An Israeli airstrike that obliterated a 12-story Gaza City building that housed offices for The Associated Press, Al Jazeera and other media outlets sparked an outcry from international press advocates on Saturday, with AP leadership calling it an “incredibly disturbing” development in the conflict.
“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,” AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement.
Mostefa Souag, acting director general of Al Jazeera Media Network, slammed the attack as a “war crime.”
“We call on the international community to condemn such barbaric actions and targeting of journalists and we demand an immediate international action to hold Israel accountable for its deliberate targeting of journalists and the media institutions,” Souag said in a statement. He went on to accuse Israel of attempting to “hide the untold carnage and suffering of the people of Gaza.”
Pruitt said the Israeli military has “long known the location of our bureau and knew journalists were there.” The agency received a warning that the building would be hit, which allowed time for evacuations.
“This is an incredibly disturbing development. We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life. A dozen AP journalists and freelancers were inside the building and thankfully we were able to evacuate them in time,” Pruitt said. “The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today.”
The AP is seeking information from Israel on the bombing and is “engaged” with the U.S. State Department, Pruitt said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration has “communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.” President Joe Biden spoke with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday.
The attack on the press offices came one day after an Israeli Defense Forces spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, led the international press corps to believe that Israeli ground forces had entered Gaza when they had not. The spokesman said the mistake was an honest one, but prominent Israeli news outlets said it was an intentional effort to smoke out Hamas fighters ― and that it had worked.
The building that housed the media offices was mostly residential. It collapsed into a massive cloud of dust, according to video and reports from the scene.
Earlier in the day, another air raid on a refugee camp killed at least 10 Palestinians, mostly children, in what amounted to the deadliest single strike from Israeli forces in the current conflict, which dramatically escalated earlier this month. So far, at least 139 people have been killed in Gaza, including 39 children, according to the AP.
In a series of tweets, the IDF justified the strike by asserting that the militant group Hamas had “turned residential areas in the Gaza Strip into military strongholds.”
“It uses tall buildings in Gaza for multiple military purposes such as intelligence gathering, planning attacks, command and control, and communications,” the IDF said. “When Hamas uses a tall building for military purposes, it becomes a lawful military target.”
The IDF said it called the building’s residents with warnings, sent SMS messages and dropped “roof knocker” bombs, which make a loud noise on rooftops as a warning to evacuate.
Conricus told the AP that the military believed Hamas had “a highly advanced technological tool” either “within or on the building,” but could not provide evidence without “compromising” intelligence efforts. Conricus said he would try to provide more information.
Ethical Journalism Network founder Aidan White told Al Jazeera that the images of press offices being destroyed were “disgraceful.”
“The threat to civilian life is completely unacceptable. I think it once again highlights perilous risks facing journalists and media in conflict zones,” White told the network, which receives funding from the government of Qatar.
The International Federation of Journalists also condemned the attack, calling it intentional.
Barbara Trionfi, the International Press Institute’s executive director, said it was “completely unacceptable” to target news organizations, “even during an armed conflict.”
“It represents a gross violation of human rights and internationally agreed norms,” she said. “In particular during times of crisis, the media plays a fundamental role in offering timely, accurate and fair information about developments on the ground. Israel must immediately stop such attacks against news organisations.”
In the United States, the scale of Israel’s response to rocket attacks coming from the Gaza Strip has attracted a noticeable uptick in criticism, including from elected officials, who have long refrained from speaking harshly of the U.S. ally. A growing number of Democrats in the House have begun speaking out against Israel’s attacks, led by Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian American.