Gazans Ran for Their Lives – and From the Israeli Army’s Sinister Phone Calls

Miscommunication between the army and UN organizations led to the dissemination of a notice that schools designated to serve as shelters would be bombed. The bombing didn’t happen, but the fears got even worse

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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People gather to survey the severely damaged Al-Jawhara building following a cease-fire reached after an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, on Friday.
People gather to survey the severely damaged Al-Jawhara building following a cease-fire reached after an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, on Friday.Credit: John Minchillo/AP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

When the phone rang and the words “private number” appeared on the screen, Khaled and his nephew Bilal, who was with him by chance, assumed that someone from the Israeli army or the Shin Bet security service was calling. They were right.

Hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, if not more, received a phone call during the 11 days of fighting only to hear someone from the Israeli military informing them that within an hour or a half hour, the building next to them would be bombed, or their building would be shelled because of someone living there.

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Hundreds of thousands passed the time anxiously, fearing they would receive the same message from a private number. Bilal (all the names here have been changed) answered, and the voice at the other end said: “Leave the building because we’ll soon be shelling the office of Abu Ibrahim Sinwar” in the neighborhood.

The caller didn’t say Yahya, preferring to use the familiar nickname of the Hamas leader. Similar notices were delivered to other residents in the northern part of the Rimal neighborhood in Gaza City, between Lababidi and Falastin streets.

The call came at around 3 P.M. Sunday a week ago. Ten minutes later, the phone rang again. The caller told Bilal to have a look at Sinwar’s office. Bilal refused. What if he did and it was shelled just then? This has happened to some people, they say in Gaza.

Children filling jerricans with water in Gaza City on Thursday. Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP

The caller rang again and asked Bilal what was in certain shops next door. He replied that he didn’t know and says the caller told him he would be responsible for the results. Bilal didn’t bother answering this paternalistic statement, uttered by a military man as the air filled with the buzzing of drones and the booms of explosions both near and far, not to mention the roar of fighter jets above.

Bilal, his uncle and his aunt left the apartment on the spot and went to his parents’ house, which was in the same neighborhood but farther away from the offices of “Abu Ibrahim.” They left carrying nothing but their passports, IDs, proof they had been vaccinated against COVID-19, and the little cash they had.

The next day, at noon this past Monday, the spokesman of the Hamas government information office in Gaza announced that the Israeli army had informed a UN agency operating in Gaza that it was going to shell two government schools – Al-Buraq and Al-Aqsa, which are situated in the middle of that same northern Rimal neighborhood. The two schools are very near the 15-apartment building where Bilal’s family lives, which houses 15 families. The official announcement spread like wildfire.

A few hundred families, a total of 2,500 people according to some estimates, began an alarmed exodus from their homes, looking for shelter. They included the families of Bilal and his uncle.

But it turned out that the cellphone message got its wires crossed, as it were. A defense official told Haaretz that a representative of Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories had called the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, asking for the number of a liaison person at a school (not indicating which one). According to this official, there was no intention to bomb schools; the call was about something else.

An Israeli airstrike on Gaza City's Rimal neighborhood on Thursday. Credit: Bashar Taleb / AFP

Fears of becoming “collateral damage”

A UN source told Haaretz that an official in the Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (subordinate to the Coordinator of Government Activities) had phoned one of the UN agencies in Gaza, telling about an impending bombing of a target near the schools that could cause “collateral damage.” According to the UN source, the official didn’t say what the target was and didn’t ask to speak directly to anyone at the school.

The UN agency passed the information on to OCHA, which in turn passed it on to an “education cluster,” a group of international agencies and nongovernmental organizations dealing with education in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, working in coordination with the Palestinian Authority’s Education Ministry in Ramallah.

The cluster passed the information on to school principals, who apparently passed it on to someone in the Gaza government. All this happened quickly, with fears that the information wouldn’t arrive on time and that a bomb would fall while people were still in their homes. Somewhere along the way, at some unknown link in this chain, it was understood that the schools were the target.

