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AP repeats call to see evidence Hamas operated in building

Israeli envoy tells AP: Hamas sought to jam Iron Dome from your Gaza tower

Gilad Erdan publicizes new details about IDF decision to level media high-rise during May war, which evoked international outcry; offers to help news agency rebuild its office

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

People gather to view the rubble of the al-Jalaa building in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. The building housed The Associated Press bureau in Gaza City for 15 years. (AP/John Minchillo)
People gather to view the rubble of the al-Jalaa building in Gaza City, Friday, May 21, 2021. The building housed The Associated Press bureau in Gaza City for 15 years. (AP/John Minchillo)

Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan told top Associated Press executives on Monday that in addition to housing the wire agency’s office, the media tower flattened by the Israel Defense Forces in last month’s Gaza war was also being used by the Hamas terror group to develop a system to electronically disrupt Israel’s Iron Dome defense system from afar.

Erdan met with AP’s President Gary Pruitt and Vice President for International News Ian Phillips at the organization’s office in New York, in an effort to further explain the decision to strike the al-Jalaa Tower, which also housed Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau.

The strike on a building used by journalists — that came after an advance warning for all occupants to evacuate — led to an international outcry.

In a statement after the meeting, Erdan said he told the AP executives that Hamas operatives had been using an office in the building to “develop an electronic jamming system to be used against the Iron Dome defense system.”

Israeli Ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan (L) meets with Associated Press President Gary Pruitt at AP’s office in New York on June 8, 2021. (Israeli Embassy to the US)

The explanation was the most detailed one yet given publicly by Israeli officials. While Erdan acknowledged that the electronic system had not yet been operational when the IDF took out the tower, the ambassador told AP executives that the “building posed such an imminent threat to Israeli civilians and was [therefore] prioritized by the IDF.”

Erdan also mentioned an earlier reason given by the IDF for the strike, saying the tower housed offices for Hamas’s military intelligence, its research and development department and a tech unit.

In an accompanying statement, the military said its strike was aimed at destroying Hamas’s equipment.

“According to IDF assessments, the equipment was in the building at the time of the strike. The strike was designed to collapse the building in order to ensure the destruction of the special means,” the IDF said.

“The target was of high military value to Hamas and was vetted according to rigorous procedures within the IDF, and in accordance with international law,” the military added.

The meeting with Erdan “was a positive and constructive conversation,” the AP said in a statement. The agency expressed its appreciation for his pledges to help rebuild an AP bureau in Gaza. The AP renewed its call to see evidence backing Israel’s claim that Hamas was operating in the building.

“Israeli authorities maintain that the building housing our bureau was destroyed because of a Hamas presence that posed an urgent threat,” the AP said. “We have yet to receive evidence to support these claims. AP continues to call for the full release of any evidence the Israelis have so that the facts are public.” The AP has repeatedly urged Israel to share any evidence supporting its claims of Hamas activity in the building. It also has urged an independent investigation into the incident.

The ambassador lauded AP as “one of the most important news agencies in the world” and stressed that Israel “does not suspect its employees were aware a covert Hamas unit was using the building in this way.”

The latter comment appeared aimed at downplaying comments made by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi last month that AP journalists drank their morning coffee in a cafeteria in the building’s entrance with Hamas men — whether they knew it or not.

The AP called the comments “patently false,” noting that “there was not even a cafeteria in the building.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz later told foreign journalists that Kohavi “was trying to portray the atmosphere” and was speaking figuratively.

Gaza’s Jalaa Tower, which housed the offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, is destroyed in Israeli strikes after occupants were warned to depart, May 15, 2021 (video screenshot)

Erdan on Tuesday said that “Israel did everything to ensure no employees or civilians were hurt during this operation. In contrast, Hamas is a genocidal terrorist organization that purposely places its terror machine in civilian areas, including in buildings being used by international media outlets.”

Erdan reaffirmed that “Israel upholds the importance of press freedom and strives to ensure the safety of journalists wherever they are reporting.

The Israeli army gave occupants of the building one hour to evacuate before the May 15 airstrike. No one was injured, but the high-rise was flattened into a pile of rubble.

“In light of the nature of the target, prior to the strike, the IDF provided civilians in the building advance warning. Significant efforts were made to enable civilians to evacuate the building. The evacuation process was meticulous, and as a result, no civilians were harmed,” the military said Tuesday.

“This event should be put into context – Hamas intentionally operates within the civilian population of Gaza and does so in order to hamper the IDF’s operational activity,” the IDF added.

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.

Fire and smoke rises from the Jalaa Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike after the IDF warned the occupants to leave, Gaza City, May 15, 2021 (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The AP has said it had no indication of a Hamas presence in the building and was never warned of any possible presence before that day. It has called for an independent investigation and urged Israel to make public its intelligence.

Gantz said last week that Israel has shared its intelligence with the US government. But he indicated that Israel has no intention of making the information public, saying it did not want to divulge its sources.

The US has confirmed receipt of the intelligence, though it has not commented on whether it accepts the claim or believes it justified bringing down the entire building. The bombing led to a phone call from US President Joe Biden to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the fifth day of the 11-day war, in which the former demanded an explanation for the decision.

Last month, three unnamed Israeli officials involved in the operation 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. The security officials noted that Hamas operatives were able to evacuate with whatever technological equipment they had and that all that was bombed were empty offices.

Members of the Hamas terror group’s military wing parade in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 27, 2021, as Hamas claims victory following an 11-day conflict with Israel. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Press freedom groups also condemned the attack, which marked a new chapter in the already rocky relationship between the Israeli military and the international media.

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.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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