The head of the Israeli military has said privately that Gaza-based journalists of the Associated Press drank their morning coffee with Hamas operatives in the building the Israel Defense Forces bombed during the Gaza conflict, whether they knew it or not, according to a new report.
AP dismissed the reported allegation as “patently false” and said there wasn’t even a cafeteria in the building.
The military said in recent days that Jala Tower, which housed offices of major international media outlets including the AP and Al-Jazeera, was also home to a Hamas intelligence unit that operated a number of advanced electronic warfare devices meant to interfere with the military’s GPS reception, potentially affecting guided IDF weapons.
According to Channel 12, IDF chief Aviv Kohavi has told associates he has no regrets over the strike, despite the intense international condemnation it brought on and the damage it may have done to Israel’s global image.
“It justifiably came down,” the network quoted him as saying. “I haven’t a gram of regret.”
The report added that in a conversation with an unidentified foreign official, Kohavi asserted that at the tower’s ground-level cafeteria, AP journalists drank their morning coffee alongside Hamas electronics experts, whether they were aware of the fact or not.
AP said Kohavi’s reported comments were clearly untrue. In a statement Saturday night, the news agency said: “This unsubstantiated allegation attributed to the Israeli military’s chief of staff is patently false. There was not even a cafeteria in the building. Such baseless claims jeopardize the safety of AP journalists.”
AP, it noted, “continues to call for an independent investigation into the destruction of the building housing our Gaza bureau so that the facts are known. As we have said repeatedly, we had no indication of a Hamas presence in the building, nor were we warned of any such possible presence before the airstrike. We do not know what the Israeli evidence shows, and we want to know.”
Military Intelligence officials have said the seriousness of the electronic warfare issue justified the attack on the building, as well as the decision to bring down the entire structure, rather than just a surgical strike on the floors where Hamas was operating, as this might not have destroyed all of the capabilities in the tower.
Earlier this week three Israeli officials told The New York Times that some in Jerusalem regret bombing the building, saying any benefit of destroying Hamas electronic equipment in the tower had been outweighed by the public relations damage caused by attacking a building used by the press.
Some Israeli military officers had argued against the May 15 strike on the building before it was eventually approved, the report said. Israeli officials were persuaded to authorize the strike after being presented with information about alleged Hamas operations in the building, in the knowledge that no people would be hurt, the Times reported.
But following the major international outcry, some officials now believe the move was a mistake, the report said.
The IDF has not, so far, publicly released evidence to support its claims about Hamas’s use of the tower. The US has said Israel has provided it with information to back up the assertion through intelligence channels, though it has not commented on whether it accepts the claim or believes it justified bringing down the entire building.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Jala Tower a “perfectly legitimate target” and told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Israel passes such evidence through intelligence channels. There were no injuries in the strike, following an advance warning from the Israeli military to those inside to evacuate.
The owner of the Gaza media tower has lodged a complaint with the International Criminal Court. The complaint by Jawad Mehdi says that the attack that flattened Jala Tower was a “war crime.” The filing, a copy of which was seen by AFP, came after the chief prosecutor of the ICC said last week that “crimes” may have been committed during the recent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Mehdi said at the time that an Israeli intelligence officer warned him he had one hour to ensure the 13-story building was evacuated before missiles slammed into it.
The ICC has no obligation to consider complaints filed to its prosecutor, who can decide independently what cases to submit to judges at the court.
The ICC opened an investigation in March into possible war crimes in by both Israeli forces and Palestinian terror groups since 2014. The move infuriated Israel, which is not a member of the court.
Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said that Israel’s defense establishment handed Pentagon officials classified intelligence pointing to Hamas military operations conducted from the Gaza high-rise.
Press freedom groups condemned the attack, which marked a new chapter in the already rocky relationship between the Israeli military and the international media.
AP president Gary Pruitt called for an independent investigation into the strike.
Sally Buzbee, AP’s executive editor, said the news agency has had offices in the building for 15 years and was never informed or had any indication that Hamas might be in the building.
A report in The Atlantic in 2014 claimed that Hamas members had repeatedly burst into the AP’s offices in the building and threatened staff, actions it asserted went unreported.
The IDF accused Hamas of hiding behind the offices of the press outlets in the tower and using them as human shields.
“The Hamas terror group intentionally locates its military assets in the hearts of civil populations in the Gaza Strip,” the IDF said.
Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report.