GAZA CITY – It was around 2:30 p.m., and the word had spread on al-Jalla Street.
An Israeli airstrike was about to unfold. The target: a gray, concrete building of moderate height in the heart of Gaza City.
Children gathered on balconies. Young men congregated at an intersection. Others placed bricks and tires blocking off a section of the street that ran past the building. A man in a tank top and shorts served as a traffic policeman, directing vehicles to take a detour. Cars stopped. More people stepped out, their eyes glued to the ill-fated building.
And they all waited to watch a macabre ritual of destruction on the 24th day of the war.
A few minutes earlier, the Israeli military had telephoned the son of Bashir al-Ramlawi, 58, the owner of the building. How they got his number was a mystery. The voice on the other end of the line told the son that his family had to evacuate their home immediately. They were going to be attacked.
The son frantically called his father. The father frantically told the rest of the family, which by then consisted of 35 members because many had fled their homes in other parts of Gaza to seek refuge with Ramlawi, he later said. Now, they were on the run again.
Perhaps the neighbors saw the family fleeing within five minutes of the call. Perhaps the son called his friends. Perhaps the Israelis themselves phoned residents in the area. Whatever the cause, the word spread like a brushfire, and soon everyone along al-Jalla Street seemed to know of the coming airstrike.
And they waited.
Suddenly, a loud boom, and then, a puff of smoke shaped like a mushroom. The building had been hit. But no one left. They knew this was just the beginning.
A few minutes later, another bomb screeched overhead and struck the building. The cloud of smoke spread, fogging the street. Then, a third one hit. The building was still standing.
Still, no one left. They knew the drill. The first three strikes, some onlookers said seemingly speaking with experience, were small ones from Israeli drones. They served, the people said, as a warning to anyone still too close to the building and as a way to soften up the building, like a boxer jabbing his opponent, seeking that knockout punch.
It came at 2:50 p.m. The unmistakable sound of an F 16 fighter jet roaring through the sky. A finned missile loudly whooshed over the heads of the people on al-Jalla Street, obliterating the building. A huge ball of smoke, triple the size of the first three strikes, rose toward the sky.
It was a pinpoint strike. No one was killed or injured, and the surrounding buildings were untouched.
And it was over. Within minutes, the street was open again. Cars drove by the crumpled building. Everything seemed to be normal, save for the face of Ramlawi.
“I don’t know why they hit my house,” he said, nearly in tears, adding that he had no ties to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules Gaza.
He said many of his relatives who lived with him had recently fled fierce clashes between Israeli forces and Hamas fighters in the eastern enclave of Shijaiyah. Now, he said, they were all homeless.
“We don’t know where we will go,” said Ramlawi, as he watched people on the street take pictures of his decimated house with their cellphones.