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2021 Notebook: The war in Gaza and the razing of AP’s office

December 17, 2021 GMT
FILE - A blast from an Israeli airstrike on a building in Gaza City throws dust and debris on May 13, 2021, as Hamas and Israel traded more rockets and airstrikes and Jewish-Arab violence raged across Israel at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)
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FILE - A blast from an Israeli airstrike on a building in Gaza City throws dust and debris on May 13, 2021, as Hamas and Israel traded more rockets and airstrikes and Jewish-Arab violence raged across Israel at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)
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FILE - A blast from an Israeli airstrike on a building in Gaza City throws dust and debris on May 13, 2021, as Hamas and Israel traded more rockets and airstrikes and Jewish-Arab violence raged across Israel at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)

THE BACKGROUND: An 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group in May left over 260 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead.

It was the fourth war between the bitter enemies since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, with fighting erupting after weeks of tensions and clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police in contested east Jerusalem.

Israeli aircraft struck hundreds of targets in Gaza, while Hamas launched over 4,000 rockets at Israel. In a first, the violence also spilled over into clashes between Jews and Arabs inside Israel as well.

In Gaza, tens of thousands of homes were damaged and more than 2,000 others were destroyed. Israel has eased its blockade of Gaza as part of Egyptian-led efforts to broker a longer-term cease-fire, but reconstruction efforts have yet to get off the ground. In rocket-scarred southern Israel, residents remain jittery.

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On the sixth day of the war, the Israeli air force bombed the 12-story al-Jalaa tower, roughly an hour after ordering all occupants to evacuate. No one was injured, but the building was destroyed. The building was home to offices belonging to The Associated Press, the Al-Jazeera satellite channel as well as dozens of families. Israel has said it had evidence Hamas was using the building for military purposes, though it has not released any evidence publicly to back the claim.

Here, some AP journalists involved in the coverage reflect on the story and their own experiences.

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FARES AKRAM, correspondent, Gaza City, Gaza Strip

The destruction of the AP office felt like an attack on all of us. The office had been our professional home for years — and most of us had been sleeping there throughout the war, wrongly thinking that it was a rare safe place in Gaza.

Just days earlier, my family farmhouse was also destroyed by a bomb from an Israeli fighter jet. The house, located near the Israeli frontier in northern Gaza, had provided a precious escape from Gaza’s concrete jungle of homes and dirty streets.

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After the war, I left Gaza through Egypt and went to visit my wife and children who have been living in Canada. I had not seen them for nearly two years due to coronavirus lockdowns. The four-month visit was the longest time I’ve ever stayed outside the tiny, impoverished crowded land on the Mediterranean that I call home.

Six months later, I wish I could say that things are getting better. But nothing has improved.

Large-scale reconstruction has yet to start. The nearly 15-year blockade that Israel and Egypt maintain on Gaza is still in place. Efforts to reach a deep, long-term cease-fire are stalled, and fears of another war breaking out are widespread. The process of rebuilding our office is moving slowly.

The crater made by the bomb on our farmhouse is still there, and the house is still in ruins.

It was my favorite spot in Gaza, something to look forward to on the weekends. It was where I could spend cold winter nights warmed by a burning bonfire or where my family would bake pastries and other dishes on the wood-fired clay oven. I self-isolated there during the lockdown because of the feeling of freedom walking in the field or feeding the chickens.

All of these lovely things have become a memory.

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JOSEF FEDERMAN, bureau chief, Jerusalem:

The airstrike happened on the sixth day of the war. During those first few days, we had worked out a nice little routine. Karin Laub, the Mideast news director, would keep an eye on the story in the mornings while I would rest and do TV interviews. Then I would come in and handle the story and write the night’s big roundup at the end of the day.

The airstrike happened on a Saturday, and it was actually kind of quiet. I went out and did a TV interview for Chinese television. Whenever I did TV, I would turn my phone off and put it down so I could focus on the interview. So, I turned my phone off for about 10 minutes.

When I turned it back on, there were eight missed calls from the office. I thought, “What the heck is going on?” And then as I was staring at my phone, it rang again and it was Karin and she was frantic. We had just received a warning from the Israeli army that the building with our Gaza office was going to be blown up. “We’ve been given an hour to clear out,” she said, before asking me to call my contacts to see if we could stop it.

A couple of days earlier, I had given the Israeli military the GPS coordinates of our office to make sure it wasn’t accidentally bombed. So I called them to see if they could stop this. The spokesman was very nice, asked for more details about the building and said he would make some phone calls to see if anything could be done.

I then called the Foreign Ministry, telling the spokesman that this would be a public relations disaster if Israel destroyed the AP office. He also promised to make some calls and see if he could help.

Then, I called the prime minister’s office and got a very different reply. There were no offers of help. The spokesman merely said: “Make sure you get your people out of there and they are safe.”

That’s when I knew the office was going to get blown up.

I rushed home, flipped on the TV and watched our office get blown up in real time on live TV.

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This wasn’t the worst thing we’ve dealt with. In 2014, two people were killed in an accident, an explosion in Gaza, and another staffer was badly wounded. So, all things considered, this wasn’t the worst outcome. At least everybody was safe.

They had an hour to get out of there. They grabbed what they could. And the amazing thing is, they went to work. They ran down the stairs, they got out of the building and they took incredible footage: They interviewed people, they spoke to the owner of the building who was also pleading with the army not to do this, they got incredible photos. We wrote some great stories and a first-person account. The resilience is amazing.

It’s not easy, but everybody kind of knows what to do. They spring to life, everybody knows their job, and they just go to work and take care of business.

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For a full overview of the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos,” a collection of AP photos and journalists’ recollections, is available now: https://www.ap.org/books/a-year-that-changed-us