Outside Rafah's main Awda Mosque on May 21, people were gathering for funeral processions. Nine people were reported killed the day before, and in keeping with Muslim tradition, they should all be buried as soon as possible.
But with the complete isolation of the Tal Al Sultan neighborhood still in force, some families were unable to attend and some of the funerals had to be postponed. However, the funerals of Asma and Ahmad Moghaia, siblings who had been killed in Tal Al Sultan on May 18, the first day of the Israeli army's "Operation Rainbow," could no longer wait.
The two had been lying in the freezers of the tiny morgue at the Abu Yussef Al Najjar Hospital, Rafah's only hospital, since Tuesday, and the family had been unable to claim the bodies for burial. As Asma's body was finally wrapped in the traditional white shroud, only a single grieving relative waited to take her and her brother to the mosque for prayers.
"It's been three days," said Mohammad Abu Ahmad, 34, a cousin, before getting into the ambulance with Asma. "Their parents phoned and asked me to make the arrangements."

Operation Rainbow

Operation Rainbow started early on May 18, ostensibly to locate arms-smuggling tunnels into Egypt and arrest armed Palestinians. The relatively lengthy lead-up to the operation, complete with a petition to the Israel High Court on May 16 that tried and failed to secure an injunction against threatened house demolitions, led people in Rafah to expect the worst.
When it became clear, on May 16, that the operation was going to go ahead, many decided to leave. On the day after Palestinians worldwide marked the 56th anniversary of the Nakbeh - when in 1948 some 800,000 Palestinians fled their homes within the so-called Green Line and what became Israel, thus creating the present Palestinian refugee problem, some of those same people and their descendants once again packed their belongings and headed off to temporary dwellings hastily arranged by UN agencies or the municipality of this, the poorest Palestinian town in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
On May 16 and 17 there was a steady exodus from areas of Rafah residents expected would be targeted first. By the evening of May 17, the areas closest to the border with Egypt, Block O and Yubna refugee camp, were ghost towns.

Ahmad Radwan

Ahmad Radwan, 26, an unemployed laborer, left Block O on May 16.
"My wife and children went to stay with relatives in Khan Younis, but I won't leave Rafah. This is where I was born. I am not going anywhere," he said.
On May 20, he was sharing a room with 11 other people at the Rafah Elementary Girls School, a United Nations Relief and Works Agency facility that had been converted into a temporary refugee camp. The room was an ordinary classroom, and desks and tables had been stacked in a corner. Uncomfortable-looking thin mattresses were laid out on the floor.
Radwan could have been worse off. Some had fled Block O and Yubna to go to Tal Al Sultan, where the relatively wide streets, its distance from the border and the lack of past fighting made them identify it as a safe area. But it was this neighborhood, next to the Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam, toward the Mediterranean Coast, that unexpectedly became the center of Operation Rainbow.

Tanks, APCs and House Demolitions

The operation was the biggest Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip since the intifada erupted in September 2000. Some 100 tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) were deployed, and by May 17 they had separated Rafah from Khan Younis and the rest of the Gaza Strip to the north. By May 18, Tal Al Sultan had been taken over and isolated from the rest of Rafah, and a 24-hour curfew was imposed on residents. On the evening of May 19, the army also entered the Brazil refugee camp and adjoining Salam neighborhood in another part of town.
As a result, the UNRWA school on May 20 saw a new influx of people. Abu Khalil arrived from the Brazil camp with only the clothes he was wearing
"They destroyed my house. The tanks came last night, and today the bulldozers came," said Khalil, 58, also an unemployed laborer. He said the only warning came when Israeli soldiers announced through loudspeakers that, "You have five minutes to leave your houses. Otherwise, we will demolish them over your heads."
Throughout the duration of Operation Rainbow, the Israeli army consistently denied most accusations of house demolitions. Some statements from Israeli officials even accused Palestinians of ripping off the roofs of their homes to claim compensation. (When asked about this, Abu Khalil just shook his head. "I wouldn't swap the Eiffel Tower for my house.")
On May 20, while Rafah municipality officials claimed that more than 40 homes had been destroyed, and UNRWA, had counted more than 30, Israeli army spokesmen would admit to only five. Only when the operation was winding down on May 23 did that number rise to 12. On May 24, after the operation ended, UNRWA had counted 45 destroyed Palestinian homes in Rafah, leaving some 575 people homeless. The Israeli army by then was talking about 56 demolished "structures."

