Israel’s defense minister on Monday distanced himself from comments made by his military chief after Israel bombed a Gaza Strip high-rise housing an Associated Press office and other news outlets, saying the remarks were not meant to be taken literally.
In an article published on the website of Channel 12 news over the weekend, the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, was quoted as saying that “the building was destroyed justly” and he did not have a “gram of regret.”
The article claimed that the Hamas group that rules Gaza used various floors of the Jalaa Tower for “significant electronic warfare” meant to disrupt Israeli air force GPS communications.
The article then said Kohavi had told “a foreign source” that AP journalists drank coffee each morning in a cafeteria in the building’s entrance with Hamas electronics experts, whether they knew it or not.
The AP called the comments “ patently false,” noting that “there was not even a cafeteria in the building.”
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Asked about Kohavi’s comments, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told foreign journalists that the military chief was only speaking in figurative terms.
“When the chief of staff talked about it, he was trying to portray the atmosphere, not the actual aspects,” Gantz said.
Gantz again alleged that “there was Hamas infrastructure in offices that operated from this building.”
Asked to respond to Gantz’s comments, the military spokesman’s office also said Kohavi’s statements were meant to be figurative.
“It was never claimed that AP journalists were knowingly interacting with Hamas personnel. On the contrary, due to the nature of Hamas’ activities, AP journalists had no means of knowing that Hamas personnel were in the building,” it said.
“The chief of the general staff explained the possible circumstances of such an encounter where the terrorist organization Hamas embeds itself within the civilian population and uses civilian buildings for military purposes,” it said.
The Israeli army gave occupants of the building one hour to evacuate before the May 15 airstrike. No one was injured, but the high-rise was flattened into a pile of rubble.
Military Intelligence officials have said the seriousness of the electronic warfare issue justified the attack on the building, as well as the decision to bring down the entire structure, rather than just a surgical strike on the floors where Hamas was operating, as this might not have destroyed all of the capabilities in the tower.
The AP has said it had no indication of a Hamas presence in the building and was never warned of any possible presence before that day. It has called for an independent investigation and urged Israel to make public its intelligence.
Gantz said Israel has shared its intelligence with the US government. But he indicated that Israel has no intention of making the information public, saying it did not want to divulge its sources.
The US has said Israel has provided it with information to back up the assertion through intelligence channels, though it has not commented on whether it accepts the claim or believes it justified bringing down the entire building.
Last week, three Israeli officials told The New York Times that some in Jerusalem regret bombing the building, saying any benefit of destroying Hamas electronic equipment in the tower had been outweighed by the public relations damage caused by attacking a building used by the press.
Some Israeli military officers had argued against the May 15 strike on the building before it was eventually approved, the report said. Israeli officials were persuaded to authorize the strike after being presented with information about alleged Hamas operations in the building, in the knowledge that no people would be hurt, the Times reported.
But following the major international outcry, some officials now believe the move was a mistake, the report said.
Press freedom groups condemned the attack, which marked a new chapter in the already rocky relationship between the Israeli military and the international media.
AP president Gary Pruitt called for an independent investigation into the strike.
Sally Buzbee, AP’s executive editor, said the news agency has had offices in the building for 15 years and was never informed or had any indication that Hamas might be in the building.
A report in The Atlantic in 2014 claimed that Hamas members had repeatedly burst into the AP’s offices in the building and threatened staff, actions it asserted went unreported.
The IDF accused Hamas of hiding behind the offices of the press outlets in the tower and using them as human shields.
“The Hamas terror group intentionally locates its military assets in the hearts of civil populations in the Gaza Strip,” the IDF said.
Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report.
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