Youmna al-Sayed had less than an hour to get to safety.
But with a single elevator operating in the al-Jalaa Tower, an 11-story building in Gaza City housing some 60 residential apartments and a number of offices, including those of Al Jazeera Media Network and the Associated Press, al-Sayed rushed for the stairs.
“We have left the elevator for the elderly and for the children to be evacuated,” the independent Palestinian journalist said. “And we were all running down the stairs and anyone who could help the kids would take them down,” she added. “I myself helped two of the residents’ children there and took them downstairs – everyone was running fast.”
Moments earlier, the Israeli army, which has been bombing Gaza for six consecutive days, warned by phone that residents had only one hour to evacuate the building before his fighter planes attacked him.
Al Jazeera’s Safwat al-Kahlout also had to act quickly. He and his colleagues “began to collect as much as they could from office staff and equipment – especially cameras,” al-Kahlout said.
But it took more time.
“Just give me 15 minutes,” pleaded a PA reporter over the phone with an Israeli intelligence officer. “We have a lot of equipment, including cameras, other things,” he added from outside the building. “I can bring it all out.”
Jawad Mahdi, the owner of the building, also tried to buy time.
“All I’m asking is to let four people … come in and get their cameras,” he told the officer. “We respect your wishes, we won’t if you don’t allow it, but give us 10 minutes.”
“There won’t be 10 minutes,” replied the officer. “No one is allowed to enter the building, we have already given you an hour to evacuate.”
When the request was rejected, Mahdi said, “You destroyed the work, the memories, the life of our life. I hang up, do what you want. There is a god. “
The IDF claimed there were “military interests of Hamas’s intelligence services” in the building, a standard line used after buildings in Gaza were bombed, and accused the group ruling the territory of using journalists as human shields. However, he provided no evidence to support his claims.
“I have been working in this office for over 10 years and have never seen anything [suspicious]Al-Kahlout said.
AP VIDEO: Associated Press staff evacuated their office in Gaza City shortly before the building was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike. https://t.co/Ib5T2SohXq
– The Associated Press (@AP) May 15, 2021
“I even asked my colleagues if they had seen anything suspicious and they all confirmed to me that they had never seen any military aspect or even the combatants come in and out,” he said. added.
“In our building, we have many families that we have known for more than 10 years, we meet every day when entering and leaving the office.”
Gary Pruitt, Chairman and CEO of AP, also told Al Jazeera, “I can tell you that we have been in this building for about 15 years for our office. We certainly did not have the feeling that Hamas was there.
Al-Sayed, who covered the Israeli bombings against Al Jazeera and worked for AP, said she could not understand what threat a building housing families and offices for lawyers, doctors and media workers could. represent.
“Where did the alarm come from?” Where are Hamas or the soldiers who might be in this building? Asked the Gaza resident.
“The people here, the residents, all know each other. The first five floors are reserved for offices [closed] during this period of escalation. So basically what is [still here] are the two media offices of Al Jazeera and AP and the residential apartments. “
Yet at 3:12 p.m. (12:12 GMT), the first Israeli strike came. Five minutes later, the al-Jalaa tower crashed to the ground after being hit by three missiles that sent a dark cloud of dust and debris into the air. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
“Years of memories, years of working in this building, all of a sudden it’s all in rubble,” al-Kahlout said, of the tower from the roof of which he often broadcast. “Just disappeared.”
BREAKING: An Israeli airstrike flattens the building that houses Al Jazeera and other international media in Gaza City.
– Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) May 15, 2021
Islam az-Zaeem, a lawyer who worked in the building, was at his home when his cousin – the owner of the Johara building who was razed on the night of May 13 – knocked on his door and told him that al-Jalaa was about to be destroyed.
“I ran towards the building and saw the locals and other employees gathered outside,” az-Zaeem told Al Jazeera.
“I went in and took the stairs because the electricity was cut and the elevators were not working. I was hysterical and fell in the dark several times, screaming and crying.
Az-Zaeem, who said nine legal associates and four interns were working on his floor, left the building five minutes before it was leveled.
“Even after the building fell, I kept screaming that I forgot to lock my office door,” he said. “Imagine that.”
The building, built in the mid-1990s, was one of the oldest skyscrapers in Gaza City.
Fares al-Ghoul, executive director of the Mayadeen Media Group, said his company was previously based in the Shorouq building, which was destroyed by Israeli missiles on May 13.
“The upper floors of Shorouq were targeted during the 2014 war,” he said. “In 2019, we moved the company to the al-Jalaa building because we thought it would be safer, as it housed the offices of international news agencies.”
“Now both have been destroyed,” he said.
The bombing of al-Jalaa, widely condemned as an attempt to “silence” journalists covering the Israeli offensive, came just hours after an Israeli airstrike on Shati refugee camp killed 10 members of the same family – eight children, two women – celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
At least 145 Palestinians, including 39 children, have been killed in the Gaza Strip since the start of Israeli airstrikes on coastal Palestinian territory. About 950 others were injured.
The violence comes after Israel’s plan to forcibly displace Palestinian families from occupied East Jerusalem and its attacks on Palestinian worshipers inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque sparked widespread protests in Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and Israel. Hamas said it had started firing rockets at Israel in response to this Israeli crackdown. At least nine people were also killed in Israel.
As evening fell in Gaza, families and journalists began to return to al-Jalaa in the hope of recovering some of their belongings buried under the rubble.
“One person came back to get paintings made by his daughter because these paintings carried a lot of memories,” said al-Kahlout, who continued to report on the streets of the bombed-out enclave. “We have moved outside and are now implementing our contingency plans for reporting. We are trying to be safe. No place is safe in Gaza but we are trying to do our best.
– Sara Khairat | Sarah Kirt (@sarakhair) May 15, 2021
Al-Sayed, meanwhile, went to al-Shifa hospital, which is considered a safe space to broadcast broadcasts. “It’s devastating,” she said of the flattening of the al-Jalaa building.
“I worked in this place and my heart was broken to see it brought to the ground, it was tragic. Everywhere, whether we work or live, we have incredible memories, ”she added.
“What about these families who lost their homes, who lost everything they saved to get these apartments? In Gaza, it is not easy to be able to get an apartment, and now in a few minutes, [they] lose everything.
“Words cannot describe the extent of the devastation, cannot describe the tragedy that people are going through.”
With additional reports by @LinahAlsaafin.