At 4:40 P.M. on Sunday, May 5, the ringing of a cell phone woke Khamis Ziada from his nap. It was an unidentified number. A voice on the other end said, “Am I speaking with Khamis Ziada? You’re talking to the Israeli Shin Bet. There’s a school opposite your house. Are there people in it at this time of the day?” Ziada replied that there was no one in the school in the late afternoon on that particular day, the first day of the Ramadan fast, and in any case school had been canceled because of the Israeli bombing raids. The security service agent continued, “Are you sure there are no women and children in the school? Are you positive there’s no one?” And then, “I’m giving you five minutes to tell your family and everyone in the residence you live in to go outside. We have to blow up the building in another five minutes.”
Dumbstruck, Ziada tried to protest. He explained to the mysterious caller that it was impossible to evacuate a seven-story building – where 15 families, including some with children and elderly people, lived – within five minutes. The Shin Bet man replied: “That’s of no interest to me. I already told you: You have five minutes.”
Thus began the most nightmarish five minutes in the life of Khamis Ziada, 54. After they ended, his home was destroyed, his world fell apart, and his life was ruined. In the month since then, he has lived in a lean-to, together with his two wives and 12 children, the youngest of whom is 4.
The Israel Air Force attack left a heap of rubble; the apartment building imploded in seconds, raising a thick dark cloud of dust. It was the last day of the most recent round of fighting in the Gaza Strip and in the Israeli communities around it. As usual, the Israel Defense Forces wanted to end it with the resounding crescendo of the toppling of a multistory residence.
Ziada wasn’t able to save a thing – neither his belongings nor his apartment, which he was only able to purchase only after working for years as an electrician in the garage of the Egged bus company in Holon. Nothing survived, not so much as a shirt.
Ziada, who now does annual car inspections for the Palestinian Authority, dredges up the Hebrew he learned in Holon years ago. He used to read bus repair manuals in Hebrew, he says. He worked for Egged from 1987 until 1993 – those were good times, he says.
His second wife, Donya Daher, 42, joined the extended Skype conversation I had with Ziada last week. His first wife, Fat’hiya, who’s 45 and a relative of senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, also lives with him along with their children. “Everyone lives in the building that the planes finished off,” he tells me.
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Their apartment, which Ziada bought 10 years ago, was in a building in Gaza’s Tel al-Halwa neighborhood. He finished paying off the mortgage two years ago. During the past three years he’s earned only 1,000 shekels (about $280) a month, because the salaries of PA employees in the Strip have been cut in half. As the son of refugees who had to leave Jaffa in 1948, he receives food aid from UNRWA, the United Nations refugee agency.
Ziada’s first-floor apartment had five rooms. The office of Islamic Jihad’s welfare agency was on the floor above it – which is why the air force demolished the entire building. Every morning between 9 A.M. and noon, he says, needy families would come to the office to receive assistance. For the rest of the day the office was empty; no other activity took place there. There was no one there when the building was bombed, either. All the other apartments in the building were private residences.
The first time Ziada’s building was damaged was five years ago, in Operation Protective Edge, when a drone fired a warning missile at it; as the occupants rushed out, an Israeli helicopter sprayed it with machine-gun fire. Two or three days later, the occupants returned home. It took until a year ago to finish repairing the damage. But on May 5 of this year, their luck ran out. “Until about 4:30 that afternoon everything was fine,” says Ziada. “And then it was all over.”
In the morning he had gone shopping with Daher. When they returned at 3:30 P.M., he went to sleep. After the Shin Bet called to warn about the impending strike, Ziada shouted to his wives and children to go downstairs fast. His son Amar, 24, rushed to the top floor of the building, making his way down after knocking on the door of every apartment and shouting to everyone to vacate the premises immediately.
Donya Daher wrings her hands as her husband continues to describe the horrors of the evacuation.
Ziada: “Everyone in my home started to shout and cry, and in the middle of it all I was on the stairs yelling at everyone to leave, that in another five minutes they’re going to bomb the building. One woman, who’s 30, became stiff as a board and couldn’t budge, out of fear. My son put her on his back and carried her all the way downstairs. Women who need to cover their heads before leaving the house went outside without a head covering. We were barefoot; none of us managed to find our shoes.
“Old people and children ran around and cried – that’s what happened in the five minutes we were given by the Israeli authorities. There was hysteria. We’re still in hysteria. During those five minutes, we became hysterical. Up until this very moment, a month later, all the people who were in the building are living with the fear of what happened to us during those five minutes. Do you know what it’s like to evacuate a multistory building in five minutes?
“Finally, I went downstairs, too,” Ziada continues. “We had Amar’s wedding a month before the bombing, so I took with me the new suit I had bought. Other than that, I didn’t manage to take anything. Neither documents nor money. Nothing. The children didn’t take anything, either. Do you know what they did to us in those five minutes? Created madness in the brain. Up until this moment, as I’m speaking with you, I’m afraid.
“I worked in Israel for many years to buy that home. On the days of the work strikes during the first intifada, I walked to the Erez checkpoint so I wouldn’t lose a day of work. I left home at 3 A.M. and got back at 6 in the evening. I burned up years of my life in Israel so I could buy that apartment. And now I have lost not only my home, I’ve lost my life. I’ve lost my daughters’ lives. How will I buy another house at my age? I’m naked.
