United Kingdom

Israel destroys Gaza media building as rockets rain on Tel Aviv

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US President Joe Biden on Saturday that the Jewish state “is doing everything to avoid harming” non-combatants in its fight with Islamist militants in Gaza,  hours after Israeli air strikes destroyed a Gaza high-rise housing international media outlets.

According to a summary of the phone call released by Mr Netanyahu's office, the Israeli premier told Mr Biden that "the uninvolved were evacuated" from the Gaza tower block that housed media offices as well as other offices and apartments and that was destroyed earlier in the day in an Israeli air strike.

The Associated Press, whose Gaza offices had been in the building, said the strike aimed to silence reporting from the besieged territory, where at least 10 members of an extended family were killed in an Israeli bombing overnight. 

"The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today," AP’s president and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement. 

"This is an incredibly disturbing development. We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life," he said, adding that the AP was seeking information from the Israeli government and had contacted the US State Department to learn more.

The Israeli military said the building, Jala Tower, housed "Hamas military intelligence" facilities as well as apartments and other offices and that it gave people inside the building "ample time to evacuate".

"The building contained civilian media offices, which the Hamas terror organisation hides behind and uses as human shields," it said in a statement. 

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the United States “communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.”

Al-Jazeera, which also had offices in the high-rise building, broadcast its toppling live on air. 

"This channel will not be silenced. Al-Jazeera will not be silenced," a presenter for the channel said after an explosion brought the tower down in a huge cloud of dust.

The Qatari-owned channel also broadcast footage showing the building’s owner, Jawwad Mahdi, pleading over the phone with an Israeli intelligence officer for more time after receiving warning that the tower would be bombed. 

"All I'm asking is to let four people... to go inside and get their cameras," he said. "We respect your wishes. We will not do it if you don't allow it, but give us 10 minutes."

After the officer on the other end of the phone denied his request, Mr Mahdi said: "You have destroyed our life's work, memories, life. I will hang up. Do what you want. There is a God."

The strike on Jala Tower came as Hamas fired missiles from the besieged enclave for a sixth day. 

In the coastal city of Tel Aviv, beachgoers scrambled for cover as air raid sirens wailed. 

More than 2,300 rockets have been fired at Israel since Monday, Israeli officials said, with half intercepted by missile defences and 350 falling short into Gaza itself.

A 50-year-old Israeli man was killed on Saturday when a rocket that was not destroyed by the Iron Dome defence system landed on his residential building in the suburb of Ramat Gan.

Israeli officials have now reported 10 dead, including one soldier and two children.

"We will not let this terror go unanswered," the Israeli military said of the rocket fire from Gaza.

Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, said the missiles were in retaliation for a  “massacre against women and children” at Al-Shati camp in western Gaza, where a two-month-old baby was reportedly the only survivor pulled from the rubble of a building in which eight children and two women died in an Israeli air strike.

The incident was the deadliest strike since hostilities erupted on Monday. At least 139 people, including 39 children, have been killed in Gaza so far, Palestinian health officials said.

Meanwhile Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and beyond protested to mark Nakba Day, the annual May 15 commemoration of the destruction of their homeland in 1948 amid the founding of the state of Israel. 

After 11 Palestinians in the West Bank were killed in clashes with Israeli security forces in previous nights of violence, further casualties were expected.

Thousands of protesters marched in support of Palestinians in London and major cities across the world. Several thousand protesters carrying placards reading "Stop Bombing Gaza" and chanting "Free Palestine" met at Hyde Park before marching towards the Israeli embassy on Kensington's High Street. 

Diplomatic efforts are yet to show progress in halting the hostilities, which started amid rising tensions over the looming threat of evictions of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers and Israeli police clashes with Palestinians around al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. 

The fighting between Israel and Gaza has been accompanied by communal violence as mobs of Jews and Palestinians clash in Israeli communities. Palestinians and Arab Israelis have been beaten, amid arson and vandalism attacks. Israel's president, who has a largely ceremonial role, has warned of civil war.

US President Joe Biden, who said he supported Israel’s “right to self-defence”, sent his envoy Hady Amr to Israel on Friday ahead of a Sunday meeting of the United Nations Security Council. 

The US embassy said that Mr Amr, deputy assistant secretary for Israel and Palestinian affairs, would seek to “reinforce the need to work toward a sustainable calm".

Egypt is leading regional diplomatic efforts by pushing for a ceasefire to allow for talks, Egyptian officials said on Friday.

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