Israel Argues Tower It Bombed Housing Reporters 'Not a Media Center' but Hamas HQ

Amid a global outcry, the Israel Defense Forces have defended their targeting of a Gaza Strip office tower housing international media outlets, arguing the primary purpose of the structure was not journalistic but rather to serve as a headquarters for the Hamas movement and other Palestinian factions.

The IDF warned the occupants of Gaza's Al-Jalaa Tower on Saturday that an airstrike was imminent, resulting in a futile plea by the building's owner to delay the attack and frantic scenes as inhabitants, including personnel from major news outlets such as The Associated Press and Al Jazeera scrambled to grab what equipment they could before evacuating.

Less than an hour later, the 12-story structure was reduced to rubble.

The IDF claimed the tower "contained military assets belonging to Hamas military intelligence," making Al-Jalaa a legitimate target in the ongoing conflict that erupted Monday, as Hamas fired a barrage of rockets estimated to be close to 3,000 against Israel, and the IDF blasted the Gaza Strip with attacks now coming from air, land and sea.

The Israeli airstrike was met with criticism and condemnation from journalists, and even prompted a call from the White House.

Facing questions over the operation during a press briefing later Saturday, IDF spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus dismissed the notion that the site was protected due to the presence of journalists.

"It's not a media tower, and it's not a media center," Conricus said.

He argued that the building was home to an elaborate militant operation by Hamas, with Palestinian Islamic Jihad offices present as well. He laid out three main purposes the building served for the Palestinian organization.

The first entailed "officers of the military intelligence, basically collection and analysis of military intelligence, obviously used for military purposes, against us."

The second was "research and development, where the best subject matter experts were operating from inside that building, using the hardware, computers and other facilities inside the building to develop weapons, military weapons against us as well."

The third involved "highly advanced technological tools that are in or on the building."

Conricus declined to go into specifics, but said such tools were used by Hamas "in fighting against us in order to hamper or limit the activity of the IDF inside Israel and on civilian activity along with the Gaza envelope." He reiterated as well the extent to which the IDF has identified how groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad embedded their military infrastructure "within civilian facilities."

Conricus also acknowledged that the push for deeper answers was "legitimate," but said he could not go into further detail on the final point at the present moment "for reasons of source security and not compromising our collection efforts."

"I can assure you that our intelligence is very accurate," Conricus said. "That is what Hamas and Islamic Jihad were using the building for."

Conricus also emphasized what he called the IDF's commitment to ensuring the safety and free work of journalists, even if this degraded the effectiveness of the strike to a degree.

"Out of consideration for the safety of civilians, non-combatants, of course, journalists, then enough time was given for these people to evacuate the building, knowing that that time was also used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to salvage a lot of very important equipment," he added, "but that is a military loss that we are willing to quote-unquote suffer in order to minimize and to make sure that there are no civilian casualties in the strike on the building."

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This combination of pictures created shows the Al-Jalaa Tower housing international media outlets in Palestinian Hamas movement-controlled Gaza City being hit by an Israeli air strike and collapsing on May 15. Israeli airstrikes pounded the Gaza Strip, killing 10 members of an extended family and demolishing a key media building, while Hamas and other armed Palestinian factions continued to launch a barrage of nearly 3,000 rockets amid violence in the West Bank. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Shortly after the Al-Jalaa Tower fell in dramatic images caught on camera and video, media outlets that had occupied the building for years, including three previous wars between Gaza-based Palestinian fighters and Israel, released statements.

Al Jazeera said it "condemns in the strongest terms the bombing and destruction of its offices by the Israeli military in Gaza and views this as a clear act to stop journalists from conducting their sacred duty to inform the world and report events on the ground." The Qatar-based outlet "promises to pursue every available route to hold the Israeli government responsible for its actions," calling for international support in doing so.

The Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt said his organization was "shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP's bureau and other news organizations in Gaza." He said the IDF was well-aware of the outlet's office there, and called the attack "an incredibly disturbing development" in which employees "narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life."

"The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today," Pruitt said.

Pruitt would later receive a call from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who conveyed Washington's official support.

The top U.S. diplomat "offered his unwavering support for independent journalists and media organizations around the world and noted the indispensability of their reporting in conflict zones". He also "expressed relief that the Associated Press team on the ground in Gaza remains safe."

The ramifications of the bombing extended to even higher levels of the U.S. government, as White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said just hours after the incident that U.S. President Joe Biden's administration had "communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility."

The White House also released a readout of a call between the U.S. leader and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Biden reaffirmed Israel's right to defend itself, condemned the continued Hamas rocket attacks, and lamented the loss of life among both Israelis and Palestinians. He also "raised concerns about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection."

The release was followed minutes later by a readout of a call between Biden and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in which similar sentiments were expressed. In both conversations, Biden reiterated U.S. support for a two-state solution to bring a peaceful end to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the fight in Gaza appeared far from over as both the IDF and Hamas dug into their worsening bout. The conflict erupted Monday as a worsening dispute involving Israeli families trying to evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem, a row that became further inflamed by an Israeli raid on the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque and continuous rocket fire by a coalition of Palestinian groups led by Hamas.

Hamas Al-Qassam Brigades spokesperson Abu Obeida said Friday that the group has "has prepared itself for the bombing of Tel Aviv for six continuous months, with the help of God" in a statement obtained by Newsweek. In response to the IDF "striking a civilian tower in Gaza," Obeida said the group "directed a rocket barrage towards Tel Aviv" and that residents of the city "must stand on one leg and wait for our earthquake response."

The IDF has destroyed a number of high-rise buildings suspected of functioning on behalf of Palestinian forces. The events surrounding the strike on Al-Jalaa Tower, however, marked the second such incident raising tensions between the IDF and some international news outlets covering the worst eruption of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in years.

On Thursday, the IDF had announced the entrance of ground forces into the conflict for the first time, a development that appeared to mark the beginning of an invasion that Israeli officials had previously told Newsweek and other outlets had been planned and prepared. The presence of such forces in the Gaza Strip itself was later confirmed to a number of reporters.

Hours later, however, the IDF denied that the incursion had commenced. An IDF spokesperson issued a clarification to Newsweek stating that "there are currently no IDF ground troops inside the Gaza Strip." Conricus later took personal responsibility early Friday, calling it "an internal miscommunication" in which he had conveyed the "wrong information."

A number of Israeli media outlets, however, suggested foul play. The IDF plan, according to these reports, was to intentionally spread false news of an invasion in order to Hamas personnel into a vast network of underground tunnels referred to by the IDF as "the metro" in order to launch a comprehensive set of strikes that would destroy this subterranean complex, trapping and presumably killing the Palestinian fighters there.

Asked by Newsweek on Saturday if the operation entailed deceiving either foreign media or the Palestinian factions with which the IDF is battling, Conricus said that the goal was simply to neutralize Israel's foes.

"The aim of the operation was to kill enemy combatants," Conricus said. "That was the aim."