How Gaza families were given just ten minutes’ warning of Israeli attacks

The remains of Gaza City’s Zafir Tower in September, weeks after it was bombed by Israel.

Mohammed Asad APA images

Jehad Saftawi says he is lucky to still be living in the home that he moved into less than a year before Israel’s summertime attack on Gaza.

Saftawi, a 23-year-old journalist, was waiting for a taxi to come back to his home at the Zafir One tower in the Tal al-Hawa neighborhood of Gaza City on 23 August. As Israel’s bombs were striking areas across Gaza, he received a frantic call from a neighbor.

“He told me don’t return to the tower because [Israel] called residents of Zafir Four, the building next to ours, and said they were going to strike the tower with a missile,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “Then they said they’d also hit Zafir One.”

Saftawi explained that all of his belongings, including his passports and personal files, were still in his home. “I was very worried because we just moved into the home eight months earlier, after I got married,” he recalled. “Everything I owned was in the house.”

In the end, the Israeli military struck the twelve-story Zafir Four, but not Zafir One. He waited outside the home for two days before returning because he “was scared that they would strike the building at any moment,” Saftawi said.

After two days, Saftawi returned to his home to find the front door and all of the windows busted. Only four of the more than forty families that live in the building had returned.

“The Zafir Four building across the street remained smoking for more than six days,” he recalled.

Dubbed Operation Protective Edge by Israel, the military assault left 2,257 Palestinians dead, the vast majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations monitoring group OCHA.

Seventy-one Israelis, mostly soldiers, were also killed.

During the 51-day assault, Israel targeted hospitals, homes, mosques, universities and other institutions crucial to the local economy, as it has done during previous attacks. Unprecedented, however, were its bombings of high-rise residential towers across Gaza.

Factories razed

Zoheir M. Dolah, news director of Wataniya, a local television station that reports on business and economic news in Gaza, explained that the business class and industrial areas were damaged far worse in the latest war than in Israel’s previous attacks against Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 and in November 2012.

“Though everyone was hit hard and suffered from this war, we saw that business sectors and industrial areas were decimated,” Dolah told The Electronic Intifada. “That is what will take the most lasting toll on Gaza as rebuilding starts. Dozens of factories, buildings and towers were completely razed, and others were severely damaged.”

Tens of thousands of Palestinians across Gaza were not as lucky as Saftawi. More than 100,000 people were still displaced as a result of the war as of October 2014, according to Shelter Palestine, a United Nations group that monitors displacement.

Hazem Zarquot, 49, lived with his family in the primarily residential Italian Tower in center of Gaza City. On 25 August, in the final days of Israel’s assault on Gaza, the tower was razed in an Israeli airstrike.

Ten minutes “to get out”

Though Israel has contends that it gives advance warning to residents in buildings it targets, Zarquot said it is “nonsense” and that calling ahead of time “doesn’t give [Israel] the right to destroy” residential homes and other buildings.

“A man from the occupation’s military called me at 11:10am exactly that morning,” Zarquot told The Electronic Intifada. “He told me in Arabic that he’s sorry, but that we have ten minutes to get out of the building before they fire rockets [at it].”

“We even argued,” he recalled. “I told him that it’s not enough time, but he said he couldn’t do anything about it. He said they’d hit the building with a small rocket first, and then they’d fire more.”

“I told him that I needed at least a half an hour to gather my family,” Zarquot said, adding that more than twenty relatives were in the house at time. “He didn’t care.”

Gaza City’s Italian Tower shortly after it was bombed in late August.

Mohammed Asad APA images

Shortly after his family fled the building, Israeli rockets tore through the tower and brought it down.

Just days earlier, his brother Ahed, a sports journalist “with no political ties whatsoever,” was killed when an Israeli missile tore through his apartment.

Zarquot is renting a room on the other side of town as the Italian Tower remains an enormous pile of rubble. Israel’s targeting of the Italian Tower and three similar towers in Gaza City, as well as a shopping mall in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, “amounted to the deliberate targeting of civilian objects,” according to a new report by Amnesty International.

“Making civilian objects the object of the attack is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and is a war crime,” the Amnesty report states.

The United Nations plan to rebuild the Gaza Strip has been widely criticized. As reported by The Electronic Intifada, nearly half of the $5.4 billion pledged to Gaza reconstruction by international donors will be diverted to fill gaps in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority budget.

The Palestinian Boycott National Committee (BNC) has also denounced the recovery plan for “exploiting Gaza’s captive market.”

“About 45 percent of the aid pledged by international donors will benefit the Israeli economy,” says the BNC statement. “Some studies calculate this figure to be as high as 71 percent.”

“Corporate criminals”

Israeli “companies that are set to rake in profits providing materials for the reconstruction of Gaza are corporate criminals” that also “pillage Palestinian natural resources and participate in the construction of illegal settlements” in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the BNC adds.

UN bodies and organizations affiliated with it have repeatedly ignored “demands from Palestinian civil society to stop rewarding corporations for their war crimes against Palestinians,” says the BNC.

During and after the military offensive, Israel and Egypt also denied human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as UN investigators, access to Gaza.

“The victims’ and the public’s right to know about what happened during the recent hostilities requires the Israeli authorities to ensure full transparency about their actions and to refrain from hindering independent and impartial research into all alleged violations,” Anne FitzGerald, an Amnesty spokesperson, said in August.

Israeli authorities also blocked Makarim Wibisono, a newly-appointed UN special rapporteur on Palestine, from entering the West Bank and Gaza.

More than three months after Israel’s attack ended, Jehad Saftawi says he is not optimistic about the future. “The normal thing for every regular Palestinian in Gaza or other parts of Palestine is to want to build a life,” he said.

“But we know that at any minute Israel could take that from us with its missiles. We know that there is no limit to Israel’s [human rights] violations.”

Patrick O. Strickland is an independent journalist and regular contributor to The Electronic Intifada. Find his reportage at Follow him on Twitter: @P_Strickland_.