Press freedom advocates condemned Israel’s airstrike Saturday on a Gaza building that housed offices of foreign media, including The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera.
After it was struck by missiles, the 12-story al-Jalaa tower, which had also been home to apartments and other offices, collapsed in giant cloud of dust, disrupting coverage of the conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, which has escalated in the last week, killing dozens of people.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths, and journalists and other tenants were safely evacuated after the Israeli military warned them about an imminent strike.
Israel’s military has defended targeting the tower, saying Hamas had a military intelligence office in the building and used journalists as human shields. It has not provided evidence of the intelligence operations in the building, and the AP cast doubt on the claim.
AP correspondent Fares Akram wrote in a personal account that the evacuation was “one of the most horrible scenes I have ever witnessed.”
The building’s top-floor offices and roof terrace had been prime locations for the AP’s coverage of fighting in Gaza, including 24-hour live shots of the territory.
Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of The Associated Press — one of the world’s largest news agencies, based in New York — said in a statement Saturday that he was “shocked and horrified.”
“The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today,” he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Pruitt after the building was destroyed, offering his “unwavering support for independent journalists and media organizations around the world,” the State Department said in a statement.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a tweet that the U.S. has communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is “a paramount responsibility.”
Mostefa Souag, acting director-general of Al-Jazeera Media Network, said the strike on the tower was a “war crime” and called on all media and human rights institutions to denounce it.
The Washington-based National Press Club also questioned whether Israel was seeking to “impair independent and accurate coverage of the conflict,” while the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is headquartered in New York, said Israel should “provide a detailed and documented justification” for the attack.
Barbara Trionfi, executive director of the International Press Institute in Vienna, also said the strike was “completely unacceptable.”
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said in a tweet that Israel was targeting media “so the world can’t see Israel’s war crimes.” Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, who is a frequent critic of Israel, added: “It’s so the world can’t see Palestinians being massacred.”
Israel said Sunday that Hamas had an office in the building that gathered intelligence for attacks against Israel, reiterating that it warned civilians in the building about the strike and gave them enough time to safely evacuate.
However, Pruitt, the AP’s president, said the news agency had been in the building for 15 years and had “no indication” that Hamas was operating in it. He called on the Israeli government to provide evidence.
Smoke rising from what was the building housing our @AP office in #Gaza moments after Israeli jets destroyed it. I and my colleagues evacuated safely, leaving behind our best memories. Thank you for all your wishes. I’m sorry I can’t respond to inquiries now as we are overwhelmed pic.twitter.com/5ccRQggckD
— Fares Akram (@faresakram) May 15, 2021
Al-Jazeera producer Safwat al-Kahlout said people rushed to evacuate the building, adding that he had not seen anything “suspicious” as he worked in the office for more than 10 years.
“Now one can understand the feeling of the people whose homes have been destroyed by such kind of air attacks,” he said in a comment to the broadcaster. “It’s really difficult to wake up one day and then you realize that your office is not there with all the career experiences, memories that you’ve had.”