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An Israeli warning, an airstrike and then outrage over hit on Gaza media building

An Israeli airstrike destroyed a building housing Al Jazeera and Associated Press offices in Gaza on May 15. Israel claimed Hamas had assets in the tower. (Video: Reuters)
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The Israeli military attack Saturday on a Gaza Strip high-rise housing the offices of media outlets including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera prompted international outrage and condemnation from media freedom advocates.

The airstrike obliterated a 12-story building, which also contained numerous residential apartments. Journalists and other tenants had evacuated after receiving a warning an hour before the missiles struck, and no casualties have been reported.

The Committee to Protect Journalists demanded a “detailed and documented justification” for the airstrike, noting that it could represent a violation of international law.

“This latest attack on a building long known by Israel to house international media raises the specter that the Israel Defense Forces is deliberately targeting media facilities in order to disrupt coverage of the human suffering in Gaza,” Joel Simon, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement.

Israel’s military claimed that the building was targeted because it housed “Hamas military intelligence assets,” who had been using the presence of civilian journalists as “human shields.” No evidence was provided for those claims.

“This was not a media tower, not a media center,” IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus told reporters Saturday. Instead, he said, Israel described it as a “tower used by Hamas” for purposes including alleged military intelligence and developing “military weapons against Israel.”

Conricus said Israel provided enough warning to evacuate the building, even though it allowed Hamas time to “salvage their equipment … a loss we are willing to suffer to minimize and make sure there are no civilian casualties.”

While Israel is committed to the safety of journalists, he said, “you must understand that Gaza … is an extremely difficult battlespace” where Hamas “by design, do everything to embed their military infrastructure with civilian infrastructure.”

Asked to provide evidence of Hamas activities inside the building, Conricus said that he could not reveal intelligence sources and methods and was not authorized at this time to say more.

President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone on Saturday and “raised concerns about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection,” the White House said.

Al Jazeera journalists continued to broadcast live as their offices were evacuated. Footage from the network showed the building’s owner begging for the airstrikes to be delayed 10 minutes so that reporters could dash inside and grab expensive camera equipment.

“You have destroyed our life’s work, memories, life,” the building owner, Jawwad Mahdi, said when the request was rejected, according to the Associated Press.

Mohammed Ali, a bureau assistant with Al Jazeera, said that he and other staff fled the building when the warning came from the Israelis an hour before the strike. But they went back in to try to retrieve something that was irreplaceable: the bureau’s archives.

“There are thousands of hours of videos and photos,” he said. “We were able to get some of it out, not even half of it. We tried our best, but in the end we were afraid for our lives,” he said.

If there was a Hamas office in the building, journalists weren’t aware of it, he said. The building also contained doctors’ and legal offices.

“Knowingly causing the destruction of the offices of some of the world’s largest and most influential news organization raises deeply worrying questions about Israel’s willingness to interfere with the freedom of the press to operate,” the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem said in a Saturday statement. “At a time when Israel’s border crossing with Gaza is closed, those companies with a bureau in Gaza are more important than ever in reporting events to the world.”

The attack took place one day after Israel’s military was accused of misleading foreign journalists by announcing it had launched a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, then retracting that claim an hour later. While a spokesperson blamed internal confusion, Israeli media outlets have suggested that officials were deliberately spreading misinformation that would encourage Hamas militants to position themselves where they would be vulnerable to airstrikes.

In the wake of Saturday’s airstrikes, some observers pointed out that the Associated Press was one of the few international news outlets that responded to the announcement with skepticism and did not report that a ground invasion had begun.

The Associated Press said that a dozen of the newswire’s journalists and freelancers were inside the building when they received a warning that it would be hit. All managed to evacuate, narrowly averting a catastrophe.

“We are shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP’s bureau and other news organizations in Gaza. They have long known the location of our bureau and knew journalists were there,” the AP’s president and chief executive, Gary Pruitt, said in a statement.

Earlier in the day on Saturday, the Associated Press had published a personal account from Gaza correspondent Fares Akram, who lost his father to an Israeli airstrike during a previous conflict and had his family farm torn apart by bombs on Friday.

“The Associated Press office is the only place in Gaza City I feel somewhat safe,” Akram had written just hours before he was evacuated along with his colleagues. “The Israeli military has the coordinates of the high-rise, so it’s less likely a bomb will bring it crashing down.”

Al Jazeera characterized the attack as a deliberate attempt to “silence the truth by killing the messenger.”

“The aim of this heinous crime is to silence the media and to hide the untold carnage and suffering of the people of Gaza,” Mostefa Souag, the network’s acting director general, said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Israeli airstrikes also destroyed two office buildings in Gaza City that housed more than a dozen media outlets, including Palestinian newspaper Felestin and pro-Hamas broadcaster Sabq24 News Agency, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The attack also destroyed the office of the Forum of Palestinian Journalists, a press freedom group.

Israel defended those airstrikes by claiming that Hamas maintained offices in the buildings, and saying that the journalists had been given a warning to evacuate.

“It is quite clear that this isn’t an accident, this is systematic targeting of media in Gaza in order to prevent reporting from there,” Jeremy Dear, deputy general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, told Al Jazeera on Saturday.

Read more:

Israel told the media it had ground forces in Gaza. Then it changed the story.

Media building hit in Gaza amid intense Israeli airstrikes

With strikes targeting rockets and tunnels, the Israeli tactic of ‘mowing the grass’ returns to Gaza