3 towers and 1 house, how a photojournalist in Gaza survived repeated bombings

Two months have passed since a ceasefire was declared between Israel and Hamas after the most violent escalation in seven years ripped through the Gaza Strip, destroying homes and inflicting devastating blows to infrastructure and industry. For the many Palestinians who lived through the military assault, the losses feel raw. 

One of my colleagues and a close friend Mohammed Talatene, a photojournalist for the German wire DPA, was inside of the Al Jawhara tower, a high-rise that was struck on May 11, moments before the building collapsed. Over the course of a week, he worked out of three buildings that were destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Then his house was bombed.

“We had but a few minutes to get what we got,” he told me weeks after the blasts. 

He ran to Al Jawhara’s fourth floor to salvage items from his office. Others followed and did the same. He snapped up his phone, lenses, and a few pieces of equipment before racing out the front door. 

“Knowing that my tools were going to be destroyed would have meant that I could no longer work,” he said. “It also meant that the Israeli army could stop me from exposing their war crimes.”

“The least I could do to honor the 9 years of memories in this high-rise was to be brave enough to keep my work going,” he said. 

I also used to work at the Al Jawhara building. It was like a second home at one point in my life because it’s where I had my first job. In 2012 I was a trainee at Felestin, a local newspaper. The location couldn’t be more central, in a bustling section of Gaza City, and one of the tallest towers in the urban surroundings. 

What’s most jarring is the tower was once a beehive of activity and now it’s like a ghost town. It’s hard to describe the scene. It almost looks like a dinosaur stepped on the tower. Today it is a pile of debris and still smells like sulfur and metal. 

If you’ve heard about any incidents where the media was targeted in Gaza, it was probably this bombing. According to the Journalist Support Committee, there were 101 violations against media workers and outlets between May 10 and May 21, 2021. Not all of these events are well-known, but they were devastating for those who endured them. One journalist was killed, 12 were injured, and 22 lost their houses in airstrikes and artillery fire. At least five press vehicles were destroyed. 

In total, the offices and personal of 59 news organizations were targeted. Let’s look at the incidents more closely.

Palestinian workers remove the rubbles from the Al Jawhara tower which was hit by Israeli airstrikes on May 12 during the recent Israeli military escalation, in Gaza city on June 15, 2021. (Photo: Bashar Taleb/APA Images)

Al Jawhara tower

According to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and the Committee to Protect Journalists, major media outlets with offices in the building that were destroyed are:

The Committee to Protect Journalist added, “the building housed the offices of the broadcaster Al-Nujaba TV, affiliated with the Iraqi militia Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba; the state-owned broadcaster Syria TV; and the local photo agency APA Images.” Incidentally, APA Images is the wire agency used by Mondoweiss

Beyond the buildings that were directly hit in the airstrike, a nearby Gaza office for Al Jazeera was damaged by the fallout from the blast. 

I spoke to Ahmed Al Zaeem, one of the owners of the building.

“I memorized every floor of the building,” he told me. “It was a 12-story tower constructed in 1998. It had a basement, inventory rooms, a parking lot, and shops on the mezzanine level.”

The building was licensed to be built up to 16 stories tall,” he continued. “I was hopeful that the building could be rehabilitated soon, but the engineers decided to destroy what remained. This was another shock for me.”

Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, European Union Representative to the West Bank and Gaza, is given a tour of the ruins of the Al Shouroq tower, destroyed by Israeli strikes during the recent confrontations between Hamas and Israel, in Gaza City on June 1, 2021. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

Al Shouroq tower

On May 12, Israeli forces struck the Al Shouroq tower, which means it was hit one day after the Al Jawhara tower. 

With his office decimated, Mohammed told me he relocated to the Al Shouroq building. Yet after it was also struck and he managed again to survive he moved offices again.  

“I started to phone my friends at the Jalaa tower,” he said. “I wanted to work with them whatever it takes.” Unfortunately, that tower would be bombed three days later. 

