Rafah, near the Egyptian border. The Israelis built a wall here, too, along much of the Gaza-Egypt border. It split the town of Rafah in two. Now, partly out of necessity and partly out of greed, tunnels are regularly built between the two sides to smuggle everything from guns to heroin, cigarettes and even people.
Standing facing the wall, a cow’s skull, fixed on a spike, sways in the wind beside me. A small hut has been built directly in front of the wall and teenagers – many of them drug addicts, Fida explains – play billiards under the plastic roof. The shed, she believes, probably hides a tunnel, and the kids work there to get their fix. No one would suspect that it hides the entrance to a tunnel, this innocuous youth centre.
Across the street, a woman is screaming as a large crowd gathers around her. She’s pointing to her house.
“They want to destroy us! They don’t want a country, they want to destroy us for money, to buld a tower! All of this was destroyed because of them!” She motions to the rubble surrounding her. The entrance to a tunnel has just been discovered in ground floor of her house. Her neighbours, and entire row of houses, was already destroyed by Israeli authorities not long ago for the same reason.
“They’re not doing this for weapons for their country, they’re just doing this for money! They’re smuggling hashish and cocaine!” She’s screaming in despair at anyone who will listen to her.
Kids are banging on the door to the house, but the door remains closed. “If you go in,” a little boy says to the camera, “they’ll shoot you and shoot the camera”
Suddenly, there’s a surge as the door is opened from the inside, and dozens of people - mostly curious kids – rush in. They crowd around the entrance to tunnel, pointing, and throw a burning rag down there to light it up. Behind me, people outside begin demolishing the wall with sledge hammers. This is the point at which the neighbourhood turns against the tunnel builders, aware of the dangers, and the violence, the trade brings with it.
Everyone is yelling, some with excitement, some in anger. Outside, a group has gathered on the roof of the building. These are the ones responsible for building the tunnel A crowd on the ground looks up at them, confused, angry. One man on the ground grabs the microphone and tries to rip it out of the camera.
“You filmed my face! Move back! Film from far away!” I replace the microphone and move back to continue filming. Suddenly, while I’m looking at the crowd on the ground, shots are fired from the roof. The crowd scatters, we all hide in the building next door. No one is really sure where the shots are coming from, or who they’re firing at. They’re probably just firing in the air, to scare us all away.
Before long, just as the crowd is beginning to calm down, a new group of gunmen appears. They are Hamas’ Executive Force, the quasi-military, unofficla police force that locals call on to settle local disputes. They are seen by many as the “good guys”, the people you call when your car or mobile phone is stolen. They also tend to be more responsible with their weapons then Fatah’s Preventative Force, known for their eagerness to shoot when things get tense.
The Executive Force all wear masks, stomping around in camouflage and brandishing their Kalashnikovs, while the crowd on the ground argues amongst themselves. Without warning, shots ring out again. It seems like an exchange of fire between the men on the roof and the Executive Force, but it’s impossible to tell because we’ve all taken shelter, again, in the house next door. I’m on the second floor balcony, filming the forces on the ground. Beside me stands my director Laila.
While I’m concentrating on the scene below, a man comes up the stairs behind me and gets my attention. Laila and I turn to face him. His eyes foggy with rage, he demands the tape. I refuse, but he pulls the camera from my hands and tries to eject the tape. I struggle with the camera and try to reason with him when he pulls a gun from his belt and waves it in my face. I let go of the camera, but he keeps the gun in my face.
“Take it, take it,” I say, to reassure him, but he’s not thinking straight. He heads upstairs with the camera and the tape.
Before long, Fida realises the man who stole my camera is her cousin. We follow him for the next ten minutes, pleading with him to give the tape back. A few Hamas men on the ground are claiming I filmed the face of a wanted man – a man with a red beard - and they’re demanding the tape. (Looking back over the footage later, I realise there is no man with a red beard. The man they claim has been the target of two assassination attempts by Israel isn’t on the tape).
When we are eventually given the tape back, we hide it under the ashtray of our taxi. On our way out, however, we’re stopped by another man (the man who originally pulled the microphone from my camera) who, again, demands the tape. This time, through a combination of lies, blank tapes, and panicked phone calls to important contacts, we are allowed to leave, but with the warning “get out of the entire neighbourhood…”
The air is still thick with the haze of burning rubbish. Tonight, it mixes with the stench of burning rubber, a roadblock of tyres in flames built in protest by members of the Abu Aser family. Their son, a man from the Ezzeddin El-Qassam Brigades, was kidnapped by Hamas gunmen. Rifle fire cracks the air, but less often than last night.