Press freedom advocates have sharply condemned Israel’s bombing of a Gaza building that housed the offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press news agency, calling it a brazen attempt to “silence” journalists covering the Israeli military’s ongoing offensive that has killed scores of people.
The 11-storey al-Jalaa building, which also houses a number of residences and other offices, was destroyed in an Israeli strike on Saturday afternoon. Dust and debris kicked up into the air as the building tipped and came crashing to the ground.
“The attack on the building that we have seen is a shocking and, it seems to me, catastrophic attempt to shut down media, to silence criticism, and worst of all, to create a cloak of secrecy around this conflict,” said Aidan White, founder of the Ethical Journalism Network, a network of global journalists and press rights groups.
At least 140 Palestinians, including 39 children, have been killed in the Gaza Strip since Israeli air raids on the coastal Palestinian territory began on Monday. About 950 others have been wounded.
The violence comes after Israel’s plan to forcibly displace Palestinian families from occupied East Jerusalem and its attacks on Palestinian worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound spurred widespread protests in Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and inside Israel.
Hamas, the Palestinian faction that governs Gaza, said it began firing rockets towards Israel in response to that Israeli crackdown.
Israel justified the strike on the al-Jalaa building on Saturday by saying the building contained Hamas military assets – a claim that was vehemently rejected.
“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,” Dr Mostefa Souag, acting director general of Al Jazeera Media Network, said in a statement following the attack.
The president and CEO of the Associated Press, Gary Pruitt, said the news agency was “shocked and horrified” by the strike, saying the Israeli military has “long known the location of our bureau and knew journalists were there”.
“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.
‘Silence the story’
This is not the first time Israel has targeted media organisations and journalists in its military offensives in the Gaza Strip.
In 2014, Palestinian rights group Al Haq said “indiscriminate attacks on media buildings have been a significant feature” of Israel’s military offensive in the Palestinian territory that year, which the United Nations said killed more than 1,500 Palestinian civilians, including more than 500 children.
“Given that the coordinates to media buildings were supplied to Israel in order to ensure their protection, any direct attack carried out against such buildings constitutes an unjustifiable breach of humanitarian law,” Al Haq said at that time.
Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst Marwan Bishara said the bombing on Saturday was not on Al Jazeera alone, or on the journalists themselves, who were warned about an hour before the impending strike to leave the building.
“The attack is on journalism, the attack is on information – the freedom and flow of information,” Bishara said.
“Shutting down international news media from Gaza, the way this has happened, with such a tragic imagery … does bring down with it all of Israel’s mantras about freedom of speech, about democracy, about human rights, about freedom of information.”
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said the attack raises the specter that the Israeli army “is deliberately targeting media facilities in order to disrupt coverage of the human suffering in Gaza”.
The Israeli military on May 11 and 12 bombed two Gaza City office buildings housing more than a dozen media outlets, CPJ reported earlier this week, citing news reports and local Palestinian journalists.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Dear, deputy general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, said Israel’s justifications for its bombing on Saturday falls far short. “We believe this is a deliberate attempt to try to silence the story being told from Gaza,” Dear told Al Jazeera.
“This is the third attack on a tower which houses various media, on top of that we’ve recorded 30 incidents of journalists being beaten or being detained. It is quite clear that this isn’t an accident, that this is systematic targeting of media in Gaza in order to prevent reporting from there.”
That was echoed by Barbara Trionfi, executive director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, who said the attack was “absolutely appalling”. “Whatever reasons may have been behind this attack, they are entirely unacceptable,” Trionfi told Al Jazeera.