By Ali Harb in Washington
The Associated Press has not seen any evidence that the Palestinian movement Hamas used the building which housed its offices in Gaza before it was bombed by Israel last month.
AP issued a statement on Tuesday after Gilad Erdan, the Israeli envoy to the US and UN, visited the news agency’s New York headquarters and posted photos on Twitter with the company’s president Gary Pruitt.
Erdan said the meeting was meant to “explain to top executives that the building housing their Gaza operation was being used by Hamas terrorists trying to jam the Iron Dome,” Israel’s missile defence system.
But Lauren Easton, an AP spokesperson, said the Israeli government did not present proof to back the assertion.
“Israeli authorities maintain that the building housing our bureau was destroyed because of a Hamas presence that posed an urgent threat. We have yet to receive evidence to support these claims,” Eaton told Middle East Eye in an email.
“AP continues to call for the full release of any evidence the Israelis have so that the facts are public.”
In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Erdan said Israel was “willing to assist” the AP rebuild its offices in Gaza.
“AP is one of the most important news agencies in the world and Israel does not suspect its employees were aware a covert Hamas unit was using the building in this way,” he wrote.
On 15 May, during its offensive on Gaza, the Israeli army bombed the al-Jalaa tower housing the bureaus of the AP, Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye and other news outlets. It gave journalists a one-hour notice to evacuate the building.
The attack drew condemnations from press freedom advocates. Pruitt, at the time, said that the agency was “shocked and horrified” by the Israeli air strikes.
On Tuesday, Eaton described AP’s meeting with the Israeli diplomat as a “positive and constructive conversation”.
“The Associated Press appreciates the opportunity to meet with Ambassador Erdan to discuss the attack on the building housing our Gaza bureau and Israel’s support for our efforts to rebuild the bureau,” she said.
The administration of US President Joe Biden had refused to denounce the attack. Instead, American officials merely expressed “concern” for the safety of journalists at the time.
Earlier this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israeli authorities had shared information about alleged Hamas activity in the building with Washington through intelligence channels.
However, he was evasive when asked whether he thought the attack was justified during an interview with Axios on HBO.
“Any country would defend itself, and Israel has the right,” Blinken said.
“However, having said that, Israel as a democracy I think has an added burden to make sure it is doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. And that’s what is expected of us. It’s expected of Israel.”
Israel targeted several high-rise buildings in Gaza in last month’s offensive. Israeli air strikes killed more than 256 Palestinians, including dozens of children, while rockets fired by Hamas and other groups killed 12 people in Israel.
The bombing of the media tower in Gaza sparked a campaign by right-wing politicians and commentators against AP, with prominent Republican Senator Tom Cotton suggesting that the news agency was colluding with Hamas.
“Why is the Associated Press sharing a building with Hamas? Surely these intrepid reporters knew who their neighbours were,” Cotton said on the floor of the Senate last month.
“Did they knowingly allow themselves to be used as human shields by a US-designated terrorist organization? Did the AP pull its punches and decline to report for years on Hamas’s misdeeds?”
The campaign also targeted Emily Wilder, a junior Arizona-based AP reporter, over her past advocacy for Palestinian rights. The news agency subsequently sacked the journalist.
AP maintains that Wilder was fired over social media posts she had written during her brief tenure at the agency that violated AP’s policies.
But Wilder insists that her firing was in response to the campaign targeting her, saying that she was turned into a “scapegoat” by AP.
“This is heartbreaking as a young journalist so hungry to learn from the fearless investigative reporting of AP journalists – and do that reporting myself,” the journalist said in a statement last month.
“It’s terrifying as a young woman who was hung out to dry when I needed support from my institution most. And it’s enraging as a Jewish person – who grew up in a Jewish community, attended Orthodox schooling and devoted my college years to studying Palestine and Israel – that I could be defamed as antisemitic and thrown under the bus in the process.”