Israel Revised Intel File It Gave U.S. on Bombing Gaza High-rise That Housed AP, Al Jazeera

Yaniv Kubovich
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Ruins of the Al Jalaa tower after Israeli airstrike in May
Ruins of the Al Jalaa tower after Israeli airstrike in MayCredit: Adel Hana / AP
Yaniv Kubovich

The intelligence file Israel gave the United States concerning the airstrike on a Gaza high-rise building that housed foreign news agencies was retroactively edited, according to Israeli sources.

This was done in order to justify Israel’s claim that the bombing of the Al-Jalaa tower during the last Gaza conflict was necessary, after it became clear that the intelligence in the hands of the Israel Defense Forces was less than solid, say the sources.

The report was given to senior U.S. officials after President Joe Biden demanded an explanation for the May 15 attack from then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli officials expressed concern that submitting the altered report could adversely affect the trust between the two countries, especially on defense issues of strategic importance to Israel.

Ruins of the Al Jalaa tower after Israeli airstrike in MayCredit: Khalil Hamra / AP

The Al-Jalaa tower in Gaza City housed the offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera news agencies. During Operation Guardian of the Walls Israel destroyed the tower, claiming that Hamas had been operating from the building in a way that justified the strike. Immediately after the attack, the United States demanded to see evidence supporting that claim. The IDF submitted intelligence on the tower to the U.S. the following day, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken said afterward that the information he was given did not prove that the attack was necessary. That same day, Biden conducted an uncomfortable phone conversation with Netanyahu in which the president demanded additional information explaining what led to the order to bomb the tower. Blinken has confirmed that additional information was delivered, but said that he could not discuss it.

As reported recently in Haaretz, IDF investigations found that Military Intelligence only discovered that The Associated Press and Al Jazeera had offices in Al-Jalaa during the “knock on the roof” protocol, a small missile strike meant to warn occupants to evacuate before an imminent airstrike. The military said previously, however, that it learned of the media organizations’ presence a few days before the attack. Since the beginning of the war with Hamas in May, international news organizations had given the IDF information about the location of their offices in the Gaza Strip, yet these offices were not designated as sensitive targets. Due to poor coordination, the information was not delivered to Military Intelligence or the Israel Air Force, and it was not in the building’s target file when the decision to destroy it was made.

When it became clear that foreign media organizations were housed in the tower, IDF Chief-of-Staff Aviv Kochavi convened an urgent meeting with several high-ranking officers. Sources with detailed knowledge of the discussion say Kochavi was determined to carry out the strike anyway, and the decision became final when Maj. Gen. Sharon Afek, the military advocate general at the time, ruled that it did not violate international law. A few senior defense officials warned, however, of the PR damage the strike would cause.

A thick column of smoke rises from the Jalaa Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike last MayCredit: Majdi Fathi/AFP

Military officials, as well as Hidai Zilberman, who was the IDF spokesperson at the time of Operation Guardian of the Walls, claim that the defense establishment failed to comprehend the consequences of the attack, even after it was completed. “They posted videos of the strike, before-and-after pictures,” says one knowledgeable source. “For an hour the whole world watched the building crumble in live coverage, and even that didn’t get the most senior figures to understand what Israel had got itself into.” The source said the attack had undermined the legitimacy of Israel in the operation. “Until it knocked down that tower the IDF enjoyed broad legitimacy to operate against Hamas, even from the Arab world. The collapse of the building ended that, and even if the establishment won’t admit it publicly, that was the moment that Israel understood the fighting would have to end soon," the source said.

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Senior defense officials say that in the wake of the international criticism and the American demands, the IDF began to examine the intelligence that it had prior to the strike. The review pointed to intelligence gaps, and the army realized that in fact it could not present intelligence justifying the operation. Intelligence obtained by Haaretz shows that senior officers then began “intelligence gathering” in a bid to retroactively bulk up the file on the building.

These efforts focused on reinforcing the evidence of Hamas activity in Al-Jalaa. A few days after the strike, the IDF began telling Israeli and foreign journalists that members of the organization’s cyberwarfare unit had used the building in efforts to change the trajectory of Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor missiles as well as Israel Air Force munitions. Zilberman, the IDF spokesperson, said at the time: “We checked ourselves, we verified that our sources were reliable and we are 100 percent certain that there were Hamas military assets in the building.”

Israeli diplomats soon chimed in on the controversy. In an interview with CNN, Ron Dermer, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said that Hamas intelligence operated in the building “and they were engaged in activity that actually would have ... undermined our ability to actually target effectively and also undermined our ability to intercept incoming rockets.”

Dermer added that proof of these claims was delivered to U.S. intelligence officials. In June Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, said that a Hamas unit charged with interfering with Iron Dome operated in the tower.

The information did not convince the Americans, because Israel provided no proof that in the days leading up to the bombing Hamas had tried to disrupt Israeli airstrikes or the operation of its anti-missile defense system. In a response to a question from Haaretz, a senior defense official admitted that the Hamas unit that allegedly worked in the building did not damage the IDF’s air defenses. Senior officers now admit that Hamas only attempted to form a cyberwarfare unit and it was incapable of disrupting Israeli activities. According to one senior defense official, “There was no reason to wait for these capabilities to develop, and it was right to attack the building.”

After the Gaza military operation, the IDF conducted an investigation led by retired general Nitzan Alon, as well as a separate investigation on Israel’s public diplomacy activities. Both investigations dealt with the strike on Al-Jalaa and concluded that its operational value was not on par with the public relations damage that it had caused, which could have been predicted in advance. The investigations also found a lack of coordination between the government and the military, and between the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and the combat units, a failing that deprived Israel of important PR accomplishments.

In a response, the IDF said the media organizations’ presence in the building was known before the strike. “The building housed several units of Hamas military intelligence, including research and development units, knowledge centers and very valuable technological equipment of the Hamas terror organization that were used against Israel. After the strike on the building an intelligence file was indeed delivered to the U.S. administration. This file included … much intelligence based on material existing before the attack. The decision on the attack was made in light of the intelligence picture and in accordance with a situation assessment during warfare, and it was found that the great value of the attack justifies it. According to the findings of the investigations carried out after the operation, 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 Al-Jalaa building is another example of the modus operandi of the Hamas terrorist organization, which situated its terrorist infrastructure within the civilian population, while using its own citizens as human shields and violating international law.”

Netanyahu declined comment.

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