The man with the Israeli accent called Omar Mamluke on his cellphone just before midnight and asked for him by name.
“You have just a few minutes to get out of the house,” he said. An Israeli missile was about to hit.
“I asked if he was joking, and he told me: ‘The Israeli Defense Forces don’t joke,’ ” Mamluke recalled.
The police officer and former Palestinian steeplechase champion wasted no time; he’d heard what happened to others in Gaza who’d received such calls.
He gathered up his two wives and 15 children, and they ran out of the house in their nightclothes, yelling for their neighbors to do the same.
The missile struck within half an hour, lifting Mamluke’s house in the air, sending the foundation columns across the street. But no one was hurt, which the Israeli army says is the point of such phone calls.
The Israeli military, which launched campaigns in both the Gaza Strip and Lebanon after its soldiers were captured in border incursions, says it does its best to warn civilians of impending military action. Its warnings to civilians to leave southern Lebanon are at the center of controversy over the airstrike early Sunday in the Lebanese village of Qana that killed almost 60 people, most of them women and children.
Although many people have fled southern Lebanon, some say they are afraid to travel roads that have been bombed by Israeli planes. The sick or injured, the very young and the old sometimes can’t travel, the Lebanese say.
Israeli officials have suggested that, after several warnings, those who remain behind are responsible for their own fate. “Those who stay have apparently decided to take the risk, or are being held by Hezbollah, which has accepted the risk on their behalf,” Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, deputy head of the Israeli army’s northern command headquarters, said last week. “We have no intention of hitting innocent civilians and will do all possible to avoid harming them, but the fighting has a price.”
In Gaza, where the Israeli military began issuing specific warnings in the last two weeks, the practice has not won over many hearts or minds.
Few here accept the idea that Israel, even for public relations reasons, really is trying to limit civilian deaths.
At best, residents decry it as a cynical attempt to portray Israel’s military campaigns in a better light. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh calls it a form of psychological warfare.
“They just want to sow fear and confusion among the people,” Haniyeh said.
Israeli forces have launched a series of airstrikes, armored incursions and artillery bombardments in Gaza since June 25, when militants staged a cross-border attack that killed two Israeli soldiers and took a third captive. At least 145 Palestinians have been killed and hundreds wounded in the fighting. In addition to seeking the return of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli army says it wants to end rocket attacks on southern Israeli towns.
Though Palestinians report that dozens of warnings have been received in the last two weeks, only a handful of buildings have been hit.
“They think they’re above the law. They have no red lines,” said Ghazi Hamad, a spokesman for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. “They listen to nobody, except maybe the Americans.”
Israeli army officials are tight-lipped about the practice and won’t discuss individual cases. The official daily updates of the army’s attacks on suspected weapons factories and warehouses in the Gaza Strip invariably mention steps taken to warn residents and limit civilian casualties.
“It is a method that’s being used to prevent the harming of innocent civilians,” said one army spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Calls have also targeted official buildings such as the main Gaza City courthouse and the ambulance dispatch center at Khan Yunis hospital, said Iyad Nasr, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Neither site has been hit.
“It’s still collective punishment,” Nasr said. “Dozens of families have been informed and have evacuated their homes.”
The first known case of a pre-strike warning call came July 23, targeting the Gaza City home of Mohammed Sheik Dib. In that case, neighbors generally acknowledge that Dib was a ranking member of the Islamic Jihad militant group and that rockets probably were being stored in the house. Islamic Jihad gunmen surrounded the house immediately after the attack, and barred all access.
Others such as Mamluke say they are victims of mistaken identity.
“They think I’m some sort of leader in Hamas. But I don’t even pray,” he said.
Several days after the July 24 bombing, Mamluke, 44, walked through the remnants of his home. The ceiling pancaked onto the lower floors, and the entire lot was left knee-deep in rubble.
With all of his family members safe, what he mourned most was a trio of majestic 25-year-old olive trees and the collection of steeplechase trophies won by him and two of his sons.
One of the trees landed on the roof of his brother’s house next door. As for the trophies, they were the first thing he and his sons dug out of the wreckage. They proudly haul out the battered and dented awards for a visitor.
“All this from one rocket,” Mamluke said. “A man spends his life saving money to build a house, and an hour later he’s in the street.”
Others have had their homes spared, if not their nerves.
Ibrahim Mahmoud, an appliance store owner in the Bureij refugee camp, said he received three calls in less than an hour. The first, answered by his teenage son, accused Mahmoud of working for Hamas and warned of an impending strike.
“I returned home to find my house in chaos. My son in tears, the women screaming,” he said. Then came a second call from the same female Israeli voice asking for a different person. When Mahmoud identified himself, she said, “My mistake” in Hebrew and hung up.
As Mahmoud herded his panicked family into the street, he received a third call, this time asking, “Why are you so worried and scared? You’re not the one targeted.”
Nerves frayed, Mahmoud evacuated his 20-member family from their multistory building. He and his sons spent a sleepless night sitting across the street waiting for their home to explode. The next day, Mahmoud moved his family back home. He sat in his store, surrounded by washing machines and blenders, fielding worried phone calls from friends and relatives.
“I’m not afraid. I don’t have anything to be afraid of. I haven’t done anything,” he said. “But with the Jews, there’s no guarantee. They could do anything.”
Other, less personal forms of warnings have also been used. Thousands of fliers have been dropped onto Gaza towns. One was signed by the “Leadership of the Israeli Defense Forces” and asked: “Will the residents of Gaza pay the high price for the behavior of those who arrogantly boast about solving the Palestinian issue?”
Last week, many Khan Yunis residents answered the phone and heard a recorded warning message in Arabic. The Israeli army also has broken in on the frequency of the Hamas radio station to broadcast warnings.
In all cases the message was similar: Don’t harbor militant fighters or store weapons for them. Those who do will place themselves in harm’s way.
“It’s intense psychological pressure,” said Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad. “They’re trying to force the civilians to drive the resistance away from the civilian population centers.”