To this moment, Mahmoud Shaheen still does not know why exactly the Israeli security services selected him. But in mid-October he suddenly became responsible for all evacuations in his neighborhood. ‘We have been ordered to bomb. You have two hours,” said the voice on the line.
On Thursday, October 19 – at 6:30 in the morning – Mahmoud received the most haunting phone call of his life. Gaza was then under fire for twelve days, but its Al-Zahra neighborhood was relatively spared. Not for much longer, however, as the BBC reconstructed the unlikely story of the 40-year-old dentist.
Suddenly there was shouting outside. “They are going to bomb the towers,” someone shouted. To be on the safe side, Mahmoud left his apartment building and crossed the street, looking for a safe place. At that moment, the screen of his cell phone lit up. A private number, as it turned out.
“The man introduced himself as a member of the Israeli security services,” Mahmoud said. “He said three towers were going to be bombed and I had to manage the evacuations.”
The Israeli army often calls ordinary citizens in Gaza to warn them of impending air strikes. Thanks to the testimony Mahmoud gave at the BBC did, it becomes clear for the first time how much stress is associated with it.
“I didn’t believe him at first,” the man testifies. After all, phone calls with false evacuation orders were also doing the rounds. “I asked if he could fire a warning shot as proof. If people were still in their beds now, hopefully it would wake them up.”
The loud bang – believed to be from a drone – came out of nowhere. At a simple request, a second warning shot followed, after which Mahmoud took action. “Be patient. And don’t dare bomb while we are carrying out the evacuations,” he reminded his interlocutor.
The man, who called himself Abu Khaled, reassured him. “You have enough time, I don’t want anyone to die either,” he said.
‘We see things you don’t see’
Mahmoud then screamed at the top of his lungs to get everyone to safety. Hundreds of residents gathered in the neighboring parks, among the shops, cafes and schools. Some wore only pajamas or prayer clothes.
Why in Al-Zahra, Mahmoud wanted to know. “I tried to keep him talking to buy as much time as possible. But at the same time I wanted to make it clear to him that only civilians live here. There has never been a fight in our neighborhood, we have always been able to stay out of trouble.”
“The order comes from higher up, but we see things you don’t see,” was the vague answer. In the meantime, Mahmoud’s nerves were tense. The evacuations appeared to have been completed successfully. “But what if they bombed the wrong building? I didn’t want innocent victims on my conscience.”
Mahmoud took one last look at the three towers next to his apartment building. Immediately afterwards, an Israeli plane carried out the announced bombing. “This is the first tower we want, stay away,” Khaled warned again on the phone. Afterwards, the two other buildings were also demolished. “We are done. You can return now,” Mahmoud was told.
Those who became homeless quickly started looking for a new home. There was a general sense of relief among residents. From now on they would be left alone, right?
Not so. Late that evening, Mahmoud noticed that he had missed a call from a private number. “I immediately understood that a new bombing was about to happen. But what would the target be this time? My apartment maybe?”
Another phone call followed soon afterwards. This time a certain Daoud was on the line. He made it clear that Mahmoud had behaved as a “wise man” and that is why the Israeli intelligence services would call on him again. Striking: this man knew a remarkable amount about Mahmoud’s private life, including the name of his son.
“That made me a bit nervous,” the dentist admitted BBC. “Daoud also tried to explain what was happening in Gaza. For example, he asked if I had seen the carnage that Hamas had caused. Even children were killed with knives, he said. I replied that such practices are forbidden according to our religion.”
Mahmoud asked if it was fair to punish an entire population for this, but he quickly saw the pointlessness of the discussion. After all, a new mission awaited him: five buildings and a fourth tower block had to be evacuated as quickly as possible in the middle of the night. A hellish job, with only flashlights and mobile phones as a light source.
But then suddenly a new order came: all houses on the east side of the street had to be evacuated. This involved more than twenty tower blocks and hundreds of homes.
Mahmoud begged to wait until morning. “We have been given the order. We will bomb within two hours,” was Daoud’s response.
Children were crying, parents lost their children in the chaos. Mahmoud struggled to keep his composure. “At one point he said I could take my time. They wouldn’t bomb until I gave permission. Excuse me, my permission? It is not Mahmoud Shaheen who is going to bomb the neighborhood.”
Local residents raced to save the life of an elderly disabled woman at the end of the street. But what about the retirement home? “Don’t panic, we are just going to demolish the houses,” Daoud reassured.
“We watched as our entire neighborhood was destroyed. It was a particularly difficult night for all residents of Al-Zahra,” says Mahmoud. “I asked my contact where on earth we should flee to. The east or the west, he replied. But no one dared to go to the Al-Mughraqa district, it was already so unsafe there. I ended up taking the whole group to the University of Palestine.”
From there they heard one explosion after another in their neighborhood. “Daoud asked how the battery of my mobile phone was doing. Another 15 percent, as it turned out. He recommended hanging up. If there was news, he would call back. For every building that was bombed, I received a phone call.”
Mahmoud had consciously kept his distance from his wife and five children all this time. He feared that his contact with Israeli intelligence services would make him a target. At university they found some time to run into each other’s arms.
But in the meantime, the dentist was also being questioned by concerned local residents. “Can we return yet? Did they say where they would strike next?” Mahmoud had to deal with a barrage of questions.
‘Here you can die any second’
Towards morning peace returned somewhat. “We didn’t get any notice this time that it was done. We waited until the afternoon to return to our homes. Or rather: what was left of it. We no longer have water and electricity, the bakery and the supermarket have also been completely destroyed.”
There were no fatalities, thanks to Mahmoud. His apartment building was badly damaged, but is still standing. He fled with his family to another area in Gaza. “I am not concerned about my practice or my house. Those are just material things. I just pray that I can live, after all, you can die here at any second,” Mahmoud concludes.