At 1:30 A.M. on Wednesday, July 16, the Azara family’s cell phone rang. The mother answered, and quickly hung up in fright. Then Samer Azara’s phone rang, and the 26-year-old police officer answered.
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The caller, Azara related, introduced himself as David from the Israel Defense Forces and told him in good Arabic: “You have three minutes to leave your house. I intend to launch a missile at the Issa house, your neighbors. What’s most important is that you remove the children; I don’t care about the adults.”
“I told him there are many children, about 50. How will we manage to get them all out in three minutes?” Azara recalled. “And he told me, ‘You have a lot of children; what do you do with them all?’ and slammed down the phone.”
The Azaras quickly informed the Issas and all their other neighbors in Gaza’s Bureij refugee camp. An announcement was also made over the mosque loudspeaker. About 20 families went out into the dark with their children, their elderly and a few documents they'd prepared in advance.
David from the IDF called Azara four more times to ensure that everyone had left, and a warning missile was fired. Then warplanes dropped seven missiles and two bombs on the Issas’ five-story house. The explosions destroyed two other houses as well, those of the Azara and Sarraj families.
The Issa house was undoubtedly an IDF target: Marwan Issa is a senior commander in Hamas’ military wing, apparently the heir of Ahmed Jabari, whom Israel assassinated in 2012. But Marwan didn’t live there with his parents and brothers — eight families in all, totaling 55 people. He was hiding out somewhere in Gaza, as the Israeli security services knew very well.
One of his brothers, a Fatah member, is an officer in the Palestinian security service who is paid by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Another, Raid, is an artist who has exhibited abroad and won artist-in-residence fellowships in France and Switzerland.
About six weeks ago, he had an exhibit in Ramallah, but Israel wouldn’t let him travel from Gaza to the West Bank for it.
Raid Issa, 38, told Haaretz he does nothing but draw. “I earn a living from my drawings, and now they’re all buried beneath the ruins,” he said.
“Now my oldest son, aged 4, asks me, ‘When are we going home?’” Raid said. “I took him to the ruined house, and he asked me, ‘Who broke the house?’ I told him the planes of the Israelis. He asked me why, and I told him they ‘broke’ ours like they broke others. He’s always asking how this could be. And then he told me, ‘I’ll break the Israelis’ house like they broke my house.’”
Since the bombing, the 11 families who lived in the three ruined houses have been wandering among relatives, friends and schools. Some left Bureij altogether, since many families have received recorded messages (but not personal phone calls) telling them to leave.
The Issas’ house is one of about 560 throughout Gaza that Israeli air strikes have intentionally destroyed, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. In some cases, as with the Issas, it’s clear the house was targeted because a single family member was a senior Hamas or Islamic Jihad operative.
But in other cases, the reason isn’t clear. Why was the house of someone who just joined Hamas’ military wing a month ago treated like the houses of its senior leaders? Was another house bombed because one brother works for a Turkish company? The family says it can’t think of any other “incriminating” factor.
Some houses have been bombed with no prior warning, with all their inhabitants still inside, for reasons incomprehensible to those relatives who survived. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, 53 entire families have been killed in this way.
But the 560 houses that were deliberately bombed constitute a tiny fraction of the total number of buildings damaged or destroyed over the past three weeks.
Hundreds of thousands of people from eastern and northern Gaza have fled their homes in that time. During Saturday’s humanitarian cease-fire, many discovered that their homes no longer existed.
The Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiations affairs department has tried to estimate the damage to date. According to preliminary data gathered by the Gazan health and housing ministries, 2,330 buildings have been totally destroyed. Another 2,080 have been partially destroyed to such a degree that it’s uncertain they can be repaired; 18 of the buildings that were completely or partially destroyed are mosques. And 23,160 buildings have been damaged, including 65 mosques, 20 schools, two churches and a Christian cemetery.
But these are merely preliminary estimates. As these lines were being written Monday night, those people still remaining in Gaza City’s Zeitoun and Shujaiyeh neighborhoods were being asked to leave as well. Many will find their houses gone if and when they return.