After the 2014 Gaza war, these schools were prepared as a place of refuge in case of a military escalation. OCHA informed the Israeli liaison administration that these schools were supposed to be shelters for displaced families and that they were funded by two international agencies, UNICEF and ECHO – European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations. OCHA told the liaison administration that there was a risk that the schools would be destroyed or damaged as “collateral damage.”

A search for survivors in Rimal. Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP

In the last days of the fighting the schools still stood unharmed and empty, despite the rise in the number of people requiring refuge and shelter, having to leave their homes amid airstrikes and fears of becoming “collateral damage.” Not knowing when and which “target” would be bombed, the residents of this neighborhood stayed away from their homes between Monday and dawn Friday (hours after the cease-fire was announced).

One of them is Reem, a doctor, the only one of her family who went to work throughout the fighting. She had to maneuver her car, bypassing streets that were completely demolished by shelling, afraid that a bomb might fall exactly where she happened to be.

Young people providing aid

“When we heard the announcement about the school, we immediately got into our car. We didn’t know where we were heading,” she told Haaretz on Wednesday.

“We were just about to have our lunch. The table was set. We left everything. The food remained in the pots and the cutlery on the table. Before that I had spoken to my sister-in-law about what to take if we had to leave. I have some Palestinian embroidery that’s a few decades old, part of our cultural heritage. I have some ornaments, jewelry, photos. But aside from documents and vaccination records, I took my laptop. When you have to leave to save your life, nothing material seems important.

A boy selling pretzels in Rimal.Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP

“We were in our car. We drove, anxious that we’d be bombed any minute. We moved away from the area around the two schools. My husband has a heart condition. I saw that he was in distress. I stopped outside a building. There were people there we didn’t know. I gave him his medication. They offered us water and said there was an empty apartment in the building, but we wanted to move farther away.

“I kept on driving, parking beside a large tree. Some young people were around and immediately suggested that we sit with them. They made us coffee. We asked for their names. They were from the Badrasawi family, from the village of Beit Daras [which was left in ruins in 1948]. The family of my husband are refugees from that village. These young people we had just met insisted that we take shelter with them inside their home. We sat there for six hours. In the end, we joined some other member of our family, in another emergency apartment.

“In previous wars, the Rimal neighborhood was the safest. Now it has been made a main target. Al-Wahda Street, which was destroyed on Sunday morning by a bomb that killed three families, isn’t far from our house. Where I work, I saw fragments that reached the parking area. The motto of this war is ‘only one person is left from every family,” or “entire families are rubbed out.”

“Everyone knows someone who was killed. A neighbor told me about her niece who was killed by a bomb Sunday with her two children, ages 5 and 3. She was pregnant in her fourth month. The father was found under the rubble and is now lying unconscious in an emergency room.

“I have a colleague at work, a technician – yesterday his wife called him to say that the Jews had phoned and told her that she had to evacuate the house because they were going to be bombed. He ran home to take something out of the house, and at that exact moment it was bombed. He was wounded and is now in the hospital with half a brain. Only this morning I was talking to him.”

A man in Rimal examines an unexploded bomb. Credit: Mahmud Hams / AFP

Reem then erupted. “Damn the world. How many wars? I miss my garden, our nest of pigeons. Now they’re all dead because we didn’t dare go feed them again,” she said.

“In 2008, during the first war, I had a red rose bush with a deep, intoxicating smell. All the phosphorous bombs they dropped back then turned it black. I’ve never found another like it. As I’m talking to you, I’m longing for all the trees in our garden, the swing that I like to sit on and read. I still haven’t regained my composure after the 2014 war, and already there’s a new war.

“Each war starts from the place where the last war left off. This one started with the destruction of towers and then our memories. Here there was a falafel stand that I used to walk to with the children, under a tower that was destroyed. Here there was a cafe with a view of the sea, where I loved to sit and relax. That building was also blown up, yesterday.”

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