Here is the list of major media organizations with offices that were destroyed from the Al Shouroq tower, compiled by the Journalist Support Committee:

  • Production company Gaza Pop 
  • Palestinian National Authority affiliated newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida 
  • Production company Gaza Media Center 
  • Lebanese broadcaster Al-Mayadeen
  • Hamas affiliated broadcaster Al-Quds Today 
  • Hamas affiliated radio station Al-Aqsa 
  • Palestinian radio station Atyaf Radio 
  • Hamas affiliated broadcaster Al-Aqsa TV
  • Media center Hala Palestine Center
  • London based broadcaster Al-Araby TV 
  • Russian broadcaster Russia Today
  • German broadcaster ZDF 
  • Dubai broadcaster Dubai TV
  • Iranian state broadcaster Press TV
  • Dubai broadcaster Dubai 12 
  • Media rights group Taif Media Foundation
  • Media rights group Huna Al Quds Media Foundation
    Production company Palestine Media Production 
A view shows rubble from Jalaa Tower, which was destroyed on May 15 during an Israeli airstrike following. The building housed the Associated Press bureau in Gaza City for 15 years and Qatar-based Al Jazeera television. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

Jalaa tower

On May 15 Mohammed began editing out of an office in the Jalaa tower. He has a friend who works for the AP and graciously let him decamp to their bureau. The same day he set up his workspace, the building was evacuated and destroyed in airstrikes. 

Jalaa’s 12 floors housed almost 60 professional offices for media organizations, lawyers, and doctors. Most of the tenants I spoke to could not extract all of their tools and equipment as the warning period was a paltry 10 minutes, which is shorter than usual.

AP’s CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement hours after the building collapsed:

“The Israeli government says the building contained Hamas military intelligence assets. We have called on the Israeli government to put forward the evidence. AP’s bureau has been in this building for 15 years. We have had no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building. This is something we actively check to the best of our ability. We would never knowingly put our journalists at risk.”

Days later, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi told Israel’s Channel 12, “I don’t have a bit of regret.” Why the confidence? He told the television network that AP’s journalists took their morning coffee in the building with Hamas officials. 

“This unsubstantiated allegation attributed to the Israeli military’s chief of staff is patently false,” AP responded hours later. “There was not even a cafeteria in the building. Such baseless claims jeopardize the safety of AP journalists.”

Journalists’ homes bombed

After the three buildings collapsed, Mohammed turned his house into an office.  “I captured photos and rushed back home to send them to the agency,” he said. “I could not find any other way to do it.” 

On the last day of the escalation, at noon on May 20, he started his day with photographs of rubble and went home to retouch them. All of the sudden, fire and smoke started filling his home. He, his wife, and two children ran outside. 

“My house was partially destroyed,” he told me.  “The Israeli army bombed a building that was 10 meters away from home.”

“Israel managed to stop me from going on with my work. After destroying my house and destruction of my gear, I could not do anything but stay with my family,” he continued. 

Another journalist I know, thirty-six-year-old Ala’a Al Shamali also lost his office when the al-Jawhara tower was bombed. Three days later, his house was attacked. This was the second time a house of his was destroyed. In the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, his house was also destroyed by a nearby airstrike.

A further devastating casualty was Yousef Abu Hussien, 32, a reporter who fell from the fifth floor of his apartment building during a fierce nearby fire. 

I wrote previously about Yousef, he was more of a friend more than a colleague. He had three kids and has been working as a journalist for the past 10 years. Yousef had a great sense of humor and a cherubic face that seemed mismatched against his deep voice.

Palestinian mourners carry the bodies of Amira Sobuh, 57, and her son, during their funeral at the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on May 11, 2021. The woman was killed when Israeli forces attacked a residential building west of Gaza City, accruing to local sources. (Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour/APA Images)

Journalists injured in the field

Beyond having their bureaus bombed, journalists were also injured in the field.  On Thursday, May 13, a crew from the Turkish state-run wire Anadolu Agency headed to a village in the north of the Gaza Strip, Om Al Nsr. 

The crew took background to avoid masses of debris and craters on the main roads from airstrikes. Photographer Mustafa Hassouna, 38, told me “Even ambulances could not go this far.” As the day progressed they heard the sound of nearby drone strikes, he said the blasts “were heavy and scary,” adding, “We decided to go back.” 

As they rushed back to their car, they heard a quick succession of bombings. In less than 90 seconds, they counted 15 strikes near the crew. One missile hit their car. It was marked “TV” on the roof. 

Hassouna and his colleague, Mahmoud Al Aloul, 34, were both injured. 

Al Aloul was taken to the hospital and had an operation on his leg. Doctors said it would take a year before he could walk again. “We were directly targeted even though we were visible to [the Israeli army] as a press agency,” he later told me.  

“It was the first time I saw my family frightened by this horror,” he said. “I could do nothing but cry with them.” 

Hamza Abu Al-Tarabeesh
Hamza Abu Al-Tarabeesh is a freelance journalist and writer based in Gaza. He specializes in political analysis and social issues.

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