also describes the various tactics used to detect P.L.O. hideouts in the Gaza urban fabric, some of which can be considered as quite architectural: we can think of the systematic use of knotted ropes to measure homes both from outside and inside to spot potential hidden rooms, as well as the use of folded ladders to conveniently observe what is happening behind private walls.

As one can suspect, Sharon’s memoirs present the Israeli army’s actions as inoffensive to the Palestinian population not affiliated to the P.L.O., only briefly mentioning his decision to widen the streets of several refugee camps (mostly Rafah’s) and the massive home demolitions that result from it. Indeed, 2,500 Palestinian houses were destroyed by this operation of bulldozed street enlargement that will be reproduced thirty years later in Jenin. Dense urban fabrics always constitute a problem for the counter-insurgency officer, who occasionally improvises himself as an architect of destruction in the reconfiguration of these neighborhoods. The 16,000 inhabitants of Rafah subsequently homeless were offered to relocate in new neighborhoods nearby designed and built by Israel (called Brazil and Canada) providing that they will renounce their status of refugee and, thus their rights to return.

EPISODE 2 /// 1982: Demolitions for a Border

After the 1973 Sinai War and the subsequent First Camp David Agreements in 1978, Israel withdraws both its troops and its civil settlements — they destroy them not to leave the infrastructure to the Egyptians, a technique reproduced in 2005 during the disengagement from Gaza — from the Sinai Peninsula. Until now, the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt did not necessitate much of a materialization since Gaza was under Egyptian control between 1949 and 1967 and that both the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip were occupied by the Israeli army between 1967 and 1982. Ariel Sharon is now Minister of Defense — he will soon lead the Israeli invasion of Lebanon — and the bulldozers D9 are destroying another 300 Palestinian homes along the border to create a patrolling zone for the Israeli army.

EPISODE 3 /// 2001-2004: Enlargement of the Border

In 2001, Sharon is largely elected as Israeli Prime Minister — this election was exceptionally a direct suffrage — during the Second Intifada that he contributed to start when he visited East Jerusalem’s Haram (the Mosque Esplanade) in September 2000. As we saw, the bulldozers D9 are massively used in Jenin’s refugee camp, but they also constitute the principal instrument of mass demolition in Gaza in general, and Rafah in particular (two thirds of the destruction). Between 2001 and 2004, 2,500 Palestinian homes are destroyed by them, in particular along the Egyptian border whose patrol zone is enlarged from a few dozen of meters to 300 meters. The Israeli army is particularly after the Palestinian contraband tunnels that are used to bring in necessary products banned from the blockade, as well as weapons for the Resistance. Many people died in their homes while they are being destroyed in an international indifference that seems to be only briefly shattered by the murder of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old White American activist who placed her body in the line of a bulldozer D9 about to destroy a Palestinian house in Rafah (see past article). The Yasser Arafat International Airport that was grandly inaugurated in 1998 is also a privileged target of the bulldozers, which destroy its runway in 2002. You can read the 2004 Human Rights Watch report on the question to access a more detailed description of this wave of demolitions.

EPISODE 4 /// 2015: Demolition of Egyptian Rafah

In 2015, the Sisi administration, hostile to Hamas, decides to create a 2,000-meter militarized buffer zone at the border, in order to prevent the contraband tunnels to operate, and in March, begins the demolitions.  As friend Mohamed Elshahed writes in “The Erasure of Rafah and the Normalization of ‘Gazafication‘” (Cairobserver, April 25, 2015), the Egyptian government plans to demolish the entire Egyptian side of Rafah before the end of the year. I highly recommend the reading of this (rare) text on the matter to understand how the mass demolition of Rafah is taking place on both side of its central border, and a relative similitude in their process. Let’s also recall that, in addition to the vital flux of contraband goods, Gaza also depends on Egypt for 22MW of electric power (about 20% of its general supply since the Gaza power plant was destroyed by the Israeli bombings in the summer 2014), as well as for the occasional opening of the Al’awda Checkpoint. The latter was regularly opened during the year of the Freedom and Justice Party (the governing avatar of the Muslim Brotherhood) administration lead by Presidend Mohamed Morsi (2012-2013), but this happened only sporadically during the Sisi administration.


This article focuses on the bulldozed ones but Rafah has been also particularly touched by the massive bombings of the last three Israeli sieges. The city cut into two experiences regular waves of demolition, whose ‘messy’ rubble should not mislead us about the precision of the strategy these recurrent destructions embody. The recurrence of Sharon’s role in them, illustrate the well-thought militarized organization of the territory (we might want to talk about architecture), that go beyond the realms of Gaza, as we saw it with the development of forests on the ruins of pre-1948 Palestinian villages (see the article “‘Make the Desert Bloom’: Manufacturing the Israeli Territory/Narrative“), when he was Minister of Agriculture (1977-1981). The precision of these military strategies should find an echo in the precision of our description of them.

Share This: