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Amid intense Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, a media hub hit after warning

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/15/2021 Loveday Morris, Miriam Berger, Hazem Balousha, Steve Hendrix
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TEL AVIV — Israeli jets demolished the building housing several international news outlets in Gaza City on Saturday, sparking outrage among media groups and concern from the White House as violence continued to engulf Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The conflict raged unabated as the violence moved into its second week. Rockets from Gaza bombarded Israeli cities and communal strife gripped swaths of Israel and the West Bank. Warning sirens sounded in Tel Aviv and parts of southern Israel.

At least 139 people have died in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry. A strike overnight Friday at al-Shati refugee camp killed 10 members of the same family, eight of them children, according to the United Nations refugee agency. Five of the children attended one of the agency’s schools, it said, saying a total of 13 of its school children have been killed. An Israeli military spokesman said that incident was being investigated and officials would issue a statement shortly.

In Gaza, an Israeli warning, an airstrike and then outrage as media hub destroyed

In Israel, one person died after two rockets fell in Ramat Gan, just east of Tel Aviv, according to emergency rescue services, taking the total death toll in Israel to 10.

The Israeli military said the multistory building in Gaza City that housed the Associated Press, Al Jazeera and other media outlets was also used by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, including as intelligence and research and development offices. The military condemned the militants for using the news agencies as “human shields.”

Here’s what to know:

  • President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in separate phone calls.
  • Biden reaffirmed Israel’s “right to defend itself,” but also expressed “concern about violent confrontations in the West Bank” in his discussions with Netanyahu, according to a White House statement. With Abbas, the White House said he and Biden “shared concern that innocent civilians, including children, have tragically lost their lives amidst the ongoing violence.”
  • Residents of Tel Aviv rushed for bomb shelters as several salvos of rockets targeted the city. One person died at a building that was hit in the city of Ramat Gan, part of Tel Aviv’s wider metropolitan area.
  • As Israel continued to strike targets in the densely populated Gaza Strip, the death toll climbed to at least 139, including 39 children, with about 1,000 wounded, Gaza’s Health Ministry reported.
  • Nakba Day demonstrations, marking the displacement of Palestinians amid Israel’s founding in 1948, drew thousands of Palestinians to the streets in the West Bank and Israel.
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The journalists and others received warning calls from Israeli military operatives giving them about an hour to clear the building. Many offices were closed for the Eid holiday, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and reporters had no chance to retrieve notes, records and laptops before a midday strike leveled the structure.

The action raised concerns that media would find it more difficult to report on events in Gaza, where the military onslaught threatens a humanitarian disaster and outside reporters are being blocked from entering because checkpoints are closed.

“The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today,” the AP’s president and chief executive, Gary Pruitt, said in a statement.

President Biden raised the issue with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a call Saturday. “He raised concerns about the safety and security of journalists and reinforced the need to ensure their protection,” the White House said in summary of their conversation. The president also restated his support for Israel to defend itself against more than 2,200 rockets from Gaza and “noted that this current period of conflict has tragically claimed the lives of Israeli and Palestinian civilians, including children.”

“Ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility,” tweeted White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Mohammed Ali, a bureau assistant with Al Jazeera, said that he and other staff fled the building when the warning came from the Israelis an hour before the strike. But they went back in to try to retrieve something that was irreplaceable: the bureau’s archives.

“There are thousands of hours of videos and photos,” he said. “We were able to get some of it out, not even half of it. We tried our best, but in the end we were afraid for our lives,” he said. If there was a Hamas office in the building, he wasn’t aware of it, he said. The building also contained doctors’ and legal offices and residential apartments, he said.


Video: Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza on Eid morning (Reuters)

The military strikes came as funerals were held for 11 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in clashes in the West Bank on Friday and early Saturday as the area emerged as a new flash point.

a person sitting on a bed: A wounded Palestinian boy sits on a hospital bed at Al-Shifa Hospital, after an Israeli air strike struck al-Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza City on May 15, 2021. © Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images A wounded Palestinian boy sits on a hospital bed at Al-Shifa Hospital, after an Israeli air strike struck al-Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza City on May 15, 2021.

In Israel, residents braced for another night of violence between Arab and Jewish citizens. In Jaffa, Israeli police said they were investigating an attack that saw a 12-year-old boy burned reportedly by a molotov cocktail thrown in his living room window.

Meanwhile, Israeli Arabs gathered for Nakba Day, an annual event marking the displacement of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians when Israel was founded in 1948. (Nakba means disaster or catastrophe in Arabic). At midday, sirens sounded in central Ramallah, the main West Bank city, to mark the event.

“I think for Palestinians it’s less about commemorating Nakba right now and more about commemorating the ongoing Nakba,” said Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian writer and activist in Ramallah. “That’s the difference this time.”

In Sakhnin, a town in northern Israel, dozens of Palestinian flags flapped over a crowd of about 5,000 gathering for Nakba events. The crowd, many wrapped in black-and-white kaffiyehs, marched from a mosque to the municipal building chanting slogans as families lined the route.

“We are living Nakba,” said Kristen Ghnaiem, 25. “It’s continuous. We are living another one.”

a group of people walking down the street: Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian man in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where looming evictions of Palestinian families have fueled anger, on May 15, 2021. © Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images Israeli security forces detain a Palestinian man in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where looming evictions of Palestinian families have fueled anger, on May 15, 2021.

Journalists in Gaza City described a surreal experience of covering the destruction of their own offices.

Al Jazeera broadcast footage of what it said was the building’s owner trying to negotiate by phone with an Israeli officer to get an extra 10 minutes of time before the strike to retrieve camera equipment. Those in the building had been given more than an hour warning, but he said journalists had been outside their offices doing broadcasts.

“There’s no difference between 3 o’clock and 3:10,” he argued, but the voice on the other side was unrelenting: “No one enters the building,” it said.

“All the efforts we put into our lives is one with the wind,” said the owner. “Our memories, our lives, you forced us to lose.”

The exchange is one of several recorded examples of Arabic-speaking Israeli military operatives phoning landlords, managers and tenets of targeted buildings. The Israel military has made calls, issued social media warnings and delivered nonlethal “roof-knocking” strikes to give residents and workers a chance to flee.

The building also housed the Gaza Center for Media Freedom, which trains local journalists and monitors press freedom. The organization’s director, Adel Zanoun, said the group had been in the process of moving out of the building anyway, but they hadn’t dared to enter the building to retrieve their remaining equipment — 12 laptops and six desktop computers — after the evacuation order came.

“What could we do?” he said. “It’s a big risk, it’s very, very dangerous.”

Zanoun, who also works for the Agence France-Presse news agency, said that the aerial bombardment eclipses anything seen in the later major attacks on Gaza in 2014. “There are airstrikes everywhere,” he said. “And very, very strong.”

a pile of snow next to a building: Palestinians look at destruction caused by Israeli air strikes that killed at least 10 members of Abu Hatab Hadidi family in Gaza City on May 15, 2021. © Khalil Hamra/AP Palestinians look at destruction caused by Israeli air strikes that killed at least 10 members of Abu Hatab Hadidi family in Gaza City on May 15, 2021.

Palestinians say Israel is showing disregard for civilians safety in the bombardment.

Mindful of the growing international condemnation of the mounting death toll in Gaza, a senior Israeli air force general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military issues, said the process of issuing advance warnings was evidence that Israel is doing what it can to minimize civilian casualties as it strikes the military assets Hamas has embedded in crowded neighborhoods.

Balousha reported from Gaza City, and Berger from Jerusalem. Shira Rubin in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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