World view - Lindsey Hilsum questions the Israelis about Rafah

I rang to ask the Israel Defence Forces why they had destroyed houses in parts of Rafah. No houses h

I travelled back from the Rafah refugee camp to Gaza City a few days ago with a young Palestinian who does a wicked impersonation of Yasser Arafat. Lower lip trembling, finger wagging, he leered at me, whispering: "Kiss me and shake my hand!" Arafat has long lost the respect of most Palestinians in Gaza. Imprisoned in the bombed-out ruins of the Muqata, his headquarters in the West Bank, he receives international visitors and juggles the loyalty of his associates, ensuring that no alternative Palestinian leadership can emerge.

Arafat is useful to the Israelis. His impotent presence allows them to build walls and demolish Palestinian houses, creating new "facts on the ground" without opposition or negotiation. The exhortation to the Palestinian Authority to clamp down on terror is a carefully crafted illusion. The Palestinian Authority has no authority, because Israel allows it none. When I visited the mayor of Rafah, a PA official, he indicated on a satellite photograph with a metal ruler the parts of his domain that the Israel Defence Forces had occupied. He could do nothing but observe the incursions. No wonder the residents of Rafah look to the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

One of the least convincing explanations for the recent devastation in Rafah came from the Israeli ambassador to the US, Daniel Ayalon, who said that Palestinians were destroying their own houses in order to get compensation from the PA. That raised a hollow laugh in Rafah. Nobody has any hope of getting money from the PA; it is far too corrupt and inefficient. If help arrives, it will be from Hamas and other Islamist groups. At a school where the homeless were camping out, I saw the distribution of food - bearded Muslim holy men in minibuses came with mattresses and bags of bread and tinned meat.

Whatever happens, Israel has a series of "here's-one-I-made-earlier" explanations. When the film-maker James Miller was shot dead by an Israeli soldier in Rafah last year, the initial explanation from the Israel Defence Forces was that he had been "caught in the crossfire". Video footage proved there was no crossfire, and later the Israeli foreign ministry admitted Miller had been killed by an Israeli bullet. Israel has not explained its original statement because everyone involved knows that "caught in the crossfire" is just another of those ready-made answers. So it was with Rafah. The answers changed when no stretch of the imagination could make them fit.

On 17 May, Ehud Olmert, Israel's deputy prime minister, told the US secretary of state that there would be no more house demolitions in Rafah. Two nights later, tanks and bulldozers went into Brazil, a ramshackle camp on the fringes of Rafah town, where refugees from 1948 onward have erected concrete houses. Later, I watched a boy in a dusty sweater scrabble in the ruin of what had been his home and pull out a blue jacket. He waved it above his head and called out, hoping the jacket's owner would reclaim it. A few yards away, a man and two small boys were carefully tugging a carpet from the wreckage, while a young woman, finding only a green plastic baby's cup, dropped it with a shrug.

I stood in the rubble, and called the IDF on a mobile. "How many houses have you destroyed in Brazil camp?" I asked.

"None," came the reply.

"No houses destroyed in Brazil?"

"That is correct."

"So how come I'm standing on a pile of rubble?"

The answer was that the Palestinians must have destroyed their own houses with booby-trap devices meant to kill Israeli soldiers. I have seen the jagged, charred shells and deep craters of blown-up houses in Iraq and Kosovo. They bear little resemblance to the huge mounds of rubble in Brazil, the work of Israel's unique weapon, the armoured bulldozer.

A few hours later, the line had changed. The IDF had demolished houses, but only those from which gunmen had been shooting. This seemed equally unlikely - it was an open secret that the gunmen were gathering in another part of Rafah. We had listened to the shooting in Brazil for the previous 36 hours. There had been almost no return fire.

Then I asked about the zoo. We had stumbled across a mob of shrieking children hurtling down the street after what at first looked like a puppet on a stick. After a double-take, I realised it was the neck of an ostrich. Then we visited Rafah's little zoo and saw that it had been trashed. Another ostrich was missing and a third had died, probably of exhaustion. A small boy turned up with a peacock under his arm. The zoo's wallaby was rescued by a photographer. Alarmingly, a python was still at large.

"Why did you destroy the zoo?" I asked the IDF spokesman.

"We didn't destroy the zoo. The animals were frightened of the gunfire and escaped."

"But the cages are all crushed - I've seen them."

"It was in a combat zone."

"But we filmed the bulldozer in the area yesterday."

Brief pause. "If we used a bulldozer it was because of booby-trap devices. If soldiers had gone through in an armoured personnel carrier, they could have been blown up."

By evening the line had changed again. They had suspected there were booby traps along the road, so they forced their way through the zoo to avoid them. The ostrich was collateral damage.

The commander of Operation Rainbow did not mention civilian deaths in an e-mail to the media; only 41 "armed terrorists" had been killed. Thirteen others had been "wounded", although the IDF spokesman conceded, when I telephoned to check, that this might mean "killed or wounded". Each time I detailed an incident of a child who had been shot, he denied that IDF troops had been in the area at the time. The operation had been successful because they had found three weapons-smuggling tunnels, and arrested 100 men. Buildings had been damaged because of "pure operational requirements". The zoo wasn't mentioned.

It is hard to imagine that attacks on Israelis near Rafah will decrease as a result of the operation. Most Palestinians think Israel was taking revenge for the killing of 13 soldiers and five settlers, including four children, earlier in May. "They have the same mentality as us," said a Palestinian official. "It was a settling of scores, that's all."

Ariel Sharon has a strategic plan to withdraw Jewish settlements from Gaza while retaining control of its airspace, and all land and sea borders. Arafat sits in his ruined castle and waits for history to go by. Meanwhile, the children of Rafah no longer have a zoo or a playground,

and many of them no longer have a home,

either. So I expect they will spend more time on the street inventing their own amusements, such as combining nails, sulphur, sugar and charcoal to make hand grenades known as quwas, to lob at Israeli settlers and soldiers.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor of Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Another fake