At the center of information about this practice is a remarkable person, forty-year-old dentist Mahmúd Shahin, whose story was reported by the British BBC.
Shahin received an unusual phone call from an unknown man claiming to represent Israeli intelligence. That phone call made Mahmoud an unsung hero as he played a key role in keeping his community safe at a time of intense danger.
It was Thursday, October 19, and Israel had been bombing Gaza for 12 days straight. The phone call that changed Mahmoud’s life forever came around 7:30 in the morning, when Mahmoud was in his third-floor apartment in al-Zahra, a middle-class neighborhood in the northern Gaza Strip. Until then, his area was almost untouched by airstrikes. However, the increasing noise and shouting of the people outside indicated that danger was approaching.
As Mahmoud went to find a safe place, his phone rang. The call was from a private number and the voice on the other end claimed to be from Israeli intelligence in flawless Arabic.
The man had a chilling message for Mahmoud. He announced that three nearby buildings would be targeted and ordered Mahmoud to evacuate the area. Although Mahmoud’s own building was not directly threatened, he suddenly found himself in a situation where he was responsible for the lives of hundreds of people nearby. “I had people’s lives in my hands,” Mahmoud himself later admitted.
About hospitals in the Gaza Strip
Mahmoud couldn’t believe it when the man started talking, he recalls. People around him warned him that the call might be fake. Since the start of the war, Facebook messages have circulated warning of fake calls and offering tips on how to spot genuine Israeli evacuation orders.
Mahmoud asked the voice on the phone to fire a warning shot and prove it was real. The warning shot did indeed come and hit one of the threatened apartment buildings.
Now that Mahmoud knew it was real, he tried to delay and asked the man for patience. In his own words, he told him at the time: “Don’t betray us and don’t bomb while people are still evacuating.”
What followed was a remarkable conversation that lasted more than an hour. The man on the phone said he would give Mahmoud time – he said he didn’t want anyone to die. Confused and worried, Mahmoud did what he could to ensure the safety of his community. He kept telling the man, who identified himself as Abu Khaled, not to hang up.
Throughout the call, Mahmoud pleaded for the bombing to stop and shouted for people to run to safety, according to the BBC. “I didn’t want to learn that there was someone I could have saved and I didn’t,” Mahmoud told the BBC.
Guided by the voices of strangers who knew how to call him again even after his phone battery died, he eventually managed to arrange a mass evacuation of the neighborhood. As the area around the targeted buildings was cleared, a voice on the phone told Mahmoud that the bombing would begin. Mahmoud just stared as the bombs hit one of the three tower blocks adjacent to his apartment building. A little while later, the other two were razed to the ground as well.
When the bombardment stopped, a voice told Mahmoud that he could return. But the horrors he experienced did not end there.
The second wave of raids came at night
Later that day, Mahmoud saw a missed call from a private number in his apartment. His heart sank. “I immediately understood that there would be an evacuation and bombing, but I did not know what the target would be. I thought it could be my house, that it could be the house next to me,” he told the BBC.
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Soon his phone rang again. Another man was on the line. The man identified himself as Daoud and said that after the events of that morning, they realized that Mahmoud was a “wise man” and that’s why they were calling him again.
The man told him that more buildings would be destroyed that night and the dentist would have to order the neighbors to evacuate again. So Mahmoud got to work. The target was supposed to be two buildings right next to those that were destroyed in the morning of the same day.
Mahmud again tried to gain as much time as possible – but suddenly there was a change of orders. Mahmoud recalls being told 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 that were still full of people.
Although Mahmoud argued on the phone that they should give them time at least until the morning, efforts to delay the bombing failed. It was supposed to arrive in two hours. According to his story, Mahmúd tried to help evacuate people until the last moments, they even had to get a disabled elderly woman out of one of the residential buildings together with other forces.
“He even told me ‘Take your time. I will not bomb until you give me permission.’ I refused that. Don’t tell me you need my permission, it’s not Mahmoud Shahin who will bomb al-Zahra,” Mahmoud described the dire situation.
The second series of blows came in the evening, around 9 p.m. In Mahmoud’s words, what he witnessed that night “was not a small bombardment, but the complete destruction of buildings.”
Evacuation to the university
Mahmoud asked the man on the phone where he should take his neighbors. “He told me to take them west to Palestine Street. I suggested the University of Palestine and he agreed,” explained Mahmoud.
Other witnesses confirmed to the BBC that the residents of the destroyed buildings went to the university. People walking and driving in this direction can even be seen in a video posted in a Facebook group.
At one point Mahmoud was asked by a voice on his phone how much battery he had left. He had 15 percent. They told him to hang up to save the battery and they would call him back. Meanwhile, the residents of al-Zahra expected up-to-date information and answers from Mahmoud.
Testimony of a woman held by Hamas
The day after her release, Israeli hostage Yocheved Lifšic testified how she was abducted by Palestinian Hamas terrorists and also described two weeks of life in captivity. According to her, it seems that her captors treated her right in Gaza. But they continue to detain her husband and nothing is known about his fate.
The bombardment continued throughout the night. Mahmoud and a man named Daoud were reunited and they talked together in the early hours of the morning until the shots in the streets died down. Then the calls suddenly stopped and Mahmoud found himself without further instructions. According to Mahmoud, people at the university waited until noon and then started moving.
Mahmoud took his family to another area of Gaza, where they are currently staying in a friend’s house, which is already overcrowded.
Even in the past, the Israeli army sometimes called the residents of Gaza to warn them of airstrikes. But Mahmoud’s narration brought unprecedentedly detailed information about such a phone call. Although the content of the call could not be independently verified by the BBC or anyone else, the BBC said the details match the accounts of other residents and satellite images.
According to the BBC, the aftermath of the bombing that day left hundreds of people homeless, several blocks of flats with hundreds of flats were destroyed, and in fact an entire district was wiped out.
Images taken in al-Zahra that morning show rubble at the site of the three residential blocks, while a video shared online shows residents wandering around in shock and confusion at the immediate aftermath of the airstrike.
It is believed that due to Mahmoud’s efforts, none of his neighbors died that day. However, his narrative reveals the panic and anguish of civilians in Gaza who watch helplessly as their homes and everything they loved explode, the BBC writes.