Forty-year-old dentist Mahmúd Šahín received a phone call at dawn. It was Thursday, October 19, around 7:30 in the morning, and Israel had been bombing Gaza for 12 days straight. He was standing in his three-room apartment in the middle-class area of Zahra in the north of the Gaza Strip. Until now, the air raids have hardly touched it. He could hear the noise outside getting louder. People screamed. As he walked out, his phone lit up.
It was a call from a private number. “I’m calling you from Israeli intelligence,” said the man on the line, according to Mahmoud. The call lasted more than an hour and was the scariest call of his life, writes the BBC.
The voice addressed Mahmoud by his full name and spoke in flawless Arabic. “He told me he wanted to bomb three high-rise buildings and ordered me to evacuate the area,” he said. Collecting his thoughts, he told the man who introduced himself as Abu Khalid not to hang up the phone.
He says he has no idea why he was chosen for this task. But that day, he did everything he could to ensure the safety of his community.
Israel is waiting for people to evacuate
Mahmoud could not believe the man. People around him warned him that the call might be fake. So he asked the voice on the phone for a warning shot to prove it was real. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, he asked for one more, which rang out shortly after. Now that Mahmoud knew it was real, he tried to delay and asked the man for patience. The man said he would give Mahmoud time, saying he didn’t want anyone to die.
Hundreds of people poured into the streets that morning. Residents of this usually peaceful neighborhood screamed and ran, some of them wearing pajamas or prayer clothes.
Mahmoud did not understand why his neighborhood was targeted. “I tried my best to stop him,” he said, adding that he asked the man about it. “There are things we can see and you can’t,” replied the voice on the phone.
When the area around the buildings was cleared, the man announced to Mahmoud that the bombing would begin. Mahmoud stared at the three high-rises that adjoined his apartment building. Then one of them was bombed. “This is the building we want, stay away,” a man said into the phone as the building fell, according to Mahmoud. Then two more blocks were destroyed.
When the bombardment stopped, Mahmoud remembers a voice telling him, “We’re done, you can go back.” Mahmoud didn’t understand what he had just witnessed. He lived in this area for 15 years, running a busy dental practice and raising his children.
A rough night for all residents
Later that day, in his apartment, Mahmoud had just finished the night prayer when he saw a missed call on his phone from a private number. His heart sank. “I immediately understood that they were going to start evacuation and bombing, but I didn’t know what the target would be. I thought it could be my house, that it could be the house next to me,” he says.
Soon his phone rang again. There was another man on the line who introduced himself as Daúd. He said that after the events of the morning, they realized that Mahmoud is a “wise man” and that is why they are calling him again. Mahmoud was unnerved by the level of detail the man had about his life, the intimate way the man addressed him and the way he mentioned his son’s name.
The devastation from Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip continues to worsen, with an estimated one-third of all buildings in northern Gaza damaged or destroyed, an analysis of satellite imagery found. Thousands were damaged just last week. https://t.co/vDKkwNsryc https://t.co/VpPeAjxVuR
November 7, 2023 at 11:50 PM, Post Archived: November 8, 2023 at 3:42 PM
The man allegedly told him that more buildings would be destroyed that night and the dentist would have to order neighbors to evacuate again.
At that moment, Zahra was largely in the dark. Residents said the electricity went out and they had to use their phones and flashlights. Some managed to take pre-packed bags with items such as spare clothes, water, phones and first aid kits when they left their homes. Others don’t.
Mahmoud continued to try to buy as much time as possible and talked to the man until they had all left the area and got into their cars if they wanted to leave. Three buildings were destroyed. As Mahmoud watched the destruction, the man on the phone said that three more buildings would be bombed and then residents would be allowed to return.
But suddenly there was a change of orders. The man allegedly told him they were going to bomb a row of residential buildings on the east side of the street. It involved more than 20 tower blocks and hundreds of houses. Mahmoud said what he and his neighbors witnessed that night was the “complete destruction of buildings” as apartment blocks were razed to the ground one by one. “It was a very difficult night for all the people of Zahra,” he added.
We’ll keep calling until we’re done
At one point, Mahmoud was asked by a voice on his phone how much battery he had left. He had fifteen percent. He told him to hang up to keep her and that he would call him back. Frequent phone calls followed. “They called me to say, ‘Now we’re going to bomb another building, now we’re going to bomb another. We’re going to call until we’re done,’” says Mahmoud.
Mahmoud and the man who called himself Daoud talked until the streets fell silent. Then the calls suddenly stopped with no further instructions to the people of Zahra. In the hours and days that followed, the community, like many others in Gaza, fell apart.
“Even for the people whose houses were still standing, there are no services left, the sewage system is damaged, there is no bakery, no supermarket, no water, no electricity,” Mahmúd said.
His block was not destroyed, although it was severely damaged. The neighborhood where he built a dental practice over 15 years and became a mainstay is now gone. Nothing was left of him in Zahra. He took his family to another area of Gaza, where they live in a friend’s house, which is crowded with people.
It is believed that due to Mahmoud’s efforts, none of his neighbors died that day. But his account revealed the panic and anguish of the Palestinian community as they watched their homes and everything they loved explode around them, according to the BBC.
During the current conflict, the Israeli military occasionally calls residents of Gaza to warn them of airstrikes. The BBC cannot independently verify the content of the calls Mahmoud spoke to it about.
However, the details match those in a Facebook community group from the day, as well as satellite images before and after the bombing. The Israeli military says it strikes military targets and that these actions are subject to “the relevant provisions of international law”.