Journalists for the Associated Press, Al Jazeera, and other international news outlets were forced to run for their lives on Saturday after the Israeli military bombed their high-rise office building in Gaza City.
The missile strike, one of several attempts by Israeli forces to kneecap journalists in the region, left the Associated Press “shocked and horrified” and Al Jazeera said it constituted a war crime.
About an hour before the strike, a resident of the 12-story building received a call, purportedly from the Israeli military, warning of an impending attack but giving no explanation for why the building was being targeted.
Several networks, including Al Jazeera, then showed the building collapsing on live TV.
“We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life,” Gary Pruitt, AP’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today.”
Pruitt said Israel had long known that the building houses international media outlets. The Israeli Air Force later said the attack was a justified act of war because the building was a Hamas hub. It claimed, without evidence, that the building “contained military assets belonging to the intelligence offices of the Hamas terror organization.”
“The building contained civilian media offices, which the Hamas terror organization hides behind and uses as human shields,” the Israeli Air Force said. “The Hamas terror organization deliberately places military targets at the heart of densely populated civilian areas in the Gaza Strip.”
It’s not clear if anyone was still in the building when it was razed. AP said a dozen journalists and freelancers were inside but all managed to escape.
After receiving the warning, Al Jazeera reporter Safwat al-Kahlout said he and his colleagues “started to collect as much as they could, from the personal and equipment of the office, especially the cameras.”
“I have been working here for 11 years. I have been covering many events from this building,” he said in an interview with his own outlet. “Now everything, in two seconds, just vanished.”
One of Associated Press’ Gaza correspondents, Fares Akram, tweeted that he had been watching from afar and hoping the army would not go through with its threat.
“And now bombs could fall on our office,” he wrote. “We ran down the stairs from the 11th floor and now looking at the building from afar, praying Israeli army would eventually retract.”
In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday, President Joe Biden “reaffirmed his strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza,” according to the White House. But he expressed concern about “the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection.”
In a separate call Saturday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Biden stressed the U.S. commitment to strengthening relations, and called for calm.
“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,” the White House said. “They expressed their shared concern that innocent civilians, including children, have tragically lost their lives amidst the ongoing violence. The President expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom, and economic opportunity that they deserve.”
Earlier on Saturday, another Israeli airstrike flattened a three-story home in a Gaza City refugee camp, killing eight children and two mothers, and leaving a 5-month-old baby as the family’s sole survivor.
In response, Hamas fired rockets into Israel to avenge what it called a “massacre”—the deadliest of Israel’s attacks since the conflict erupted six days ago at a Jerusalem holy site revered by both Palestinians and Jews.
The attack came as victims gathered to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, witnesses told reporters.
“There was no warning,” Jamal Al-Naji, who lived in the destroyed building, told the Associated Press.
Directing his comments toward Israel, he added: “You filmed people eating and then you bombed them? Why are you confronting us? Go and confront the strong people!”
The dead were identified by Haaretz as Maha al-Hadidi, 36, and four of her children: Suhaib, 14; 'Abd a-Rahman, 8; Osama, 6, and Yahya, 11. Her infant, Omar, was reportedly found alive in the rubble, shielded by his mother’s body. Also killed were Jasmine Hassan, 31, and her three children: Yosef, 11; Bilal, 10, and Ala, 5.
On Saturday, the Palestinian health ministry, which is run by Hamas, said 139 Palestinians—including 39 children and 22 women—have been killed since Monday. Israel has reported eight deaths.
The stage was set for even more violence on Saturday, which is known as Nakba Day, when Palestinians remember the expulsion of 700,000 during the 1948 war.