Tensions in Gaza have escalated further after an Israeli bombardment destroyed a high-rise building used by foreign press, followed up by the targeting of the home of one of Hamas’s leaders.
The al Jalaa Tower in Gaza City, which houses Al Jazeera and the Associated Press (AP) news agency, among others, was hit twice by an Israeli bombardment at about 1.15pm on Saturday.
There were no reports of fatalities and an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “very satisfied” that no journalists were hurt.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Forces said: “The building contained civilian media offices, which the Hamas terror organization hides behind and uses as human shields. The Hamas terror organisation deliberately places military targets at the heart of densely populated civilian areas in the Gaza Strip.”
For 15 years, the AP’s top-floor office and roof terrace were a prime location for covering Israel’s conflicts with Gaza’s Hamas rulers, including wars in 2009 and 2014.
The news agency’s camera offered 24-hour live shots as militants’ rockets arched toward Israel and Israeli airstrikes hammered the city and its surrounding area this week.
AP’s president and CEO Gary Pruitt condemned the strike “incredibly disturbing”, saying the media outlet was “shocked and horrified”.
“We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life,” he said. “A dozen AP journalists and freelancers were inside the building and thankfully we were able to evacuate them in time.
“The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today.”
Mr Netanyahu has insisted that Israel is doing everything to avoid harming those not involved in the Hamas strikes against his country, including a rocket attack that killed one Israeli near Tel Aviv.
Israel’s military also targeted the home of Khalil al-Hayeh, a top leader of Gaza’s ruling militant Hamas group.
It said that al-Hayeh served as part of Hamas’s “terrorist infrastructure”, suggesting Israel was now going after the militant group’s top leadership. It is unknown if he survived the blast or not.
Later on Saturday, US President Joe Biden spoke to Mr Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in separate phone calls and urged a de-escalation in tensions.
The UN Security Council is set to meet to discuss the crisis on Sunday, after US diplomat Hady Amr arrived in the region on Friday as part of Washington’s efforts to de-escalate the conflict.
Meanwhile, the UK Foreign Office said: “The ongoing violence across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is deeply concerning and must end. There is never any justification for targeting innocent civilians.
“Both sides need to de-escalate and offer hope to their peoples, which can only come through political dialogue.”
Its statement came after tens of thousands of Londoners marched in solidarity with Palestinians, heading through Hyde Park to the Israeli Embassy, while Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy condemned the “completely unacceptable” airstrike on the Gaza media building.
Saturday’s escalation in violence came at the start of the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, an annual day of Palestinian grief marking the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees at the time of Israel’s creation in 1948.
It comes after days of attacks between Israel and Hamas.
Since Monday evening, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets towards Israel, which responded by attacking the Gaza Strip with tanks and air strikes.
The number of people killed has climbed to at least 145 people in Gaza, including 41 children and 23 women, according to Palestinian health officials, and nine – including two children and a soldier – on the Israeli side.