Israeli airstrikes flattens media offices and hits home of Hamas leader

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Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports from Tel Aviv on the relentless back-and-forth of rocket attacks and air strikes between Gaza and Israel

An Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip has destroyed a high-rise building housing the offices of the Associated Press, Al-Jazeera and a number of apartments.

The Israeli military ordered people to evacuate the building roughly an hour before the strike and said it targeted the building because it contained assets of Hamas intelligence agencies, which it said were using media offices as “human shields.” It did not provide evidence for the claims.

The move is the latest step by Israel to silence reporting from the territory amid its battle with the militant group Hamas.

It was the deadliest single strike since the battle with Hamas erupted earlier this week.

Watch the moment an Israeli airstrike destroys a building housing major media organisations

In response to the attack, AP president and chief executive Gary Pruitt said he was "shocked and horrified the Israeli military" would target a building housing media organisations, adding "the world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today."

“They have long known the location of our bureau and knew journalists were there. We received a warning that the building would be hit," he said.

“We are seeking information from the Israeli government and are engaged with the US state department to try to learn more.

“This is an incredibly disturbing development. We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life. A dozen AP journalists and freelancers were inside the building and thankfully we were able to evacuate them in time."

Smoke billows from a building housing various international media after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike. Credit: AP

Mostefa Souag, acting director-general of Al Jazeera Media Network, called the Israeli strike a “war crime.”Dr Souag added: “The aim of this heinous crime is to silence the media and to hide the untold carnage and suffering of the people of Gaza."

Meanwhile the White House has responded to the attack, saying Israel has a “paramount responsibility” to ensure the safety of journalists covering the spiralling conflict.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted on Saturday that the US has “communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.”

President Joe Biden has urged a de-escalation, but has publicly backed Israel’s right to self-defense from Hamas rockets fired from Gaza. He spoke separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday.

The White House said Biden shared his “grave concern” about intercommunal violence within Israel and escalating tensions in the West Bank. Biden and Netanyahu also discussed Jerusalem, with Biden saying it should “be a place of peaceful coexistence for people of all faiths and backgrounds.”

Biden also held his first call since taking office with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the violence, in which he called for Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel.

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus defends the toppling of media offices

On Saturday, Israel bombed the home of Khalil al-Hayeh, a senior figure in Hamas’ political branch, saying the building served as part of the group’s “terrorist infrastructure.” There was no immediate report on al-Hayeh’s fate or on any casualties.

The bombing of al-Hayeh’s home showed Israel was expanding its campaign beyond just the group’s military commanders. Israel says it has killed dozens in Hamas’ military branch, though Hamas and the smaller group Islamic Jihad have only acknowledged 20 dead members.

Both sides are continuing to press for an advantage amid the rising violence, while efforts to bring about a ceasefire gathered strength.

ITV News cameras filming in Tel Aviv captured a barrage of rockets fired on Saturday

The latest outburst began in Jerusalem and has spread across the region, with Jewish-Arab clashes and rioting in mixed cities of Israel.

There were also widespread Palestinian protests on Friday in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces shot and killed 11 people.

ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo is in Tel Aviv with the latest on the escalating violence

The increasing violence has raised fears of a new Palestinian “intifada”, or uprising, at a time when there have been no peace talks in years.

Palestinians are marking Nakba day on Saturday, when they commemorate the estimated 700,000 people who fled or were driven from their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation, raising the possibility of more unrest.

US diplomat Hady Amr arrived in the region on Friday as part of Washington’s efforts to de-escalate the conflict, and the UN Security Council is also set to meet on Sunday.

Palestinians gather to mark Nakba Day

But Israel turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year truce that Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers had accepted, according to an Egyptian source.

Since Monday night, Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, whose military responded by pounding the Gaza Strip with strikes.

In Gaza, at least 126 people have been killed, including 31 children and 20 women; in Israel, seven people have been killed, including a six-year-old boy and a soldier.

People inspect the rubble of a damaged building which was hit by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City Credit: Adel Hana/AP

Rocket fire from Gaza and Israel’s bombardment of the blockaded Palestinian territory continued into Saturday, when an air strike on a three-storey house in a refugee camp in Gaza City killing a family of 10 – the highest number of fatalities in a single hit.

Mohammed Abu Hatab told reporters his wife and five children had gone to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday with relatives.

She and three of the children, aged between six and 14, were killed, while an 11-year-old is missing. Only his six-month-old son Omar is known to have survived.

Friends and relatives of Israeli soldier Omer Tabib, 21, mourn during his funeral. Credit: AP

Shortly afterward, Hamas said it fired a salvo of rockets at southern Israel in response to the air strike.

A furious Israeli barrage early on Friday killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands fleeing to UN-run shelters.

The military said the operation involved 160 warplanes dropping some 80 tonnes of explosives over the course of 40 minutes and succeeded in destroying a vast tunnel network used by Hamas.

Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the military aims to minimise collateral damage in striking military targets.

A Muslim worshipper wears a Hamas flag during a protest against Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. Credit: AP

But measures it takes in other strikes, such as warning shots fired in order to get civilians to leave, were not “feasible this time”.

Military correspondents in Israeli media said the military believed dozens of militants were killed inside the tunnels.

The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, but the Israeli military said the real number is far higher.

Gaza’s infrastructure, already in widespread disrepair because of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas seized power in 2007, showed further signs of breakdown, compounding residents’ misery.

Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City Credit: AP

The UN said Gazans are experiencing daily power cuts of eight to 12 hours and at least 230,000 have limited access to tap water.

The impoverished and densely populated territory is home to two million Palestinians, most of them the descendants of refugees from what is now Israel.

The conflict has reverberated widely. Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations have seen daily violence, with mobs from each community fighting in the streets and destroying each other’s property.

The tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, with Palestinian protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint located on a mount in the Old City revered by Muslims and Jews.

Tensions began earlier this month with the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex a focal point

Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, in an apparent attempt to present itself as the champion of the protesters.

During the conflict that spiralled from there, Israel said it wants to inflict as much damage as it can on Hamas’ military infrastructure in Gaza.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Hamas will “pay a very heavy price” for its rocket attacks, as Israel masses troops at the frontier.

US president Joe Biden has expressed support for Israel while saying he hopes to bring the violence under control.