Dangerous Greenhouses

Presumably, those structures would have included the greenhouses on one of the roads leading into Tal Al Sultan, where, around noon on May 21, several international aid trucks carrying emergency supplies had gathered. They were waiting for permission from the army to deliver humanitarian supplies to the besieged residents of Tal Al Sultan, who since May 18 had been without water, electricity or phone lines. Some were eventually allowed through along with Rafah municipality workers who reconnected the water and electricity supply.
Earlier that morning, Ibrahim Fayez Braika, 21 had worried about his family's greenhouses. The Braika house is one of about six on the road leading into Tal Al Sultan, a block of homes separated from that neighborhood by an area of farmland and greenhouses. The Braikas grow onions, potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes in their six greenhouses, immediately behind their house.
Outside the window in the direction of Tal Al Sultan, an Israeli army bulldozer was driving back and forth, apparently leveling the ground. Braika's 4-year-old brother Falah pointed at them. He appeared to be under the impression that the Israelis were harvesting the land.
The night before, said Braika, pointing out the window toward the bulldozer, the Israeli army had destroyed three houses and a number of greenhouses there.
They had also damaged a neighbor's house. Abdel Karim Dahlis' living room that morning opened straight out onto the road courtesy of a gaping hole caused, he said, by an Israeli bulldozer.
"It happened around midnight. We were asleep. We don't know what they were doing. But it was a bulldozer and it crashed through our wall and brought the asbestos ceiling down over our heads," Dahlis said. Two of his nine children were lightly injured.
"They did this for nothing. We were not doing anything. We were sleeping. Now I'm on the street."
By the time reporters returned to the road with the aid convoy some four hours later, Dahlis' house had disappeared completely. So had the row of greenhouses, at least 10, on the right side of the road.

Zoo Story

Another demolished "structure" was the Rafah Zoo in the Brazil Camp. There, too, even as journalists were picking their way through the twisted metal of demolished cages and where there was now an open wasteland, Israeli army spokespeople denied any knowledge of any damage to the zoo. That, too, would change. Later, the army admitted it might have "damaged a wall." When confronted with this assertion, Mohammed Ahmed Juma, the zoo's co-owner, simply shook his head. "Look around you," he told reporters.
Around him, children and volunteers were trying to locate some of the animals that had disappeared. Some were found dead under the rubble. Others, including wolves, foxes, a python and an ostrich, were loose. The animals Juma had been able to recapture, among them a frightened kangaroo and a sneezing ram, were being kept in a nearby basement.
The army version, meanwhile, evolved further. While still only admitting to causing damage to a wall, the army now placed the blame for any further damage on "Palestinian explosives." Only at the end of the day did an army spokesman acknowledge that indeed Israeli tanks had "opened a road" through the zoo, and then only because "Palestinian explosives" blocked the way ahead.

Asma (16) and Ahmad (13)

