Profile: Workers Attempt to Fix Broken Sewer Pipe in West Bank Refugee Camp

Morning Edition: July 1, 2002

Gaza Postcard


Hundreds of thousands of West Bank residents are under curfew imposed by the Israeli army. The order does not affect the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians are permitted to leave their homes. But Gaza has its own problems. This fenced-in strip of land on the Mediterranean coast is effectively divided by Israeli roadblocks, and for most Gazans, living conditions are miserable. Some of the most severe problems are found in the Rafah refugee camp near the border with Egypt. NPR's Peter Kenyon visited Rafah and found that even the smallest improvements require major efforts.

PETER KENYON reporting:

The Rafah refugee camp backs right up against the Egyptian border, and is the scene of heavy Israeli military activity. The army demolished dozens of homes here last winter, saying weapons were being smuggled in from Egypt via tunnels. The media focused on the Palestinian families left homeless, but there were lingering effects for those who remained. For one thing, the sewer system no longer worked.


KENYON: Water from a damaged pump house sprays over a pool of human waste and the fetid odor seems to be baked onto your clothes by the midday sun. A small crowd of Europeans dressed in white shirts and baseball caps is standing around watching the Palestinian workers repair the pipe. Yusef Haji(ph), with the Committee for the Protection of the Palestinian People, explains that the repair work is only possible because these Italians, Belgians and French Moroccans have placed themselves in between the workers and the Israeli snipers in the watchtower a few hundred yards away.

Mr. YUSEF HAJI (Committee for the Protection of the Palestinian People): FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN

KENYON: `We're here in Bloco(ph) with the Rafah camp,' he says, `because for the past six months Palestinian technicians have been shot at every time they tried to repair the lines, even after coordinating their visits with the Israelis. So we're standing here to offer protection to the workers.'


KENYON: Khalil Shaheen, with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, says this human chain allowed 80 percent of the repair work to be finished the day before.

Mr. KHALIL SHAHEEN (Palestinian Center for Human Rights): And we hope that we will succeed to continue today, but yesterday the harassment of the Israeli tanks continued. They shoot against the mission members and against the workers five times.

KENYON: On this day, at least two shots are heard; each time the Europeans, none of whom is wearing a flak jacket, immediately pull out their passports and wave them in the air as it to ward off further gunfire.


KENYON: Medical worker Jamal Arusi(ph) says the uncontained raw sewage was spreading disease, especially among the children. But this repair barely begins to address the problem. He says only 17 percent of Gazans have access to working sewer systems.

Mr. JAMAL ARUSI (Medical Worker): So it means that the rest of the others, you know, are using the pump underground and they brought their sewage inside, which is affecting the water. And according to the studies by Ministry of Health, the water is not good for human beings.

KENYON: It's a small victory, and it may come at a high price for some of the Europeans who intervene. Israel has begun deporting some international activists and refusing entry to others, calling their behavior provocative. But Gazans are grateful for the help. In a place where the prospect of a normal life seems a far-off fantasy, they say even a mended pipe can seem like a small miracle. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.

EDWARDS: The time is 21 minutes before the hour.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: NPR regrets that a comment from the Israeli Defense Force spokesman's office about the situation in Gaza was not included in Peter Kenyon's report. Kenyon did in fact contact the IDF for their comments before writing his report. The IDF spokesman said that he would investigate the incident and "get back" to the reporter but did not do so. The spokesman would neither confirm nor deny that Israeli troops had shot at those trying to repair the sewer line. As a result Kenyon did not include the spokesman's comments. He should have.]

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