JERUSALEM — Israel’s defense minister on Monday distanced himself from comments made by his military chief after Israel bombed a Gaza Strip high-rise housing an Associated Press office and other news outlets, saying the remarks were not meant to be taken literally.
In an article published on the website of Channel 12 news over the weekend, the military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, was quoted as saying that “the building was destroyed justly” and he did not have a “gram of regret.”
The article claimed that the Hamas militant group that rules Gaza used various floors of the Jalaa Tower for “significant electronic warfare” meant to disrupt Israeli air force GPS communications.
The article then said Kohavi had told “a foreign source” that AP journalists drank coffee each morning in a cafeteria in the building’s entrance with Hamas electronics experts, whether they knew it or not.
The AP called the comments “ patently false,” noting that “there was not even a cafeteria in the building.”
Asked about Kohavi’s comments, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told foreign journalists that the military chief was only speaking in figurative terms.
“When the chief of staff talked about it, he was trying to portray the atmosphere, not the actual aspects,” Gantz said.
Gantz again alleged that “there was Hamas infrastructure in offices that operated from this building.”
Asked to respond to Gantz’s comments, the military spokesman’s office also said Kohavi’s statements were meant to be figurative.
“It was never claimed that AP journalists were knowingly interacting with Hamas personnel. On the contrary, due to the nature of Hamas’ activities, AP journalists had no means of knowing that Hamas personnel were in the building,” it said.
“The chief of the general staff explained the possible circumstances of such an encounter where the terrorist organization Hamas embeds itself within the civilian population and uses civilian buildings for military purposes,” it said.
The Israeli army gave occupants of the building one hour to evacuate before the May 15 airstrike. No one was injured, but the high-rise was flattened into a pile of rubble.
The AP has said it had no indication of a Hamas presence in the building and was never warned of any possible presence before that day. It has called for an independent investigation and urged Israel to make public its intelligence.
Gantz said Israel has shared its intelligence with the U.S. government. But he indicated that Israel has no intention of making the information public, saying it did not want to divulge its sources.