Gaza City – Israeli air strikes demolished the Al-Jalaa building that housed the Al Jazeera office and the Associated Press office on May 15 of last year.
Dust and debris rose into the air as the 11-story building, which also housed several residences and other offices, was leveled.
The bombing sparked widespread outrage. Al Jazeera condemned the attack at the time, calling for “all media and human rights institutions to join forces” to denounce the attack and “hold the Israeli government to account.”
Between 10 and 21 May last year, Israeli forces carried out a large-scale military offensive against the Gaza Strip that resulted in the deaths of 260 Palestinians, including 67 children and 41 women.
After the bombing, the Al Jazeera crew in Gaza – who lost most of their equipment – moved to several temporary headquarters in the past year, in what they described as a period of instability.
At Al Jazeera’s current office, visitors recently arrived to offer their condolences on the loss of veteran Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot and killed by Israeli forces in the Jenin refugee camp last week.
Wael Al Dahdouh, 53, director of Al Jazeera’s Gaza office, said it was still painful to remember the day the team lost its office during the Israeli attack.
He recounted that afternoon: The team was covering a nearby bombing when the building’s owner called to report that an Israeli officer had ordered an immediate evacuation because it would be bombed.
“It was a big shock, we thought the bombing of the tower we are located in was very unlikely. It only housed media offices, companies and the rest were residential apartments.”
“In those moments, I couldn’t think of anything. I told everyone to evacuate. We took what we could take from the office and left immediately,” he said.
Wael and the residents managed to get out of the building just minutes before the tower was bombed and crashed to the ground.
“The scene of the office being bombed while I was on air covering the news was one of the most difficult moments of my life. I was doing my job despite my sadness for all the memories of the office we spent 12 years in.
“This memory is linked to our efforts, our work, our equipment and the archive that documented many memories and scenes,” he added.
After the bombing, Wael said the team moved to a hotel in western Gaza and was welcomed by the AFP news agency to do their live coverage of the ongoing Israeli attack on the territory.
“We mustered our strength and continued to cover despite the dangers and hardships, and despite all the sadness, anger and regret at losing the job,” Wael said.
Wael spoke intermittently as he received visitors who came to offer their condolences for Abu Akleh’s murder.
“The anniversary of our office tower coincided with the loss of another press tower in Palestine, our colleague Shireen Abu Akleh,” he said.
“We were planning to mark our bombing anniversary with us getting up again and moving to a new office and celebrating. But losing Shireen made that joy incomplete.”
‘Sheikh of Photographers’
Mahmoud Obaid, 65, a senior cameraman dubbed the “photographer’s sheikh” in the Gaza Strip, began working for Al Jazeera at its founding in 1996.
Since then, Mahmoud said, he has covered many defining moments with the Al Jazeera team, including Israeli invasions, escalations and wars in Palestinian territory.
“During these years, the Al Jazeera office moved from place to place, until we finally settled in 2009 at Al-Jalaa Tower,” he said.
“The Al-Jalaa Tower office was like our second home. We used to spend more time in the office than in our homes with our families, and our connection to the place was very strong.”
About the moment they were informed of the attack, Mahmoud said: “We were very nervous, our thoughts were about what are the most important things that we are going to get out of the office before the attack.
“The equipment we took out did not exceed 5% of the total equipment we lost, including cameras and broadcast devices,” Mahmoud said.
“I wish we had at least two hours to evacuate our headquarters and take our equipment, but between the moment of informing us and the bombing, it was only 45 minutes, not enough for anything.”
Mahmoud said the towers that were bombed during the May offensive had a full day or more than five hours to evacuate, except for the al-Jalaa Tower, which was bombed less than an hour from the time of notification.
“We felt a lot of instability during the previous year – new location, new roads and incomplete equipment, but we got through it and here we are. Nothing will stop us. The Israeli occupation always targets us as journalists in all media, but it will not affect our determination to report the truth.”
‘I was terrified’
Youmna El Sayed, 34, who started working as a correspondent for Al Jazeera English last year during the war in the Gaza Strip, described the moment when the tower was bombed as a huge shock to everyone.
“At that time, I had just returned from reporting on war-wounded people at Al-Shifa Medical Hospital, until news of the evacuation of the tower came through,” Youmna said.
“I was terrified, I thought this was one of the safest places in the Gaza Strip. The office of an American media outlet and the office of Al Jazeera were there, and the rest were residents,” she said.
Youmna, a mother of four, said her thoughts were with the families who lived in the 60-apartment building.
“I preferred to go downstairs to the 12th floor and not use the elevator to see if I could help any of the families on the way. There was a mother on the eighth floor who was very nervous and crying with three children under five and a baby in her arms, and she couldn’t,” she said.
“Despite my own fear, I reassured her and picked up her two children and told her to quickly bring whatever she wanted from her apartment and not worry about the children, which I took with me.”
After Youmna left the building, the mother also descended with other families into the tower, and moments later the building was bombed.
“I was in the air at that time covering the bombing, it was a very difficult moment, the tower collapsed like a cracker,” she said.
A year later, Youmna said he may not have spent as much time at Al Jazeera’s former headquarters in Gaza, but he deeply felt the impact of the bombing on his colleagues, who lost their equipment, possessions and memories.
Despite the Israeli attack, she said “nothing will stop them from getting the message across.”
“Although I have a non-Palestinian nationality that allows me to leave Gaza at the time of the war, I preferred to stay and cover what is happening,” she said.
“The bombing of the Al Jazeera office did not intimidate me at all, and a few days ago came the loss of our colleague Shireen Abu Akleh. These incidents made me more persistent in completing the message – no matter what.
“Nothing will stop us from the message except death.”