The photos of the bombed and collapsing Al-Jalaa tower in Gaza are still fresh in our memories. On May 15, as part of Operation Guardian of the Walls, the Israel Defense Forces bombed and flattened the building, one of Gaza City’s icons that housed the offices of the Associated Press news agency, Al Jazeera and other foreign media.
Naturally, and in the light of international law, the world, watching events unfold live, responded with alarm. The president and CEO of AP said that he was shocked and disturbed that the Israeli army had destroyed a building which housed the offices of AP and other news agencies. The U.S. administration sent a message to Israel indicating that Israel must guarantee the safety of journalists and independent media representatives, and requested to know the justification for this operation. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that “the indiscriminate targeting of civilian and media structures violates international law.”
The IDF's response at the time showed a lethal coolness. The IDF spokesman explained that the building contained “assets of the Hamas terror organization’s military intelligence, as well as offices of civilian media outlets, which Hamas is using as human shields.” The message was clear: The IDF’s bank of targets is not impeded by a red light – and if anyone has a problem with the army toppling the offices of foreign media outlets in the middle of a city, let them turn to Hamas, which “deliberately places its military assets in the midst of a civilian population in the Gaza Strip.”
However, this week it became clear that the IDF had learned that the building hosted foreign media outlets only after it had started evacuating employees, using its advance warning procedure. In other words, the army realized what it was about to do only due to foreign journalists who, after being warned to evacuate the building, had called them. Horrifically, this new information from the ground, which reached the office of the chief of staff, did not lead to the strike being called off. Although some officials tried to block the strike, warning of the serious damage to Israel’s image, top commanders ordered their forces to continue with it (as reported by Yaniv Kubovich in Monday’s Haaretz).
- Israeli army only discovered foreign media was based in Gaza tower after strike began
- The army achieved its goal of the Gaza war. It doesn't look like a resounding victory
- Gaza war: This is what Israel showed the world. This was the reality on the ground
This is a worrisome disclosure, pointing to the depth of the moral failure. So far, criticism of the attack has focused on the judiciousness of what preceded it: How did Israel decide to attack a Hamas target in a building that also served foreign media outlets, in the midst of a civilian population. Even Maj. Gen. (ret.) Nitzan Alon, who conducted the army’s investigation of the impact of the strike on public opinion, likened it to a “public relations attack.” But it now turns out that this was a case of negligence in terms of the rules of engagement.
In its eagerness to achieve a “victory picture,” the IDF moved farther away from victory. Harming the media is a violation of international codes, something which erodes the values and institutions that define Israel’s identity as a democracy. The picture of the imploding tower is a picture of defeat.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.