‘The livestream was critical evidence’: Tracing attacks on Gaza’s press buildings

The Israeli army struck major media institutions in Gaza despite assurances of safety, and appears to have deliberately targeted cameras that were broadcasting the military offensive, a new investigation shows.

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According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, 103 journalists and media workers are among the more than 37,000 Palestinian casualties of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip since October 7. Faced with the deadliest war for journalists in modern history, Forbidden Stories — whose mission is to continue the work of journalists who are killed on the job — set out to investigate the targeting of the press in Gaza and the West Bank. 

In a unique collaboration, Forbidden Stories brought together 50 journalists from 13 media organizations around the world. The consortium analyzed nearly 100 cases of journalists and media workers killed in Gaza, as well as other cases in which Israel has allegedly targeted, threatened, or wounded members of the press over the past eight months. Unable to report freely from inside the Strip, consortium members remotely contacted over 120 journalists and witnesses to military activities in Gaza and the West Bank; consulted around 25 ballistics, weapons, and audio experts, including Earshot; and used satellite images from Planet Labs and Maxar Technologies. 

Today, after four months of collaborative work, we are together publishing “The Gaza Project.” Below is one of two articles from the project that +972 is co-publishing with Forbidden Stories (read the other here). For the full list of articles comprising “The Gaza Project” and more information about the collaboration, click here

It was 2 a.m. on Oct. 10 when Adel Zaanoun, a journalist with Agence France-Presse (AFP), made a worried call to his superiors. The AFP team had just received an order from the Israeli military to evacuate its offices in the Hajji Tower at the heart of Gaza City, a sign that the building might be bombed. 

Only a few hours earlier, AFP Chairman and CEO Fabrice Fries had shared the address of the building with the Israeli military spokesman in a letter, in order to avoid any possible targeting.

“Should we evacuate or remain in the building?” Zaanoun asked Marc Jourdier, AFP’s Jerusalem bureau chief, on the other end of the line. “Don’t waste a minute – evacuate,” Jourdier responded. “I’ll call the army and get back to you as soon as possible.”

Inside the AFP offices located in the Hajji Tower, Gaza City, 2015. (AFP)
Inside the AFP offices located in the Hajji Tower, Gaza City, 2015. (AFP)

The building was ultimately spared that day, but an Israeli strike a few hundred meters away killed three Palestinian journalists who had come to cover the expected attack. The Israeli military called Marc Jourdier back later that night to say that the Hajji Tower was now classified as “not to be targeted.” Less than a month later, Israeli tanks fired on the offices.

This is not the first time journalists have been ordered to evacuate their offices in Gaza due to the threat of Israeli bombing. “The Israeli military has a history of attacks on media structures,” Carlos Martinez de la Serna, program director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, explained in an interview. 

In May 2021, for instance, three Israeli missiles destroyed the Al-Jalaa Tower in Gaza City, which housed offices of Al Jazeera and The Associated Press (AP). The Israeli military cited an imminent threat posed by Hamas’ presence in the building, but when questioned publicly, provided no evidence to support this claim.

Since October 7, in response to the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, the Israeli military has relentlessly bombarded the Gaza Strip. As a result, media infrastructure has been destroyed at an unprecedented rate and scale, and news coverage from within the besieged enclave has been highly constrained.

“When you look at the conflicts around the world … you would usually have the international media on the ground,” said Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. “None of them have been allowed access [to Gaza since October]. Or [if they are] they’re embedded within the IDF.”

In the absence of international newsdesks and reporters, Gazan journalists alone have provided first-hand accounts of what is happening inside the Strip, while they simultaneously struggle just to survive the war. Yet in many cases, their places of work no longer exist. According to the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, around 70 press facilities, including local radio stations, news agencies, transmission towers, and journalist training institutes, have been partially or completely destroyed since October 7.

In collaboration with AFP, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, Le Monde, Paper Trail Media, and other international outlets, Forbidden Stories investigated several of these cases. Supported by the analyses of ballistics and audio experts, the investigation reveals that Israel’s destruction of press infrastructure in Gaza appears to be part of a broader strategy to stifle information coming out of the Strip.

