The phone rang at 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, and Jawad Mahdi answered. The person on the line, speaking fluent Arabic, told Mahdi that he had one hour to evacuate a building he owns in Gaza City. An Israeli airstrike was coming.
A well-known Gaza businessman who until a few years ago had a permit to enter Israel, Mahdi immediately went to the al-Jalaa building, a 12-story tower just two kilometers from the beach. Built in the 1990s, al-Jalaa was a residential and commercial building and one of the strip’s most recognized structures. Mahdi lived there in nine apartments with his immediate and extended family, he told The Jerusalem Post in a phone call from Gaza this week.
The Israeli on the phone asked Mahdi if he was the owner of al-Jalaa. Mahdi said yes.
“I am from the Shabak [Israel Security Agency],” said the man on the phone, according to Mahdi. “Hamas is in your building. We are going to destroy it. Get everyone out. You have one hour.”
Mahdi asked the Shabak agent how he can know he was telling the truth. “Am I your friend?” the Israeli agent asked the Gazan. “We are in a war. Go to all 12 floors and get everyone out.”
Mahdi listened, went to the top of the building, and worked his way down. He started with the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, whose offices were on the top floors, and continued working his way down through attorney offices, medical clinics and his own family’s apartments.
The AP immediately started to work the phone. Staffers placed urgent calls to the Israeli military, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, but they were either ignored or told that there was nothing to be done. Everyone told the staffers the same thing: make sure all the workers leave the building immediately.
As the clock ticked while the inhabitants scrambled, Mahdi received another phone call at 3 p.m.
“Is everyone out of the building?” the Shabak agent asked. Yes replied Mahdi, but he begged for an extra 10 minutes. Some of the AP workers needed to go back in and grab a few cameras they had left behind.
“Nothing will change from 3 p.m. to 3:10 p.m.,” the building owner pleaded, on a video that went viral on Twitter. “The building isn’t coming back. We know that. We just want four people, wearing press vests. They’re not going to get weapons. They are going to get their cameras and gear.”
“There will be no 10 minutes,” the officer replied. “No one is allowed to enter the building, we already gave you an hour to evacuate.”
He tried to argue further, but to no avail. At last he gave up. “This is our life work and our memories,” were his final words. “It is all gone. You can do whatever you want. There is a God that is greater than you.”
The Israeli responded: “pray for the Prophet,” an Arabic phrase meant to ease someone’s nerves. He asked one more time if anyone was in the building. Mahdi said no. Within minutes three missiles struck. The building was gone.
THE STORY of the al-Jalaa building has made international headlines, and is being looked at as something of a diplomatic turning point in the Gaza conflict. Until that day, the US administration stood firmly behind Israel. In statement after statement, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed Israel’s right to self defense, and their “unwavering support for Israel’s security.”
The bombing of AP’s Gaza bureau angered them both, and the White House was quick to weigh in. “We have communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted.
Blinken spoke with AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt that evening, and “offered his unwavering support for independent journalists and media organizations around the world,” a State Department spokesman said in a statement.
The IDF issued a vague statement after the bombing saying that fighter jets had struck a multi-story building “which contained military assets belonging to the intelligence offices of the Hamas terror organization.” It said it had provided advance warning to civilians in the building, allowing them to get out.
That was it. No evidence and no public statement. Diplomats in the Foreign Ministry were shocked. They had no advance knowledge of the strike against a US news agency’s offices, and no one informed them. By Wednesday, they had still not been privy to the intelligence file or the reason behind the bombing.
“No one told us anything,” one official there said. “Israeli diplomats were being asked about this around the globe, and no one had any information that it could use to explain why this had happened.”
But the IDF did not think it needed to do anything. On Monday, the Post’s Lahav Harkov reported that Israel had shared intelligence with the United States, a report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed up in an interview on Face the Nation. But Blinken said he had not seen anything. Then a day later, he announced that the US had received additional information.
What that information contains remains unclear. Asked a list of questions this week by the Post, the IDF refused to divulge the exact nature of the threat that stemmed from the building. It claimed that Hamas’s intelligence research and development unit had offices in the building, and that the unit was composed of “unique assets for the terrorist group that used sophisticated technology against the State of Israel.”
The IDF said that the unit used “these capabilities” on a number of occasions to disrupt IDF operations, possibly a reference to electronic warfare. “The IDF operates in accordance with international law and takes precautions – as much as possible – to minimize harm to civilians during operations,” the IDF said.
A military source said that since the attack and the heavy criticism that followed, the IDF again reviewed the intelligence to ensure that a mistake was not made in targeting al-Jalaa. “We are 100% confident this was a legal target,” the source said.
The targeting of the building, the Post learned, was approved by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi as well as by Defense Minister Benny Gantz. It came up during one of their daily meetings during the operation, when they review the target bank for that day. Asked if Gantz raised any questions due to the presence of AP in the building, the Defense Ministry said that it did not have a comment.
“This is the problem,” explained an Israeli diplomat. “Someone should have raised a red flag and pointed out that AP is an American news agency, and that an attack like this is not going to go by quietly.”
Not only did that not happen, but now almost a week later Israel has still refused to reveal the intelligence file on the building, and what evidence it really had before ordering the strike. AP has demanded an independent investigation.
“The evidence should have been ready to be released within five minutes after the strike,” the diplomat said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t.”
IDF sources admitted this week that they may have mishandled the aftermath of the bombing.
What they failed to take into account were three factors: the first is that the bombing of a US news agency would not be something ignored by the administration or the American public.
Second, the bombing was being carried out just a day after the IDF had been accused of deceiving the foreign media with breaking news – that turned out to be false – of a ground incursion into Gaza, possibly used to then bomb Hamas’s underground “Metro” tunnel network. With the bombing of the AP office, not only did the IDF look like it was deceiving the media; it was now attacking it too.
Finally, the IDF failed to recognize the immediate need to shape the post-bombing narrative. By issuing a laconic statement without providing any evidence, the IDF left the field wide open to other stories. And into that breach marched a host of false narratives that overwhelmed the story Israel was trying to tell.
It was similar to what happened in May 2010, when navy commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara Turkish flotilla on its way to Gaza. The commandos were brutally attacked when they fast-roped onto the ship’s upper deck. Some were stabbed; others were thrown into the water. When they defended themselves and killed nine of the attackers, the story in the international media was how Israel had killed humanitarian activists bringing aid to Gaza.
It took hours until the video of the boarding – which clearly showed the armed attack – was finally released. But it was too late: the narrative of Israel being the attacker, the aggressor and the murderers had already set in.
Is al-Jalaa a similar case? To some, it seems so. Israel has made claims and said that there were Hamas assets in the building, but has provided no evidence to back that up. Contacted this week to ask if that would change, the IDF said that it might but only after the operation ended.
If the military thinks that putting out evidence more than a week after the bombing will change public opinion, then we really have a problem. •