Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan told top Associated Press executives on Monday that in addition to housing the wire agency’s office, the media tower flattened by the IDF in last month’s Gaza war was also being used by the Hamas terror group to develop a system to electronically disrupt Israel’s Iron Dome defense system from afar.
Erdan met with AP’s President Gary Pruitt and Vice President for International News Ian Phillips at the organization’s office in New York, in an effort to further explain the decision to strike the al-Jalaa Tower, which also housed Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau. The strike on a building used by journalists — that came after an advance warning for all occupants to evacuate — led to an international outcry.
In a statement after the meeting, Erdan said he told the AP executives that Hamas operatives had been using an office in the building to “develop an electronic jamming system to be used against the Iron Dome defense system.”
The explanation was the most detailed one yet given publicly by Israeli officials. While Erdan acknowledged that the electronic system had not yet been operational when the IDF took out the tower, the ambassador told AP executives that the “building posed such an imminent threat to Israeli civilians and was [therefore] prioritized by the IDF.”
Erdan also mentioned an earlier reason given by the IDF for the strike, saying the tower housed offices for Hamas’s military intelligence, its research and development department and a tech unit.
The ambassador lauded AP as “one of the most important news agencies in the world” and stressed that Israel “does not suspect its employees were aware a covert Hamas unit was using the building in this way.”
The latter comment appeared aimed at downplaying comments made by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi last month that AP journalists drank their morning coffee in a cafeteria in the building’s entrance with Hamas men — whether they knew it or not.
The AP called the comments “patently false,” noting that “there was not even a cafeteria in the building.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz later told foreign journalists that Kohavi “was trying to portray the atmosphere” and was speaking figuratively.
Erdan on Tuesday said that “Israel did everything to ensure no employees or civilians were hurt during this operation. In contrast, Hamas is a genocidal terrorist organization that purposely places its terror machine in civilian areas, including in buildings being used by international media outlets.”
Erdan reaffirmed that “Israel upholds the importance of press freedom and strives to ensure the safety of journalists wherever they are reporting.
Israel is “willing to assist AP in rebuilding its offices and operations in Gaza,” the ambassador added.
The Israeli army gave occupants of the building one hour to evacuate before the May 15 airstrike. No one was injured, but the high-rise was flattened into a pile of rubble.
Military Intelligence officials have said the seriousness of the electronic warfare issue justified the attack on the building, as well as the decision to bring down the entire structure, rather than just a surgical strike on the floors where Hamas was operating, as this might not have destroyed all of the capabilities in the tower.
The AP has said it had no indication of a Hamas presence in the building and was never warned of any possible presence before that day. It has called for an independent investigation and urged Israel to make public its intelligence.
Gantz said last week that Israel has shared its intelligence with the US government. But he indicated that Israel has no intention of making the information public, saying it did not want to divulge its sources.
The US has confirmed receipt of the intelligence, though it has not commented on whether it accepts the claim or believes it justified bringing down the entire building. The bombing led to a phone call from US President Joe Biden to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the fifth day of the 11-day war, in which the former demanded an explanation for the decision.
Last month, three unnamed Israeli officials involved in the operation told The New York Times that some in Jerusalem regret bombing the building, saying any benefit of destroying Hamas electronic equipment in the tower had been outweighed by the public relations damage caused by attacking a building used by the press. The security officials noted that Hamas operatives were able to evacuate with whatever technological equipment they had and that all that was bombed were empty offices.
Press freedom groups also condemned the attack, which marked a new chapter in the already rocky relationship between the Israeli military and the international media.
Sally Buzbee, AP’s executive editor, said the news agency has had offices in the building for 15 years and was never informed or had any indication that Hamas might be in the building.
A report in The Atlantic in 2014 claimed that Hamas members had repeatedly burst into the AP’s offices in the building and threatened staff, actions it asserted went unreported.