Dispatch

Nowhere to Run

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.)

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Infowar Rages in Moscow

From flying corpses to Spanish air traffic controllers, Russian media are doing their best to muddy the waters around what happened to MH17.

MOSCOW — One of the first of the various bizarre theories to emerge from the Russian media's coverage of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 downing was also one of the most outlandish: the Tale of the Spanish Dispatcher.

The night of the disaster, a certain "Carlos," presenting himself as a Spanish air traffic controller working in Kiev, began Tweeting in Spanish that Ukrainian jets, rather than separatists on the ground, had shot down the passenger plane. Russian media took the bait: "Spanish dispatcher: Two Ukrainian warplanes were near the Boeing before its disappearance," read the headline on the Kremlin's most propagandistic news outlet, Russia Today. Several major news outlets also picked up the story with similar headlines, including state channel Rossiya 24, the Defense Ministry's Zvezda channel, and popular newspapers like Komsomolskaya Pravda and Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official mouthpiece of the Russian government. Others even speculated that Ukrainian forces had been trying to shoot down the Russian presidential jet, which supposedly had crossed paths with MH17 earlier that day. Between news broadcasts, Rossiya 24 added fuel to the fire by airing a segment about Siberian Air Flight 1812, which Ukraine admitted was accidentally shot down by its fighter jets over the Black Sea in 2001.

By the next day, Ukrainian and Western journalists had revealed "Carlos's" account, which has since been deleted, to be a fake. (The Spanish embassy said this Twitter user had been active during the Kiev protests but denied that any Spanish air traffic controller was in Ukraine.) Even Igor Korotchenko, editor of the Russian journal National Defense, argued the plane had not been shot down by fighter jets. No matter. The work was done: the narrative of events had already been muddied.

Since MH17 went down outside a small hamlet in eastern Ukraine -- a disaster which many in the West blame on pro-Russian rebels -- Russian media coverage of the event has unfolded like a noir detective story, with a nefarious plot twist emerging at every turn. On Russian television and Twitter, wave after wave of theories have emerged, blaming Kiev and other unseen enemies in a frenzy of conspiracy that seems calculated to obscure the truth about MH17 rather than reveal it.

"Because the Kremlin feels like an accessory to this event, the mass media is working in step, stressing different points to distract attention from the Kremlin," said Oleg Kozyrev, a popular opposition-friendly blogger and media analyst in Moscow. "Or, if that doesn't work, at least to talk around the topic, to make viewers think this is not all so clear-cut, that maybe it wasn't the separatists."

A Friday newscast on Rossiya 1 quoted a defense analyst arguing MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. The channel quickly jumped, however, to Defense Ministry spokesman Aleksey Komarov claiming that not only had Ukrainian military surface-to-air missiles been deployed to Donetsk, the region in eastern Ukraine over which the plane went down, but also missile-equipped aircraft -- hinting once again that Ukrainian fighter jets had shot it down.

On its broadcast, Rossiya 24 quoted a report by the popular news site Lifenews, notorious for its publish-first-ask-questions-later approach, arguing that the "plane could have come under anti-aircraft fire because it deviated from its planned route." (Pro-Kremlin media impresario Konstantin Rykov and others claimed on Twitter that the flight had gone 300 kilometers off route.) Malaysia Airlines said on Thursday that MH17's route had been approved by Eurocontrol, the top supervisory body, and was often flown by other planes. Another plane was even flying the route when MH17 was hit, it said.

A bizarre article on the website for Rossiya 24 mused on how many "assumptions and open fakes" had been drummed up to explain the air catastrophe, including the discredited Spanish dispatcher story. Yet it then waded into an incredible tale, put forth on Russia's VK social network relaying messages from Igor Strelkov, the leader of the separatist armed forces and a former Russian intelligence officer. It alleged that "a significant portion of the corpses weren't fresh" on the plane, hinting at a wide-ranging conspiracy to discredit his forces. Rossiya called the tale "impossible to believe" but nonetheless said it had come from a "clear-thinking military man."

"Of course, medical experts will be able to determine the exact time of the Boeing passengers' and crew's death," the Rossiya article read. "However, the fact that the passports picked up by locals after the crash were clean, as if they were fresh from the printing press, cannot but surprise us."

In the information war between Kiev and Moscow, the Ukrainian media has been similarly bombastic in seeing Putin's hand in the accident. But in Russia, the government controls all nationwide television news channels: in recent months, several prominent independent news sources have been saddled with pro-Kremlin executives or limited in their distribution. The Russian media's first task is one of patriotic servitude rather than fact-finding, says political analyst Alexei Makarkin. "The majority of the mass media see themselves as protecting interests of country, of Russia," he says. "This is contradictory to the Western approach, where they try to consider all different opinions."

State television has brought on a recurring cast of characters to peddle the Kremlin MH17 line. Broadcasters have aired repeated statements by President Vladimir Putin, who, in a clear dig at Kiev, argued that the catastrophe never would have happened if "hostilities had not resumed in southeast Ukraine." Also in heavy rotation was Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who dismissed Kiev's accusations that Russia was behind the downing of the plane by arguing he hadn't "heard any truthful statements from Kiev over the past few months," as well as Korotchenko and Komarov suggesting the Ukrainian military had likely fired on the civilian flight.

As long as foolproof evidence of the culprit remains elusive, Moscow will continue be able to "deny and debate the story" of the downed flight, Makarkin says. "It must be proven 100 percent for Russia to admit its guilt in supporting the rebels."

Pro-Kremlin commentators argued the media's mostly unsubstantiated musings were in the spirit of raising essential questions and debate, bristling at what they saw as premature Western condemnation of Russia's role in the crash. "Why hold investigations, collect evidence, conduct analyses if the guilty party has already been decreed. It's some kind of farce, not a session," influential Rossiya 1 host Vladimir Solovyov Tweeted during the U.N. Security Council meeting on Friday.

But until the truth is known conclusively, the war to claim it continues on Moscow's airwaves. By the 11 p.m. newscast on Friday, Rossiya 24 was arguing ever more forcefully that Ukrainian forces had shot down the plane and insinuated that the United States was manipulating the air disaster to take Russia's place as Europe's main energy provider. Russian liberal voices and opposition figures looked on in dismay, including anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who Tweeted about Rossiya 24's corpse-flight story: "Why do they think this up and does anyone really believe it?"

"One air catastrophe that set a 13-year record for the number of people killed was enough," Igor Belkin, a former editor at the major news site Lenta.ru, which was taken over by a pro-Kremlin editor earlier this year, wrote on Facebook. "But the info-fuck around it makes everything worse."

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)