AFP's server room located on the 11th floor of the Hajji Tower, which was partially destroyed by an Israeli strike on November 2, 2023. (Credit: AFP)
AFP’s server room located on the 11th floor of the Hajji Tower, which was partially destroyed by an Israeli strike on November 2, 2023. (AFP)

A broadcast goes dark

On Oct. 13, 2023, the Israeli military ordered 1 million people residing in the north of the Gaza Strip to evacuate southward. Three days after having fled their offices in the middle of the night in response to the army’s phone call, AFP’s employees abandoned the Hajji Tower. The team comprised eight Palestinian reporters, photographers, video journalists, and other staff members who have worked for years with AFP, one of the few international agencies to have offices in the Strip.

But before leaving the building, AFP mounted a camera on a tripod to film from the 10th floor, powered by solar panels. Although occasionally interrupted by technical problems, the 24/7 broadcast was one of the last sources of live images of the Strip. As such, it was monitored constantly by global media. 

On Nov. 2 at 12:09 p.m., as the camera was filming the plumes of smoke emanating from buildings in the north of Gaza, and its microphone picked up the hum of nearby aircraft, the video shook suddenly and smoke blocked the lens. It had just captured live footage of a strike only a few meters away — footage that would be seen around the world.

Exclusive images shot by AFP, a partner in “The Gaza Project,” illustrate the scale of the destruction: shards of glass and debris litter the floor of the agency’s office, computer servers balance precariously on a shelf, and a gaping hole in a wall reveals a glimpse of the southeastern Gaza Strip.

The Hajji Tower the day after the strike, showing a gaping hole on the 11th floor, and the camera on the 10th floor, positioned underneath the hole (right hand side), November 3, 2023. (AFP)
The Hajji Tower the day after the strike, showing a gaping hole on the 11th floor, and the camera on the 10th floor, positioned underneath the hole (right hand side), November 3, 2023. (AFP)

As with multiple other media offices, hospitals, and humanitarian sites in the Gaza Strip, the coordinates of the building had been passed on to the Israeli military on several occasions. “The location of this office is known to all and [the Israeli government] has been reminded of it multiple times over the past few days, precisely to prevent such an attack and to allow us to continue providing images on the ground,” Fries, the AFP CEO, was quick to say on X (formerly Twitter). 

But questioned by AFP at the time, the Israeli military denied any strike on the Hajji Tower itself. “It appears there was an IDF strike near the building to eliminate an immediate threat,” a spokesperson said in a statement. And when contacted as part of this investigation, the Israeli military spokesman reiterated: “The offices of the AFP agency were not the target of the attack, and damage to them could have been caused by the shock wave or shrapnel.”

Yet despite the military’s denials, Forbidden Stories and its partners discovered that on Nov. 2, there were at least two direct hits on the building housing the AFP offices between 11:55 a.m. and 12:09 p.m. local time. Live footage of both strikes shows the lightning-quick flash on the horizon and an explosion nearly four seconds later.

Thanks to the open-source investigative work of our partner Le Monde, supported by Earshot, an organization that conducts audio investigations in defense of human rights, we were able to pinpoint the origin of the strikes: a deserted area approximately 3 kilometers away, with a clean line of fire to the tower. Further analysis of the speed and features of ammunition concludes that they were most likely fired by a tank.

Adrian Wilkinson, a forensic explosives engineer who regularly works for the United Nations, noted that “it is almost certain that the AFP office was shot at by an Israeli tank,” and ruled out the possibility of accidental hits. At least five other experts, including the independent weapons and conflicts researcher known as War Noir and former U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal technician Trevor Ball, agreed.

Analysis of two satellite images shared by Planet Labs on Oct. 31 and Nov. 3 confirms the presence of tanks in the area at that time. Another satellite image from the same day belongs to Maxar Technologies, which did not wish to share precise information that would allow us to locate the Israeli tanks. Maxar declined to comment by the time of publication.

Estimated position of the tank 3 km away from the camera on November 2, 2023, geolocated by Le Monde and corroborated by Earshot's analysis. (Earshot)
Estimated position of the tank 3 km away from the camera on November 2, 2023, geolocated by Le Monde and corroborated by Earshot’s analysis. (Earshot)

Are live feeds targeted?

The analysis of the live footage led to another discovery. A few minutes before the two strikes on the AFP offices, another explosion occurred at the neighboring Al-Ghifari Tower. 

