In the filth and powdered cement of what the Israelis had left of his home yesterday, 81-year-old Mohamed Shaer found his Palestine passport but sought in vain for the only photograph of his wife, Mansoura. She died just three years ago, and Mohamed, in white beard and white robe, smiled when he conceded it was probably for the best that she had not lived to see this day; the home she had shared with him and their two sons, Ibrahim and Mohamed, and their own 17 children, ground into the mud by an Israeli bulldozer that came through the border fence, spitting fire from a machine-gun on the roof while two tanks sent salvoes of shells into the nearest buildings.
On one of the holiest days in the Middle East, how does one write about this wanton Israeli destruction of homes in Gaza? How to describe the 15 shacks home to about a hundred Palestinian civilians that now lie in a great tangle of wooden beams, crushed television sets, concrete breeze blocks, driving licences, video tapes, delicately embroidered women's clothes, socks and pulverised tables and shopping receipts and bread, all washed through with sewage? Not to mention the 35 wounded, the boy with his leg chopped off by an Israeli shell, the teenager with shrapnel nudging at his shoulder bone and no feeling in his left hand, flapping it uselessly towards me from his hospital bed. Is this a tragedy or a war crime, this deliberate attack on the homes of civilians?
As usual, amid the pathetic heaps of family detritus, there stood not far off that familiar feature of all Middle Eastern stories: the Department of Double Standards. A smaller, even more dilapidated structure the Department of Truth was also not far away; of which more later.
It had, in any case, been a bad Easter weekend. The only fatal casualty save for a Palestinian called Mohamed Nasser who apparently blew himself up in Gaza with his own bomb was a young Israeli soldier killed in his tank close to the UN's "blue line" demarcation frontier with Lebanon. The first big lie of the weekend, however, came from the Israeli army, which blandly announced that the destruction of the Palestinian homes in Rafah was no more than "engineering activity" and that in any case the houses that their tanks and bulldozers turned into rubble were unoccupied. This was totally untrue as the Israelis, who inhabit a massive block-house above the shacks, knew very well. When the first tanks burst through the dividing wall before dusk on Saturday firing anti-armour missiles into the nearest apartment blocks even though a small market was open 300 metres away hundreds of men, women and children ran screaming into the neighbouring streets.
The Israelis claimed they had previously come under attack from the area by men using gunfire and home-made mortars. Either way, by dawn yesterday, the Western media were hard at work belittling the event. Israel, Reuters announced, was "flexing its military muscles" in both Lebanon where war planes launched air strikes last night and Rafah. The report managed to put the 35 Palestinian wounded in the eighth paragraph of its report, referring to the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon in the usual let's-forget-Sabra-and-Chatila manner as "Israel's leading hawk". According to Reuters, an earlier pipe-bomb attack in Jerusalem that wounded an elderly Israeli man struck at "the soft underbelly of vulnerability that has always rested beneath the Israeli state's hard shell of security".
No such sympathy was shown by Reuters for the Palestinians of Rafah who seemed to have a rather softer underbelly and no security at all. Jalal Zohri saw the tanks coming from his first-floor apartment block. "It had been very calm and people were shopping in the little market over the road," he recalled. "Then there was a tremendous noise and a tank burst through a gap in the wall between us and the Egyptian frontier. It started shooting rockets and everyone was screaming. I saw a woman below me grab her daughter from a sofa in the yard just as a wall collapsed on the sofa. Bullets started hitting my own walls and cutting through the blinds and with everyone else I ran for my life."
Several of the now-homeless Palestinians agree that within minutes of the Israelis entering the slums part of the Palestinian-controlled Area A and thus a clear violation of the Oslo agreement members of the Palestinian Tanzim militia arrived to fire Kalashnikov rifles at the Israelis on the bulldozers. "But they couldn't drive the Israelis out," Mr Zohri said. "Then it became a battle, with Israeli tank-fired missiles smashing into the walls of the houses opposite the military post." Sabah Zaanoun saw her eldest son, Ahmed, run towards the sound of the gunfire. "He wanted to see what was happening all boys do that," she said as she sat by her son's hospital bed in Khan Younis yesterday afternoon.
The boy flapped his hand in my direction as I spoke to his mother. He can no longer use his fingers. "He's had an operation to remove a bullet that went through his shoulder," Sabah Zaanoun said. "Part of the bullet flew out of his back but the rest got lodged inside him. There's also a piece of shrapnel in his left shoulder and he says it's so painful that he feels as if his body is on fire." Not far away, a 16-year old lay unconscious; part of his leg was blown off by a tank shell. All of this, according to the Israelis like the destruction of more than 30 homes in Khan Younis last week was in the name of "security". But now to the Department of Truth.
Had the Palestinians been firing from the slums at the Israelis in previous days? Several people, in the muck of what had once been their homes, said they had. "The Tanzim would come here from time to time and they would fire a few shots at the Israeli block-house and the Israelis would respond with rockets," one said.
It was certainly another breach of the Oslo agreement; Palestinians are not supposed to try to kill Israeli troops from Area A, any more than Israeli troops are supposed to enter Area A on a spree of wanton destruction. It was, as so often is the case, an Israeli writer who was able to salvage some of the honour of journalism amid the rubbish peddled by Western reporters here.
"Why ... is the demolishing of dozens of civilian homes not an act of terror?" Gideon Levy asked in Ha'aretz . "Perhaps ... the firing of mortars by Palestinians is an act of self-defence against the occupation that has no end, and against the Jewish settlements beyond the 1967 borders that are just growing larger and larger before their exhausted eyes."