The voice addressed Mahmoud by his full name and spoke in flawless Arabic. “He told me they wanted to bomb three high-rise buildings and ordered me to evacuate the area,” he told the BBC. Collecting his thoughts, he told the man who introduced himself as Abu Khalid not to hang up the phone.
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Mahmoud explains that 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.
Mahmoud was reluctant to believe the man on the phone. People around him warned him that such calls could be fake. So he asked for a warning shot on the phone that would prove it was indeed true. He came seemingly out of nowhere. He asked for one more, which rang shortly after.
Knowing it was real, Mahmoud 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.
‘We want this building’
Hundreds of people poured into the streets that morning. Residents of the 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 tower blocks that adjoined his house. Then one of them was bombed. “This is the building we want, stay away,” the man warned into the phone as the building fell, according to Mahmoud. Then two more blocks were destroyed.
When the bombardment stopped, Mahmoud remembers a voice on the phone assuring 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.
Another phone call
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 recalls.
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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 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.
Compared to the ground
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. There were more than 20 tower blocks and hundreds of houses. Mahmoud described what he and his neighbors witnessed that night as “total 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.
At one point, Mahmoud was asked by a voice on his phone how much battery he had left. He had 15 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, supermarket, water, electricity,” described Mahmúd.
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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 of the community 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 narrative revealed the panic and anguish of the Palestinian community as they watched their homes and everything they loved explode around them.
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 the data in the Facebook community group from that 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”.
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