An Israeli airstrike destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza City that housed offices of The Associated Press and other media outlets, hours after another Israeli air raid on a densely populated refugee camp, mostly children.
The strike on the high-rise Saturday came nearly an hour after the military ordered people to evacuate the 12-story building, which also housed Al-Jazeera, other offices and residential apartments. The strike brought down the entire structure, which collapsed in a gigantic cloud of dust.
“The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today,” AP CEO and president Gary Pruitt said in a statement.
Pruitt said the bureau “received a warning” ahead of the strike, but said they are “shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building” and called it “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 strike on the building housing media offices came in the afternoon, after the owner received a call from the Israeli military warning that the building would be hit. AP’s staff and others in the building evacuated immediately, and were reported safe.
Al-Jazeera, the news network funded by Qatar’s government, broadcast the airstrikes live as the building collapsed.
“This channel will not be silenced. Al-Jazeera will not be silenced,” an on-air anchorwoman from Al-Jazeera English said, her voice thick with emotion. “We can guarantee you that right now.”
The Israeli military claimed Hamas was operating inside the building, and it accused the militant group of using journalists as human shields, though it did not provide further evidence. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces, told reporters Saturday that the military had gathered intelligence of Hamas activity in the building. He declined to offer further details.
President Joe Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday. According to a readout of the call with Netanyahu provided by the Israelis, Netanyahu updated Mr. Biden “on the developments and actions that Israel has taken and the actions that Israel intends to take.”
A White House readout of the call with Netanyahu said Mr. Biden “raised concerns about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection,” and also “shared his grave concern about the intercommunal violence across Israel.” While Mr. Biden “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself,” the White House also said that he “voiced his concern about violent confrontations in the West Bank.”
“He expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom, and economic opportunity that they deserve and affirmed his support for a two-state solution. The leaders agreed to continue the close consultation between their teams and to remain in touch in the days ahead,” the White House said.
In the call with Abbas, Mr. Biden conveyed the “U.S. commitment to strengthening the U.S.-Palestinian partnership,” according to a White House readout of the call.
“President Biden updated President Abbas on U.S. diplomatic engagement on the ongoing conflict and stressed the need for Hamas to cease firing rockets into Israel. They expressed their shared concern that innocent civilians, including children, have tragically lost their lives amidst the ongoing violence,” the White House said.
Earlier on Saturday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a tweet that the White House had spoken to the Israeli government about the strike.
“We have communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility,” Psaki said.
The earlier Israeli airstrike on the Gaza City refugee camp was the deadliest single strike of the current conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas, 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 6 to 14, were killed, while an 11-year-old is missing. Only his 5-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 neighbor 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 airstrike.
Israel on Saturday also bombed the home of Khalil al-Hayeh, a top leader of Gaza’s ruling militant Hamas group.
The Israeli military said Al-Hayeh’s home served as part of what it said was the militant group’s “terrorist infrastructure.” Al-Hayeh is a senior figure in the Hamas political leadership in Gaza, and the attack marked a further escalation, signaling that Israel is going after Hamas’ top leadership, and not just military commanders. His fate after the strike was not immediately known.
The latest round of violence 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.
Netanyahu has vowed that Hamas will “pay a very heavy price” for its rocket attacks as Israel has massed troops at the frontier. Mr. Biden has previously expressed support for Israel while saying he hopes to bring the violence under control.
Hamas has fired some 2,000 rockets toward Israel since Monday, according to the Israeli military. Most have been intercepted by anti-missile defenses, but they have brought life to a standstill in southern Israeli cities, caused disruptions at airports and have set off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The violence has spread across the region over the past week, with Jewish-Arab clashes and rioting in mixed cities of Israel. There were also widespread Palestinian protests Friday in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces shot and killed 11 people.
The spiraling violence has raised fears of a new Palestinian “intifada,” or uprising, when peace talks have not taken place 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 was now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation. That raised the possibility of even more unrest.
U.S. diplomat Hady Amr arrived Friday as part of Washington’s efforts to de-escalate the conflict, and the U.N. Security Council was set to meet Sunday. But Israel turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year truce that Hamas rulers had accepted, an Egyptian official said Friday on condition of anonymity to discuss the negotiations.
Since Monday night, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, which has pounded 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 Saturday of a man killed by a rocket that hit in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.
A furious Israeli barrage early Friday killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands fleeing to U.N.-run shelters. The military said the operation involved 160 warplanes dropping some 80 tons of explosives over the course of 40 minutes and succeeded in destroying a vast tunnel network used by Hamas.
Conricus previously said that the military aims to minimize 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.