"Palestinian explosives" were also initially cited as the cause of the deaths of the Moghaia children, 16-year-old Asma and her 13-year-old brother Ahmad on their rooftop in Tal Al Sultan on May 18.
But when reporters finally gained entrance to Tal Al Sultan on May 22 there was no evidence of shrapnel from explosives on the Moghaia family's rooftop. On the wall at the top of the stairwell leading to the roof, beside what appeared to be bloodstains, there were four bullet holes. In the corner of the step below was a pool of dried blood.
"This is where Ahmad was shot," explained Asma and Ahmad's brother Ali, 26, who was first on the roof that day. He and his father Mohammad Ali, 49, an unemployed construction worker, were both calm, almost meticulous, as they recounted the day's events.
"Asma was collecting washing right here," said Ali, pointing to the corner of the roof where the same clothes Asma would have been collecting still hung, blood-spattered and bullet-torn. On the floor below was another pool of dried blood where Ali said Asma fell.
"Ahmad was feeding the pigeons," he continued, nodding at a pigeon cage on the other side holding some 15 birds.
Ali and his father both believe Asma was shot first.
"Ahmad heard the shot and saw his sister, and he tried to run down the stairs," said Ali, who did most of the talking. "I heard him shout for me, but then he was shot and we didn't hear anything else."
Ali said more shots were fired when he got to the top of the stairs. Besides the bullet marks at the top of the stairs, there were also three bullet holes in the satellite dish near the clothesline and behind where Asma would have been standing.
Ali recounted how he pulled his brother down the stairs. His mother was screaming. He placed his brother in a spare bedroom and then went up to get his sister.
"I had to crawl on my stomach to get to her, and when I got there I could see her head was split open in the middle. I wrapped her head in a towel, and then I carefully dragged her body across the floor. I was flat on my stomach all the way. It took almost 15 minutes."
The trail of blood is still there, from the corner of the roof to the stairs.
"She was a good girl," said Mohammad Ali, quietly. "She was number one in her class, she liked saying her prayers and she wanted to become a doctor. She was a good girl."
The shooting happened at around 11:30 am.
"We knew there was a curfew on," said Mohammad Ali. "But there was no shooting in the neighborhood, and we thought it was safe for the children to be on the roof. We didn't know there were snipers there."

Snipers on the Abu Jalala Building

"There" is the Abu Jalala building, a three-story white structure clearly visible from the Moghaia's rooftop. The building stands at the end of the Salahin Mosque Street, where a T-junction has been completely torn up by Israeli bulldozers.
Mohammad Abu Jalala, 21, is a business student at the Islamic University in Gaza City. At around 10 a.m. on May 18, he said, Israeli soldiers arrived and took over the building. The family of nine was ordered to stay in its flat. "They wouldn't allow us even to go to the bathroom without asking permission."
Shifts of two and three soldiers took turns guarding the family, according to Mohammad. The Jalala family apartment is on the first floor. They built the house during the Oslo years, in better times, but never finished the top two floors, which are still uninhabited.
The soldiers left plenty of evidence of their stay, including half-empty cans of by now moldy corn, half a loaf of white bread, and tuna cans, all labeled only in Hebrew. A label on an unopened can of corn depicted a smiling cartoon soldier pointing at the sky.
There were also empty bullet casings. Mohammad had collected at least 20 and showed them to reporters. On the top two floors and on the stairwell between them, holes had been punched through the walls.
The roof affords an almost uninterrupted view of Tal Al Sultan and its environs. On one side it overlooks the hills that lead to the Jewish settlement of Rafiah Yam to the west and the Mediterranean beyond, maybe a mile away. On the other side, the building overlooks other rooftops, including the house where the children died, about 150 meters away. At the base of a meter high concrete wall at that corner was a watermelon-sized hole. Through it, the bullet marks at the top of the Moghaias' stairwell were visible with the naked eye. Next to that hole, lay a box. Its label, in Hebrew, read: "20 rounds 7.62 millimeter ammunition for snipers."
Mohammad said they had no clear idea what the soldiers were doing, though they could hear plenty of shooting. The soldiers only spoke directly with Mohammad's father, who had worked as a laborer in Israel and speaks some Hebrew.
The soldiers finally left at around 2 a.m. on May 19, said Mohammed. They had been in the building for nearly 15 hours.
On May 23, an Israeli army spokesman said the incident was " under investigation."
"There were explosive devices detonated against our forces in the area, and we have no specific information about any of our forces mistakenly hitting the children," he said. But, "it is too early to say anything precisely."
On May 26, Amnesty International called on Israel to conduct a "thorough, independent and impartial investigation" into the deaths of the two teenagers. In all, at least 45 Palestinians were killed during Operation Rainbow, 12 of them children under 16, according to hospital officials, including a 3-year-old girl who was killed on May 22. At least 10 were killed when Israeli tank shells slammed into demonstrators trying to enter Tal Al Sultan on May 19. The Israeli army denies the demonstration was deliberately targeted.