Israeli air strike destroys Gaza tower block HQ of international media outlets

15 May 2021, 14:58 | Updated: 15 May 2021, 22:13

By Asher McShane

News organisations demanded an explanation Saturday for an Israeli airstrike that targeted and destroyed a Gaza City building housing the offices of The Associated Press, broadcaster Al-Jazeera and other media outlets.

AP journalists and other tenants were safely evacuated from the 12-storey al-Jalaa tower after the Israeli military warned of an imminent strike.

Three heavy missiles hit the building within the hour, disrupting coverage of the ongoing conflict between militant group Hamas and Israel.

At least 145 people in Gaza and eight in Israel have been killed since the fighting erupted on Monday night.

"The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today," AP president and chief executive Gary Pruitt said.

The tower block was destroyed in an Israeli strike
The tower block was destroyed in an Israeli strike. Picture: PA

He said the US news agency was seeking information from the Israeli government and engaging with the US State Department to learn more.

Mostefa Souag, acting director-general of Al Jazeera Media Network, called the strike a "war crime" and a "clear act" to stop journalists from reporting on the conflict.

Kuwait state television also had office space in the now-collapsed Gaza City building.

"The targeting of news organisations is completely unacceptable, even during an armed conflict.

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"It represents a gross violation of human rights and internationally agreed norms," said Barbara Trionfi, executive director of the International Press Institute.

In a standard Israeli response, the military said that Hamas was operating inside the building and it accused the militant group of using journalists as human shields.

It provided no evidence to back up the claims.

Israeli military spokesman Lt Col Jonathan Conricus claimed that Hamas used the building for a military intelligence office and weapons development.

He said "a highly advanced technological tool" that the militant group used in the fighting was "within or on the building".

But he said he could not provide evidence to back up the claims without "compromising" intelligence efforts.

He added, however: "I think it's a legitimate request to see more information, and I will try to provide it."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists demanded Israel "provide a detailed and documented justification" for the strike.

"This latest attack on a building long known by Israel to house international media raises the spectre that the Israel Defence Forces is deliberately targeting media facilities in order to disrupt coverage of the human suffering in Gaza," the group's executive director, Joel Simon, said in a statement.

The bombing followed media consternation over an Israeli military statement that prompted some news organisations, including The Wall Street Journal, to erroneously report early Friday that Israel had launched a ground invasion of Gaza.

Israeli military commentators said the media had been used in a ruse to lure Hamas militants into a deadly trap.

Lt Col Conricus denied that the military engaged in a deliberate deception when it tweeted falsely Friday that ground forces were engaging in Gaza, calling it "an honest mistake".

The AP, based on its analysis of the army's statement, phone calls to military officials and on the ground reporting in Gaza, concluded there was no ground incursion and did not report there was one.

The strike on a building known to have the offices of international media outlets came as a shock to reporters who had felt relatively protected there.

"Now, one can understand the feeling of the people whose homes have been destroyed by such kind of air attacks," Al-Jazeera producer Safwat al-Kahlout, who was at the bureau in Gaza when the evacuation warning came, told the broadcaster Saturday.

"It's really difficult to wake up one day and then you realise that your office is not there with all the career experiences, memories that you've had."

For 15 years, AP's top floor offices and roof terrace on the now-destroyed building had provided a prime location for covering fighting in Gaza.

The news agency's camera offered 24-hour live shots this week as Hamas rockets arched toward Israel and Israeli airstrikes hammered the city.

Just a day before the bombing, AP correspondent Fares Akram wrote in a personal story that the AP office was the only place in Gaza were he felt "somewhat safe".

"The Israeli military has the co-ordinates of the high-rise, so it's less likely a bomb will bring it crashing down," Mr Akram wrote.

The next day, Mr Akram tweeted about running from the building and watching its destruction from afar.

The spiralling violence has raised fears of a new Palestinian "intifada", or uprising, at a time when there have been no peace talks in years. Palestinians on Saturday were marking Nakba (Catastrophe) Day, when they commemorate the estimated 700,000 people who were expelled from or fled their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation.

That raised the possibility of even more unrest.

US diplomat Hady Amr arrived on Friday as part of Washington's efforts to de-escalate the conflict, and the UN Security Council is set to meet on Sunday.

Israel has turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year truce that Hamas rulers had accepted, an Egyptian official revealed.

Since Monday night, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, which has responded by pounding the Gaza Strip with strikes.

In Gaza, at least 139 people have been killed, including 39 children and 22 women; in Israel, eight people have been killed, including the death on Saturday of a man killed by a rocket that hit in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

The strike on the building housing media offices came in the afternoon, after the building's owner received a call from the Israeli military warning that it would be hit.

AP's staff and others in the building evacuated immediately.

Al-Jazeera, the news network funded by Qatar's government, broadcast the air strikes live as the building collapsed.

"This channel will not be silenced. Al-Jazeera will not be silenced," an on-air anchorwoman said, her voice thick with emotion. "We can guarantee you that right now."

Earlier on Saturday, an air strike hit a three-storey house in Gaza City's Shati refugee camp, killing eight children and two women from an extended family.

Mohammed Hadidi told reporters his wife and five children had gone to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday with relatives.

She and three of the children, aged six to 14, were killed, while an 11-year-old is missing. Only his five-month-old son Omar is known to have survived.

Children's toys and a Monopoly board game could be seen among the rubble, as well as plates of uneaten food from the holiday gathering.

"There was no warning," said Jamal Al-Naji, a neighbour living in the same building. "You filmed people eating and then you bombed them?" he said, addressing Israel.

"Why are you confronting us? Go and confront the strong people!"

The Israeli military did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hamas said it fired a salvo of rockets at southern Israel in response to the air strike.

A furious Israeli barrage early on Friday killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands fleeing to UN-run shelters.

The military said the operation involved 160 warplanes dropping some 80 tonnes of explosives over the course of 40 minutes and succeeded in destroying a vast tunnel network used by Hamas.

Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said the military aims to minimise collateral damage in striking military targets. But measures it takes in other strikes, such as warning shots to get civilians to leave, were not "feasible this time".

Israeli media said the military believed dozens of militants were killed inside the tunnels.

The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, but the military said the real number is far higher.

Gaza's infrastructure, already in widespread disrepair because of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas seized power in 2007, showed signs of breaking down further, compounding residents' misery.

The territory's sole power plant is at risk of running out of fuel in the coming days.

The UN said Gazans are experiencing daily power cuts of eight to 12 hours and at least 230,000 have limited access to tap water.

The impoverished and densely populated territory is home to two million Palestinians, most of them the descendants of refugees from what is now Israel.

The conflict has reverberated widely. Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations have seen daily violence, with mobs from each community fighting in the streets and destroying each other's property.
The tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, with Palestinian protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint located on a mount in the Old City revered by Muslims and Jews.

Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, in an apparent attempt to present itself as the champion of the protesters.

During the conflict that spiralled from there, Israel said it wants to inflict as much damage as it can on Hamas' military infrastructure in Gaza.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Hamas will "pay a very heavy price" for its rocket attacks, as Israel masses troops at the frontier.

US president Joe Biden has expressed support for Israel while saying he hopes to bring the violence under control.

Meanwhile in London, thousands of Free Palestine protesters were marching on the Israeli embassy.