The prominent 12-story building in Gaza City, which was destroyed in an Israeli air strike on Saturday, not only housed the offices of media organizations such as The Associated Press and Al Jazeera.
It also provided a view of the world in Gaza as AP cameras on the rooftop captured Israeli bombing and rocket attacks by Palestinian militants during periodic flares in combat, including last week.
“The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of today’s events,” AP President Gary Pruitt said in a statement following the Israeli attack.
The leveling of al-Jalaa Tower, which occurred as fighting between Israelis and Palestinians on multiple fronts, has been condemned by the whole world. The Israel Defense Forces said their warplanes hit the tower because it also contained military assets belonging to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.
Mr Pruitt asked the IDF to produce evidence to back up their claim, adding that the news agency had operated from the building for 15 years.
“We had no indication that Hamas was in the building or that it was active in the building,” he said. “We are actively checking this to the best of our ability. We would never knowingly endanger our journalists. “
On Sunday, the IDF tweeted that the building was “an important base of operations” for Hamas’ military intelligence, where it “gathered intelligence for attacks against Israel, manufactured weapons and positioned equipment to obstruct IDF operations”.
The IDF, which often accuses Hamas of using civilians as shields, warned civilians in the building in advance to allow the evacuation. The AP reported that the building’s owner, Jawad Mahdi, “was told he had an hour to make sure everyone left the building”.
In the minutes leading up to the airstrike, Mr Mahdi was desperately filmed asking the Israeli army to admit four journalists who had filmed an interview – with the father of four children who were killed in a refugee camp on Saturday morning in an Israeli strike – additional ones 10 minutes to get their things.
An Israeli soldier said to him: “There won’t be ten minutes.”
Minutes later the building was destroyed and shrouded in a cloud of black smoke.
The AP said it “narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life” and that a dozen journalists and professionals were evacuated in the building prior to the strike. The building also housed apartments on the lower floors.
Freedom of the press groups said the strike – one day after the Israeli army falsely told foreign media that ground troops had invaded Gaza – raises concerns that Israel is disrupting independent coverage of the conflict. In a statement, the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists questioned whether the IDF “is targeting media outlets to disrupt coverage of human suffering in Gaza”.
A White House spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki tweeted that the United States had “directly advised Israelis that keeping journalists and independent media safe is a priority”. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” by the strike and warned that “indiscriminately targeting civil and media structures” would violate international law.
After the strike, journalists from other news organizations gathered near the rubble. Heba Akila, an Al Jazeera journalist who was broadcasting from the tower at the time of the alert, said, “This is clearly to silence the truth and the voices of the journalists.”