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'Incredibly disturbing development': Israeli airstrike flattens media building in Gaza

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A view of a 11-story building housing AP office and other media in Gaza City is seen moments after Israeli warplanes demolished it, Saturday, May 15, 2021.
A view of a 11-story building housing AP office and other media in Gaza City is seen moments after Israeli warplanes demolished it, Saturday, May 15, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Hatem Moussa
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An Israeli airstrike destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza City on Saturday that housed offices of multiple media outlets, including the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera.

The strike on the building 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.

AP Gaza correspondent Fares Akram wrote on Twitter that the team "ran down the stairs from the 11th floor and now looking at the building from afar, praying Israeli army would eventually retreat".

In a statement, Gary Pruitt, the AP's President and CEO, said that a dozen journalists and freelancers were inside the building but were able to evacuate on time and that they are "shocked and terrified" the building was targeted by the Israeli military.

"They have long known the location of our bureau and knew journalists were there. We received a warning that the building would be hit.

"We are seeking information from the Israeli government and are engaged with the U.S. State Department to try to learn more.

"This is an incredibly disturbing development," he added.

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

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".

Al-Jazeera's Gaza producer Safwat al-Kahlout also reacted to the destruction, saying: "I have been working here for 11 years. I have been covering many events from this building, we have lived personal professional experiences now everything, in two seconds, just vanished".

"All my colleagues, despite the sadness, they didn’t stop a second – they were looking for an alternative just to keep Al Jazeera on top of the news".

In a statement, Dr Mostefa Souag, acting director-general of Al Jazeera Media Network, said: "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".

He added: “The aim of this heinous crime is to silence the media and to hide the untold carnage and suffering of the people of Gaza.

"The destruction of Al Jazeera offices and that of other media organizations in al-Jalaa tower in Gaza is a blatant violation of human rights and is internationally considered a war crime.

"We call on all media and human rights institutions in denouncing this heinous crime, and to stand with Al Jazeera and other media organisations targeted by the Israeli army, despite knowing their use of the building as their headquarters for many years".

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) defended the strike against the building, accusing the Hamas militant group of using it for military purposes.

"When Hamas places military assets inside such a building, it becomes a lawful military target. This is clear international law," the IDF wrote on Twitter.

"We called the building's residents and warned them to leave. We sent SMS messages. We dropped "roof knocker" bombs; they make loud noises and hit only the roof. We provided sufficient time to evacuate," it added.

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 on Saturday of a man killed by a rocket that hit Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on Saturday for both sides to take steps to de-escalate the "increasingly alarming situation" and to strictly adhere to international law.

"Rather than seeking to calm tensions, inflammatory rhetoric from leaders on all sides appears to be seeking to excite tensions rather than to calm them," she said in a statement.

"Once again, we are seeing lives lost and terrified people being forced to flee or hide in their homes, subjected to attacks that are being carried out by both sides in what amount to serious violations of international humanitarian law".

US President Joe Biden expressed "strong support" for Israel’s strikes in Gaza in retaliation for Hamas missile attacks on its territory, but raised concerns about civilian casualties and the protection of journalists on a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday.

The White House says Biden on Saturday also shared his "grave concern" about intercommunal violence within Israel and escalating tensions in the West Bank. Biden and Netanyahu also discussed Jerusalem, with Biden saying it should “be a place of peaceful coexistence for people of all faiths and backgrounds".

In a tweet, the White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: "We have communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility".

A US envoy arrived in Israel on Friday evening to hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

According to a statement released by the Israelis, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu "stressed during this conversation that Israel was doing everything to avoid attacking people not involved," the statement said, insisting that the evacuation of people from the building "where there were terrorist targets" had been organised before the raid.

In a post on Twitter on Saturday evening, he said: "I spoke on the phone with US President Joe Biden and updated him on developments and actions that Israel has taken and intends to take.

"I thanked him for his unreserved US support for our right to defend ourselves".

Biden also held his first call since taking office with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the violence, in which he called for Hamas, the PA’s rival, to stop firing rockets into Israel.

The White House says Biden "expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom, and economic opportunity that they deserve" and highlighted the resumption of US aid to the Palestinians under his administration.