Gaza City – Israeli air raids demolished the Al-Jalaa building that hosted Al Jazeera’s bureau and The Associated Press office on May 15 last year.
Dust and debris plumed up into the air as the 11-storey building, which also housed a number of residences and other offices, was levelled, pounded flat.
The bombing sparked widespread anger. Al Jazeera condemned the attack at the time, calling on “all media and human rights institutions to join forces” in denouncing the bombing and to “hold the government of Israel accountable”.
Between May 10 and 21 last year, Israeli forces carried out a full-scale military offensive against the Gaza Strip that resulted in the deaths of 261 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 over the past year in what they described as a time full of instability.
At Al Jazeera’s current office, visitors streamed in recently to offer their condolences for the loss of Al Jazeera’s veteran 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 the Al Jazeera bureau in Gaza, said it is still painful to remember the day when the team lost their office during the Israeli attack.
‘Got out right away’
He recounted that afternoon: The team was out covering a nearby bombing when the owner of the building called to inform them that an Israeli official ordered an immediate evacuation because it was going to be bombed.
“It was a great shock, we thought the bombing of the tower in which we are located was very unlikely. It only hosted 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 could take from the office and got out right away,” he said.
Wael and the residents were able to leave the building only 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 in 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 were hosted by the AFP news agency to do their live coverage of the ongoing Israeli assault on the territory.
“We gathered our strength and continued to cover despite the dangers and hardships, and despite all the sadness, anger and regret over losing the office,” Wael said.
Wael spoke intermittently as he received visitors who came to offer their condolences for the assassination of Abu Akleh.
“The anniversary of our office tower coincided with the loss of another tower of the press 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 this joy incomplete.”
‘Sheikh of Photographers’
Mahmoud Obaid, 65, a senior cameraman nicknamed the “sheikh of photographers” in the Gaza Strip, started working for Al Jazeera at its founding in 1996.
Since then, Mahmoud said, he has covered many watershed moments with the Al Jazeera team, including Israeli invasions, escalations and wars in the Palestinian territory.
“During these years, Al Jazeera’s office moved from one place to another, until we finally settled in 2009 in 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 we spent in our homes with our families, and our connection to the place was very strong.”
About the moment they were informed of the bombing, Mahmoud said: “We got very nervous, our thoughts were about what are the most important things that we will get out of the office before the bombing.
“The equipment we took out did not exceed 5 percent of the total equipment we lost, including cameras and broadcasting 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, there were only 45 minutes, not enough for anything.”
Mahmoud said the towers that were bombed during the May offensive were given 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 moment of notification.
“We felt a lot of instability during the previous year – new place, new roads, and incomplete equipment, but we got over it and here we are. Nothing will stop us. The Israeli occupation always targets us as journalists in all media outlets, 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 on the Gaza Strip, described the moment the tower was bombed as a great shock to everyone.
“At those moments, I had just returned from reporting on the war-wounded people at Al-Shifa Medical Hospital, until the news of the evacuation of the tower came,” 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 Al Jazeera office 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 down the stairs from the 12th floor and not use the elevator to see if I could help any of the families on my way. There was a mother on the eighth floor very nervous and crying with three children under the age of five and a baby in her arms, and she could not manage,” she said.
“Despite my own fear, I reassured her and took the two kids from her and told her to quickly bring whatever she wanted from her apartment and to not worry about the kids, whom I took down with me.”
After Youmna was out of the building, the mother also came downstairs with other families in the tower then, moments later, the building was bombed.
“I was on the air at that moment covering the bombing, it was a very difficult moment, the tower collapsed like a biscuit,” she said.
A year later, Youmna said she may not have spent as much time in the former Gaza headquarters of Al Jazeera, but she felt keenly the impact of the bombing on her colleagues, who lost their equipment, possessions, and memories.
Despite the Israeli attack, she asserted “nothing will stop them from conveying the message”.
“Although I hold a non-Palestinian nationality that enables me to leave Gaza at the time of the war, I preferred to stay and cover what is going on,” she said.
“The bombing of the Al Jazeera office did not intimidate me at all, and few days ago came the loss of our colleague Shireen Abu Akleh. These incidents made me more persistent to complete the message – no matter what happens.
“Nothing will stop us from the message, except death.”