Youmna al-Sayed had less than an hour to get to safety.
But with only one elevator working on the al-Jalaa Tower, an 11-story building in Gaza City that housed about 60 residential apartments and several offices, including those of Al Jazeera Media Network and The Associated Press, Sayed tapped the stairs.
“We left the elevator for the elderly and evacuation of children,” the Palestinian independent journalist said. “And we all ran down the stairs and whoever could help the kids would go down them,” he added. “I myself helped two children of the residents there and brought them down; everyone was running fast.”
Moments earlier, the Israeli army, which has been bombing Gaza for six days in a row, had warned by telephone that residents only had an hour to evacuate the building before his fighter jets attacked him.
Al Jazeera’s Safwat al-Kahlout also had to move quickly. He and his colleagues “began to collect everything they could, from office staff and equipment, especially cameras,” al-Kahlout said.
But more time was needed.
“Give me just 15 minutes,” an AP journalist asked by telephone with an Israeli intelligence officer. “We have a lot of equipment, including cameras, other things,” he added from outside the building. “I can bring it all to light.”
Jawad Mahdi, owner of the building, also tried to gain more time.
“All I ask is to let four people come in to look for their cameras,” he told the agent. “We respect your wishes, we won’t do it if you don’t allow it, but give us 10 minutes.”
“There will be no ten minutes,” the officer replied. “No one is allowed to enter the building, we already gave you an hour to evacuate.”
When the request was rejected, the Mahdi said, “You have destroyed the work, the memories, the life of our lives. I’ll hang up, do whatever you want. There is a God ”.
The Israeli military said there were “military interests of Hamas intelligence” in the building, a standard line used after bombing buildings in Gaza, and accused the group leading the territory of using journalists such as to human shields. However, he did not provide any evidence to support his claims.
“I have been working in this office for more than ten years and I have never seen anything [suspicious]”Al-Kahlout said.
AP VIDEO: Associated Press staff evacuated their office in Gaza City shortly before the building was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike. https://t.co/Ib5T2SohXq
– The Associated Press (@AP) May 15, 2021
“I even asked my colleagues if they had seen anything suspicious and they all confirmed to me that they had never seen any military aspect or that the fighters came in and out,” he added.
“In our building, we have a lot of families we’ve known for over ten years. We meet every day during our entry and exit to the office.”
Gary Pruitt, president and CEO of AP, also told Al Jazeera, “I can tell you that we’ve been in this building in our office for about 15 years. We certainly didn’t have the feeling that Hamas was there.”
Al-Sayed, who has been covering up the Israeli bombing of Al Jazeera and has worked for AP, said he could not understand what threat a building housing families and offices for lawyers, doctors and media workers could pose.
“Where is the alarm? Where are Hamas or some military member who could be in this building? “asked the Gaza resident.
“The people here, the residents, all know each other. The first five floors are for offices yes [closed] during this climbing time. So basically what it is [still here] are the two media offices of Al Jazeera and AP and the residential apartments. “
However, at 15:12 (12:12 GMT) the first Israeli strike arrived. Five minutes later, the al-Jalaa tower crashed to the ground after being hit by three missiles that sent a dark cloud of dust and debris into the air. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
“Years of memories, years of work in this building, all of a sudden, it’s all rubble,” said al-Kahlout, on the tower from whose roof he often emitted. “I just disappeared.”
BREAKING: The Israeli air strike has flattened the building that houses Al Jazeera and other international media in Gaza City.
– Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) May 15, 2021
Islam az-Zaeem, a lawyer working in the building, was at home when his cousin – the owner of the Johara building that was flattened overnight on May 13 – knocked on his door and told him he said Al-Jalaa was about to be destroyed.
“I ran to the building and saw residents and other employees gathered outside,” az-Zaeem told Al Jazeera.
“I went inside and took the stairs because there was no electricity and the elevators were not working. I was hysterical and I fell into the dark several times shouting and crying.
Az-Zaeem, who said nine legal associates and four inmates were working on his apartment, left the building five minutes before it was leveled.
“Even after the building collapsed, I kept screaming that I had forgotten to close the door of my office,” he said. “Imagine that.”
The building, built in the mid-1990s, was one of the oldest buildings in Gaza City.
Fares al-Ghoul, the executive director of the Mayadeen Media Group, said his company previously had its headquarters in the Shorouq building, which was destroyed by Israeli missiles on May 13th.
“Shorouq’s upper floors were targets of the 2014 war,” he said. “In 2019, we moved the company to the Al-Jalaa building because we thought it would be safer as it housed the offices of international media agencies.”
“Now both have been destroyed,” he said.
The bombing of Al-Jalaa, widely condemned as an attempt to “silence” journalists covering Israel’s offensive came just hours after an Israeli airstrike on the Shati refugee camp he killed ten members of the same family – eight children, two women – celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the religious holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
At least 145 Palestinians, including 39 children, have been killed in the Gaza Strip since Israeli airstrikes on Palestinian coastal territory began on Monday. About 950 people have been injured.
The violence comes after Israel’s plan to forcibly displace Palestinian families from occupied East Jerusalem and its attacks on the Palestinian faithful on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, it spurred widespread protests in Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank, and the interior of Israel. Hamas said it began firing rockets at Israel in response to this Israeli crackdown. At least nine people have also died in Israel.
When night fell in Gaza, families and journalists began returning to al-Jalaa in hopes of saving some of their belongings buried under the rubble.
“One person went back to look for some paintings made by his daughter because those paintings bore a lot of memories,” said al-Kahlout, who continued to report from the streets of the bombed enclave. “We went out and are now implementing our contingency plans to report. We are trying to be safe. No place is safe in Gaza, but we are trying to do our best.”
– Sara Khairat Sarah kirt (@sarakhair) May 15, 2021
Meanwhile, Al-Sayed went to al-Shifa Hospital, which was believed to be a safe space to transmit him. “It’s devastating,” he said about the flattening of the al-Jalaa building.
“I worked in that place and my heart broke when I saw him being carried to the ground, it was tragic. Whether we work or live, we have incredible memories, ”he added.
“What about those families who have lost their homes, who have lost everything they saved to get these apartments? In Gaza, it is not easy to get an apartment, and now in a few minutes, [they] lose it all.
“Words can’t describe the amount of devastation, they can’t describe the tragedy people are going through.”
With additional reports from @LinahAlsaafin.