On the 16th floor of this building — one of the tallest in the Gaza Strip — the Palestinian Media Group’s (PMG) offices offer an unobstructed view of Gaza. Just before 10 a.m. on Nov. 2, several cameras positioned at the office’s north, south, east, and west windows were sending live images to several international news services, including Reuters and Al Arabiya, when an explosion sounded.

That morning, journalist Ismail Abu Hatab was preparing his coffee and downloading the previous day’s footage, after sleeping in the PMG office. “I grabbed the camera, and then I didn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear anything. All I remember is a yellow line of light,” Hatab said in an interview with the consortium.

Another journalist filmed the scene: thick smoke flooded the offices, through which a camera tripod, still standing in the distance, is vaguely visible. Hatab was wounded in the leg and quickly transported to Al-Shifa Hospital, which was still operational at the time.

Israeli tanks had arrived in the north of Gaza on Oct. 31, and according to PMG CEO Hassan Madhoun, they specifically targeted the 16th floor of the Al-Ghifari Tower to prevent the PMG from broadcasting Israel’s destruction of north Gaza. “We broadcast the image as it is,” Madhoun explained in an interview with the consortium. “We don’t comment on it. But the image seems to bother the Israeli military.”

When contacted about this incident, the IDF Spokesperson replied that the army “is not aware of a strike in the location and date provided.” 

After the Nov. 2 attack, an administrator for the Hajji Tower asked AFP to pause its livestream, fearing additional strikes. With no one able to return to the offices to restart the broadcast, it shut down for good on Nov. 12 at 10:31 a.m. — the last live broadcast of images from Gaza. 

“We really need Israel to come back and explain what their policy is around live feeds in different locations, and if in any way they are seen as legitimate targets, because there’s enough circumstantial evidence to make us suspect that is how they are working,” Phil Chetwynd, AFP’s chief of information, said in an interview with the consortium.

The strikes on the exact location of PMG’s cameras and just meters away from the AFP camera in the Hajji Tower provide circumstantial evidence — if not formal proof — of an Israeli military strategy. On May 21, the Israeli authorities also seized equipment belonging to an Israel-based team from AP on the pretext that the journalists had violated a new media law by providing live images to Al Jazeera. Shortly before the equipment was seized, the journalists had simply been filming and broadcasting a general view of northern Gaza from Sderot, a city in Israel less than a kilometer from the Strip. 

“Where there is strong potential for a war crime being committed, obviously, the livestream becomes critical evidence,” Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, added.

“By intentionally destroying media outlets, the IDF are not only inflicting unacceptable material damage on news operations,” Reporters Without Borders said on its website back in 2021, when the Al-Jalaa Tower housing Al Jazeera and AP was destroyed. “They are also, more broadly, obstructing media coverage of a conflict that directly affects the civilian population.” 

Smoke rises after an Israeli airstrike hits Al-Jalaa tower, which houses apartments and several media outlets including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, Gaza City, May 15, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)
Smoke rises after an Israeli airstrike hits Al-Jalaa tower, which houses apartments and several media outlets including the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, Gaza City, May 15, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

The destruction of the AFP and PMG offices — which provided journalists with crucial logistical support and, for many, a second home — represents a significant loss for their employees. Yahya Hassouna, a journalist with AFP since 2009, described the Hajji Tower in an interview with the consortium as “the place where all my dreams were – my future, my life, my office.” 

The AFP offices were “a place where [staff] were able to go without fear” Chetwynd commented, adding that the attack has had a significant psychological impact on his colleagues. The feeling among staff, he said, is that “if they are able to hit our office, our place of safety, we have no other place of safety in the whole of the Gaza Strip.” 

A refuge decimated

The Press House in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood was once a sanctuary for journalists: a place to meet up with colleagues, to eat and rest between outings, and to borrow protective vests. For Shuruq As’ad, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, “it was really one of the safest places for journalists” in the Strip before the latest Israeli offensive began. 

After Hamas prevailed over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian legislative election, and consolidated its control over Gaza following the civil war that ensued, journalists in the Strip came to be seen solely in terms of their political allegiance. Ibrahim Barzak, former correspondent for the AP in Gaza and a member of the Press House’s board, explained that the project arose out of a need for a “place or structure for independent journalists, people who are not affiliated at all.” 