“The pants and shirt I’m wearing I got from other people. Someone gave me underwear. Someone gave me shoes. I’m like nothing. And what they did to my mind, to the minds of my wives, my children. The children wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘We want to go back home. Back to our books.’ And I say, ‘Where do you think we will go? We have no home.’
“Your government and your army – how can they do something like that? Don’t they know we are civilians? Don’t they know? I’m not just talking about myself. There are people who didn’t finish paying off their mortgage. If we’d been bombed and had stayed inside the building, it would have been easier for us than those five minutes. It would be more convenient if we had died.”
His voice breaks. The Skype connection also breaks off for a few minutes. Our conversation was made possible thanks to the devoted work of Gaza Strip field researchers Olfat al-Kurd and Khaled al-Azayzeh, from the Israel human rights organization B’Tselem. They had heard about the story and arranged for us to speak, since we Israeli journalists are not allowed into the Strip.
Once the building’s residents were on the street, they all ran as far and as fast as they could from the building. The Shin Bet agent called again, to ascertain that the building was empty. The people stood down the street, appalled, and watched as their homes were bombed by pilots of the “moral” Israeli air force. Neighbors gathered with them. “We watched as our house was bombed. As it came down. We all waited to see how the planes fired missiles at the building. How it came down.”
A drone fired three or four warning missiles at the roof – a tactic called “roof knocking” – and then, at 5 P.M. precisely, on the fifth day of the fifth month, the warplane fired the missile that caused the building to collapse instantly. The noise was earsplitting. Clouds of smoke and dust columned into the air and lingered there for a long time. The former occupants scattered in every direction, unable to bear the scene of destruction, spending their first homeless night with neighbors and relatives. The Ziada family spent the night in a shack near the home of relatives. People donated mattresses, clothing, blankets.
“It was very, very hard for us,” Ziada explains. “We slept like dogs, like animals. I couldn’t fall asleep: The next day was [still] Ramadan, I had to fast and I needed to live with this day. We drank tea. We drank water. Neighbors brought us halvah and we got through the night.” They stayed in the lean-to for a month. “We had nowhere to go. We were like beggars. We begged people to help us. One person brought us pita, another one brought rice.”
It was only this week that the family succeeded in renting a three-room apartment, for $200 a month. The Palestinian Employment Ministry will help to pay the rent for six months. What happens after that? Ziada has no idea. No one has spoken to him, neither from the PA or from Hamas: “They didn’t even come to offer their condolences. That makes me angry. At least let them say a few nice words. No one came to us.”
The morning after, occupants of the building came back to see the devastation. People tried to salvage a blanket or a shirt, to poke through the rubble to find a document or a certificate, maybe a photograph, amid the piles of stones and mounds of dirt and dust. They found only shreds of blankets and tatters of clothing. Nothing was left of the furniture or the utensils. The destruction was total.
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The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit this week issued the following statement to Haaretz: “The building in question is one that had been under the control of Hamas since it was erected in 2010, and was used for the digging of an important network of tunnels beneath it. Hamas used the building for military purposes in clear exploitation of the local population living within and around it as a means for hiding and protecting the terror infrastructure under its authority.
“It must be stressed that before the attack, precautionary evacuation measures were taken in the area in order to prevent harm to uninvolved individuals as much as possible. (This was done several hours before the attack and not five minutes beforehand, as is claimed in the article.)
“The IDF plans its attacks in a way that will ensure operational achievements while minimizing harm to citizens and their property.”
According to UN data, about 100 buildings, containing a total of 33 residential units, were completely destroyed by Israeli bombing in the recent round in Gaza. Fifty-two families, 327 individuals, including 65 infants and toddlers under the age of 5, were left homeless. Hundreds of other apartments and buildings sustained damage.
The junk dealers started to show up at the site with their mule-drawn carts to try and pull out metals and other construction materials from the wreckage. This week, the rubble was still there, where the apartment building stood until a month ago.
What does he miss most? “The photos,” says Ziada. “The photos of my father, of my mother, of my wife and of the children. Everything that reminds me of the days that are gone. My heart is burned. Life for us is burned. They burned everything that was beautiful in our life. Like paper they burned it.
“How can the Israeli people be silent about what happened? We are the closest peoples to one another. We worked together, ate together, slept together, lived together. You used to come to our weddings. How can the Israeli people be silent when it sees what is happening to us? You used all the missiles in the world against us, including some that are banned. Where is the Israeli people when it sees its government doing this? In Gaza there are people with no arms, no legs; there isn’t a home without someone dead. How can you, a democracy, behave like that?
“I only hope this gets to the government, that this article will reach Netanyahu and the Israeli people. We’ve been left with nothing. People are wandering around here with diseases and can’t leave; in some cases their children have died. Are you pleased about that? Are you pleased at what you are doing to us? We are not animals. We are human beings, just like you are human beings. Don’t you want us to live? Do you want us to die? You’re toppling buildings on our heads? Leave us alone to live. The same way you live – we want to live.
“We are all cripples in Gaza. You close the sky to us, close the sea to us, close the land. What do you want from us? You are making us hate all Israelis,” Ziada says. “We don’t want that. Open Gaza and let us live, and maybe we’ll forget what you did to us.”