Gaza's residents, under a constant barrage of Israeli bombs, are being told to evacuate to stay safe. If they could escape, they would.
GAZA CITY — Gamal Magdi Mushtaha had been up all night, unable to sleep, when his cellphone rang at 7:30 a.m. on Friday. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as an Israeli military officer. "Gamal," he said, addressing the father of three by his first name, "you have to leave your house."
To anyone other than a resident of Gaza, the call would be baffling. But Mushtaha, a 39-year-old contractor from Shejaiya, a town east of Gaza City, knew what this was about. The Israeli military was going to bomb his home.
He argued with the officer, explaining to him that five families live in the three-story house, including 15 children. "I told him I'm not wanted, that I'm a civilian," Mushtaha says. "He just said my house was a target and I had five minutes to get out."
Mushtaha woke up his family and rushed them out the door and down the street. A few minutes later he watched as his home was reduced to rubble in a double airstrike -- one missile falling after the other. "I don't know where to go or what to do. I have no home now," he says.
Israel has lauded its warnings to Palestinians ahead of bombing their homes as a humanitarian act, a magnanimous gesture towards its enemy and a tactic designed to minimize civilian casualties. But in Gaza, it is a cruel reminder of how powerless residents are in the face of Israel's military machine and of their inability to prevent the wanton destruction of their lives. From Gaza City in the north to Khan Younis in the south, Palestinians in Gaza are being told to leave their homes, businesses, and even hospitals to make way for Israeli bombs. Too often, they have nowhere to go.
Warnings or not, the Israeli military has killed nearly 300 Palestinians since the latest bombing campaign began on July 8, some 77 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Over 1,700 homes have been destroyed or severely damaged.
Eleven days in and there is no end in sight to the assault from the air. The bombardment is almost always worse at night. After announcing the start of a ground offensive on Thursday, July 17, Israel attacked by air, land, and sea -- pounding Gaza with naval artillery, tank shells, and airstrikes. Power lines were hit and the Strip was plunged into darkness. Israeli flares cast a fiery orange glow over the smoke and dust climbing into the air where the bombs landed.*
Gaza stayed deserted the next day as the bombing continued unabated. Rubble, twisted metal, and broken glass littered the streets. A few families on rickety horse-drawn carts creaked along, carrying scant belongings. They were fleeing their homes to avoid the intense shelling, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the Strip.
Residents who witnessed the ground offensive said Israeli forces did not venture far into Gaza. "Bulldozers, jeeps, and tanks came in about 50 meters, then they started shelling heavily," said Gamal Hassan Sultan, a resident from al-Atatra, about a mile from the Israeli border.
So far, it has been more of an incursion than a full-scale invasion, though Israel has vowed to expand its operations. And the Israeli military continues its warnings to Gaza's residents, though they are not always heeded.
Since the beginning of the war, Israel had been calling the al-Wafa rehabilitation hospital in eastern Gaza telling them to evacuate ahead of a scheduled bombing, according to the hospital's executive director Basman al-Ashi. The Israeli military says it was attacking military targets nearby. Many of the patients at al-Wafa are severely disabled or paralyzed, unable to move. The staff refuses to leave.
The fourth floor of the hospital was first shelled on Tuesday, and several times after that. Doctors moved the patients to the first floor to withstand the assault. Around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, they received another call from an Israeli officer telling them to evacuate. Again, they refused. Minutes later, the attack began with artillery shells crashing into the fourth, third, and second floors.
"The electricity went out, all the windows shattered, the hospital was full of dust, we couldn't see anything," says Aya Abdan, a 16-year-old patient at the hospital who is paraplegic and has cancer in her spinal cord. She is one of the few who can speak. Many of the other patients are comatose.
Under heavy fire, the handful of doctors and staff carried out the 17 remaining patients on stretchers, in blankets, and in their arms to ambulances that had arrived after braving the intense shelling. They were transferred to the Sahaba Medical Complex in Gaza City. Al-Wafa hospital was completely destroyed. "I was very afraid," Abdan says. "I'm still afraid."
Sometimes, Israel's warnings come in the form of a "knock on the roof" -- a lower-grade munition fired at a building to encourage residents to evacuate prior to a much bigger strike. The blast may be less lethal but it is nevertheless terrifying.
Maher Dabbagh, who lives in the center of Gaza City, was shocked out of his slumber at 4:00 a.m. on Thursday by such a strike on his roof. Many Palestinian families have taken to sleeping together in the same room to be able to evacuate in time. Dabbagh scrambled out of his house with his five kids. His neighbors all did the same, flooding out of their homes and running down the street, young children tripping over each other screaming. Minutes later, two missiles slammed into an empty lot adjacent to the house. "It felt like an earthquake," Dabbagh said.
The bombing left deep cracks in the walls of his home, some buckling dangerously inward, and destroyed part of the first floor. "We were all surprised. I've never seen a rocket go out from here," he said. "Why do they do this?"
The Israeli air force has also taken to showering districts of Gaza with thousands of leaflets, instructing residents to flee, or risk putting "his and his family's lives at risk. Beware." Over the past several days, leaflets have warned Palestinians to leave their homes in the north, south, and east. More than 40,000 residents have been displaced, according to the United Nations.
Tamer Zayed fled with his family from Beit Lahia, a town near Gaza's northern border, to Gaza City after leaflets were dropped on his district. He is now sleeping on the floor of a classroom in a U.N.-run school that has been converted into a makeshift shelter. His brother-in-law was killed days earlier, in an airstrike as he was walking down the street.
"Every two years we leave our houses and we come here," Zayed says, referring to previous Israeli assaults. "And the whole world just watches."
But often the Israelis give no warning at all.
At 7:00 a.m. on Friday, an Apache helicopter fired three missiles, one minute apart, into the eighth floor of the al-Jawhara building in Gaza City where the Watania News Agency, a well-known local TV production company, has its offices. Thirty media workers were sleeping inside, as they had for the past 11 days, working night and day to cover the war. Miraculously, only two people were wounded in the attack.
"We are well-known journalists," says Mustafa Shahada, the executive director of Watania, standing in the street amid the debris, glass, and papers from his office in the street below the building. The twisted shell of one of the missiles lay nearby. "God knows why they hit us."
Residents of Gaza can do little in the face of Israel's assault. Yet not all messages to Palestinians in Gaza are threats. On Thursday evening, as the Israeli bombardment was at its peak, many customers of the Palestinian cellphone service Jawwal received a text message. "Dear customer, 10 shekels credit has been added to your account free of charge for use in emergency situations, may God help you. The Jawwal family prays that God may protect you and our people from any harm."
Correction, July 21, 2014: Israel started its ground offensive in Gaza on Thursday, July 17. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the offensive started on June 17. (Return to reading.)
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