When Palestinian journalist Bilal Jadallah established the Press House in 2013, it was a “huge breakthrough,” according to Hikmat Yousef, Jadallah’s friend and editor-in-chief of Sawa News, an independent media outlet housed at the institution. Jadallah was known as the “sheikh of journalists,” Yousef told the consortium, for providing them with a refuge from political pressures in Gaza.

Jadallah and the Press House were known far beyond Gaza. Photos of visiting German, French, and Danish diplomats published on the institution’s social media accounts testify to its international recognition. According to its website, the Press House’s donors and partners include Canada, UNESCO, and the EU, as well as Norway and Switzerland.

“We finance activities linked to capacity building for young journalists who have just graduated from higher education establishments in Gaza … and fund the procurement of protective equipment for journalists,” Ruben André Johansen, who oversees the grant awarded by Norway, told the consortium.

Rami Abu Jamous, acting director of the Press House, explained that “the Norwegians and the Swiss gave our coordinates to the army” to avoid targeting. But it was to no avail.

On Oct. 9, the panic was palpable among dozens of Gazan journalists who had gathered at the Press House to equip themselves with protective gear. “Jadallah decided to turn the Press House into a workstation for journalists,” Barzak said. “They could come and use the generator and have free internet access.” 

In total, around 80 flak jackets stamped with the Press House logo and the word “press” were distributed. “It was like a hive,” Yousef recalled.

Journalists gather inside a meeting room in the Press House, October 9, 2023. (Press House-Palestine/Facebook)
Journalists gather inside a meeting room in the Press House, October 9, 2023. (Press House-Palestine/Facebook)

Later that day, a strike destroyed the neighboring building housing Paltel, one of Gaza’s main internet providers. The Press House was also hit, and the internet connection was permanently cut off. Journalists there lost contact with the outside world.

Four days later, on Oct. 13, the Press House journalists — like those at AFP a few streets over — evacuated on the orders of the Israeli military. Joining a mass wave of displacement from the north, they migrated toward southern Gaza.

With the loss of this refuge, Press House journalists were increasingly exposed to Israeli attacks. On Nov. 19, an Israeli airstrike killed Jadallah as he attempted to rejoin his family in the south of the Gaza Strip by car. Two other employees of the Press House were killed that month: Ahmed Fatima and Mohammed Al Jaja. Out of 80 journalists who received flak jackets from the Press House at the start of the war, 11 have since lost their lives.

We were able to track down the last person to have slept in the Press House offices. Mohammed Salem, former financial manager for the institution, promised Jadallah that he would take care of the place if Jadallah was killed. He took refuge there with his family for several months and described the anguish of that period in multiple interviews with the consortium. On Jan. 29, he discovered that Israeli troops were a mere 100 meters away. 

“A tank stood in the street at 5 a.m., with the barrel pointed toward the Press House, right at us,” he recounted. “The three days I was trapped [there], I saw death.” In the morning of the fourth day, Feb. 1, Salem took advantage of a brief moment of calm and managed to flee the offices with his family.

After 11 days of occupation, the Israeli military withdrew from the area. Salem returned to the Press House by bicycle on Feb. 10. Computers, desks, and radio equipment had all been destroyed. According to him, the building had been intentionally ravaged by the use of explosives.

“None of the buildings around the Press House were damaged,” Salem said. “If there had been an airstrike, everything would have been obliterated.” We were unable to independently confirm this analysis.

The Press House in ruins on February 10, 2024, after the departure of the Israeli army. (Mohammed Salem/provided by ARIJ)
The Press House in ruins on February 10, 2024, after the departure of the Israeli army. (Mohammed Salem/provided by ARIJ)

“The Press House was my pen, my tongue, my eyes, my ears … I am now an amputee,” said Ahmed Qannan, one of the organization’s founders, who is today unemployed. 

Before the war broke out, an exhibition on the beauty of Gaza City — its roads, parks, gardens, and coastline as seen through the eyes of Gazan photographers — was inaugurated in the Press House garden. Nine months later, these photos are buried under rubble.

Additional reporting was contributed by Arthur Carpentier (Le Monde); Gaëlle Faure, Sarah Benhaïda, Benoît Toussaint, Jean-Marc Mojon, and Marc Jourdier (AFP); Maria Retter, Maria Christoph, Dajana Kollig, and Frederik Obermaier (Paper Trail Media); Christo Buschek (Der SPIEGEL/Paper Trail Media); Manisha Ganguly (The Guardian); and Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).