Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Calling Gaza & Lebanon

From the Los Angeles Times

Israeli Phone Call Means a Bomb Is on the Way

By Ashraf Khalil
Times Staff Writer

August 1, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- A man with an Israeli accent called Omar Mamluke on his cell phone just before midnight and asked for him by name.

"You have just a few minutes to get out of the house," the man 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.

Mamluke, a police officer and former Palestinian steeplechase horse racing 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 whole point of the phone calls.

The Israeli military, which launched campaigns in both the Gaza Strip and Lebanon after 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, many 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, 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," said Brig. Gen. Alon Friedman, deputy head of the Israeli army's northern command headquarters, 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.

Though Palestinians report that dozens of warnings have been received in the last two weeks, only a handful of buildings have actually been hit.

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 Younis Hospital, said Iyad Nasr, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross. Neither 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 on July 23, targeting the Gaza City home of Mohammed al-Sheik Dib. In that case, neighbors generally acknowledged that al-Sheik Dib was a ranking member of the Islamic Jihad militant group, and that rockets probably were being stored in the house. Jihad gunmen surrounded the house immediately after the attack and barred all access.

Other, less personal forms of warnings have also been used.

Thousands of fliers have been dropped onto Gaza towns. One flier 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 Younis 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."

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