The Israel Defense Forces didn’t know in advance that foreign media outlets had offices in a building it shelled in the Gaza Strip during its war with Hamas in May.
It discovered that the Associated Press and Al Jazeera had offices in the Al-Jalaa building only during the “knock on the roof” procedure, a small missile strike meant to warn the building’s occupants to evacuate before an imminent airstrike, according to sources involved in the incident.
When the warning missile hit, the foreign journalists tried to warn both Israeli colleagues and Israeli defense officials of their presence. But even though several defense officials then tried to prevent the ensuing airstrike, warning that the destruction of a building used by the media would cause severe PR damage and could result in pressure to end the fighting, senior IDF officers ordered the strike to go ahead.
The Al-Jalaa Tower, a 15-story building in Gaza City containing dozens of offices, collapsed at 3:17 P.M. on May 15, the fifth day of the fighting known in Israel as Operation Guardians of the Walls. At 1:40 P.M., the IDF and the Shin Bet security service began calling and sending text messages to civilians in the building to tell them to get out. Some of the journalists present were surprised to get texts telling them to leave due to an imminent airstrike.
Shortly after the first phone calls and texts arrived, the building’s occupants heard two or three small explosions – the “knock on the roof,” which is a key part of the warning procedure.
At about 2 P.M., some of the foreign journalists started calling Israelis to warn them of their presence in the building and urge the IDF not to attack it, or at least to give them a reasonable amount of time in which to remove all their equipment from their offices. The building’s owner also tried to get the airstrike averted, but to no avail.
The Israelis who received the foreign journalists’ message contacted senior army officers in Southern Command, the General Staff and Military Intelligence, and the information eventually reached the chief of staff’s office. Military Intelligence was asked to investigate whether the intelligence about the foreign media presence was true, but responded just a few minutes later that it had no information on the matter.
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Over the next hour, the army continued its warning calls and texts to the building’s occupants, but decided against doing any more “roof-knocking.”
Throughout this time, senior defense officials discussed whether to go ahead with the airstrike in light of the new information about the foreign media outlets. These discussions included Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and the head of the operations directorate, both of whom, according to people involved in the incident, had enough time to call off the airstrike.
At about 3 P.M., the IDF decided to go ahead with the airstrike despite the consequences, on the grounds that Hamas was using the foreign journalists as human shields to prevent attacks on the military assets it had placed in the building. But according to people involved in the incident, not all the relevant information was passed on by the army to senior government officials.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit subsequently tried to control the damage by claiming that the building contained assets belonging to Hamas’ military intelligence unit. A few days later, it added that Hamas “deliberately locates its military assets in the heart of the Gaza Strip’s civilian population. We’ve double-checked and are 100 percent certain that there were Hamas military assets in this communications building.”
Then-IDF Spokesman Hidai Zilberman later responded to U.S. criticism of the strike by saying, “Had they shot a single rocket at Washington – just one! – I’d like to see what the Americans would have said!”
The U.S. administration remained unconvinced of the strike’s necessity and demanded concrete proof that the building was actually used by Hamas in a way that would justify destroying foreign media offices. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and senior defense officials insisted that they had provided information that justified the strike, but after meeting with Gantz in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news briefing that he had seen no such information and demanded stronger evidence.
Two weeks ago, Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies held a conference on the battle over hearts and minds during wartime. Maj. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Alon, who researched this issue when he was in the IDF, criticized the strike on Al-Jalaa during his presentation.
“Toppling a tower where AP had offices is like a ‘public relations attack’ and an own goal,” he said. “Not everyone in the IDF accepts this, but I’m convinced that this was a mistake. The operational achievement was completely disproportionate to the diplomatic and public-relations damage this caused, and there’s a lot to be learned from this.”
Nevertheless, he stressed that he wasn’t commenting on the strike’s legality or its operational justification, but merely on the severe public relations damage it caused.
One person who was involved in the incident from the moment the decision was made to attack the building until its final collapse said the decision wasn’t necessarily made because destroying the Hamas cyber network that was the target was operationally essential.
“It was clear that in the world’s eyes, no [Hamas] attack would justify an attack on foreign media outlets,” he said. “It was clear to all of us what this meant, and there were many people in the IDF who thought we should drop the issue and that the attack could have been stopped at several points.”
However, he added, the IDF was aware that Hamas was winning the PR war in Jerusalem, in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel and in Lebanon. Moreover, its rocket fire at Israel was escalating. Consequently, he said, both the politicians and senior army officers “were looking for a victory picture.”
Another source said that it wasn’t clear how long the fighting could be continued, given the growing violence in mixed cities. Consequently, he said, the IDF considered it important to hit all the high-value Hamas targets it could in the early days of the fighting.
This source linked the strike on Al-Jalaa to an earlier attack on Hamas’ underground tunnel network, “which began well, but afterward it become clear that it hadn’t succeeded, so they were looking for something to give the public, some victory, even a small one. That’s why the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit was so quick to release pictures and videos of before and after the attack on the building. The IDF didn’t understand the implications of this incident and released the pictures of the building’s ruins as a public relations victory.”
The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said in response that “the media outlets’ presence in the building was known,” but the building also housed several units of Hamas Military Intelligence, including the research and development unit, as well as “extremely valuable technological equipment ... that was being used against Israel.”
An internal inquiry conducted after the strike concluded that “the attack on the building indeed caused significant damage to Hamas’ capabilities, and to the best of our knowledge, there were no casualties from the attack,” the statement continued.
“The Al-Jalaa building is another example of the Hamas terrorist organization’s modus operandi,” it concluded. “It locates its terrorist infrastructure amid the civilian population, while using its own citizens as human shields and violating international law.”