A huge explosion at a Gaza City hospital on Tuesday killed hundreds of Palestinians, sparking international outrage and all but wrecking a high-stakes diplomatic mission by US President Joe Biden. Here is what we know about the deadly blast at al-Ahli hospital, which Palestinian and Israeli officials have blamed on each other.
Early on Tuesday evening in Gaza, reports emerged of an explosion at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, which was crowded both with victims of 10 days of Israeli air strikes and with families and others who have taken refuge on the hospital grounds.
Video footage from the hospital showed an orange ball of fire and flames engulfing the building and grounds. The video showed the outside of the hospital, where countless Palestinian families had been camping out. Torn bodies covered the grass, with slain children lying among dead adults.
Ghassan Abu Sitta, a plastic surgeon working at al-Alhi, said the hospital was filled with internally displaced people seeking shelter from Israeli air strikes when he heard a loud explosion and the ceiling of his operating room collapsed.
“The wounded started stumbling towards us,” he wrote in an account posted to Facebook. He saw hundreds of dead and severely wounded people. “I put a tourniquet on the thigh of a man who had his leg blown off and then went to tend to a man with a penetrating neck injury,” he said.
The al-Ahli hospital is fully funded by the Anglican Church, which says the facility is independent of any political factions in Gaza.
Canon Richard Sewell, the dean of St George’s College in Jerusalem, told the BBC it was difficult to get reliable information about what happened but he could confirm the hospital had been hit and that a “horrific number of people” had died.
Health authorities in the Hamas-run Gaza initially said the explosion at the Ahli Arab Hospital had killed between 200 and 300 people, while a Hamas statement put the provisional death toll at around 500.
A Gaza civil defence chief gave a death toll of 300, while health ministry sources in the Hamas-run territory put it at 500. Health ministry spokesperson Ashraf Al-Qudra said the death toll was likely to rise further as rescuers pulled bodies from the rubble.
Ambulances and private cars rushed some 350 casualties to Gaza City’s main hospital, al-Shifa, which was already overwhelmed with wounded from other strikes, said its director, Mohammed Abu Selmia. Doctors in the overwhelmed hospital resorted to performing surgery on the floor and in the halls, mostly without anesthesia.
“We need equipment, we need medicine, we need beds, we need anesthesia, we need everything,” Abu Selmia said. He warned that fuel for the hospital’s generators would run out within hours, forcing a complete shutdown, unless supplies enter the Gaza Strip.
Israel, Palestinians trade blame
Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry promptly blamed an Israeli air strike, and said it killed at least 500 people. Israeli authorities soon after denied involvement, blaming a misfired rocket from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad – which in turn denied the claim.
On Wednesday, an Israeli military spokesperson told journalists that there was no structural damage to buildings around the Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital and no craters consistent with an air strike. The spokesperson accused Hamas of inflating the number of casualties from the explosion and said it could not know as quickly as it claimed what caused the blast.
Asked to explain the size of the explosion at the site, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said it was consistent with unspent rocket fuel catching fire. “Most of this damage would have been done due to the propellant, not just the warhead,” the Israeli spokesperson said.
Hagari added that some 450 rockets fired from Gaza had fallen short and landed inside the strip in the last 11 days. The Israeli military also released a recording they said was between two Hamas militants discussing the blast, during which the speakers say it was believed to be an Islamic Jihad misfire and that the shrapnel appeared to be from the militant group’s weapons, not Israel’s.
Islamic Jihad dismissed Israel’s claims, accusing Israel of “trying hard to evade responsibility for the brutal massacre it committed”.
The group pointed to Israel’s order that Al-Ahli be evacuated and reports of a previous blast at the hospital as proof that the hospital was an Israeli target. It also said the scale of the explosion, the angle of the bomb’s fall and the extent of the destruction all pointed to Israel.
The bloodshed unfolded as the US was trying to convince Israel to allow the delivery of supplies to desperate civilians, aid groups and hospitals in the tiny Gaza Strip, which has been under a complete siege since Hamas’s deadly rampage last week.
Outraged over the hospital blast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II announced they were pulling out of a planned Arab summit Wednesday with President Joe Biden, who arrived in Israel earlier in the day. The White House and Jordan’s government announced within hours of the attack that Biden’s meeting with Arab leaders was off.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in Amman on a regional tour, spoke by telephone with Abbas “to express profound condolences for the civilian lives lost in the explosion” at the Gaza City hospital, the State Department said.
Jordan and fellow Arab nations swiftly condemned the hospital attack, or declared days of national mourning, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the incident as “the latest example of Israeli attacks devoid of the most basic human values”. In Lebanon, the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement called for a “day of rage against the enemy”, blaming Israel for what it called a “massacre”.
EU chief Charles Michel said that targeting civilian infrastructure in Gaza breaks international law, while French President Emmanuel Macron called for humanitarian access to the coastal strip “without delay”, adding that “nothing can justify targeting civilians”. Speaking in Cairo, where he stopped for talks on Wednesday after a visit to Israel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was “horrified” by the hospital blast and called for a “thorough investigation of the incident”.
I am horrified by the images of the explosion in a hospital in Gaza. Innocent civilians were injured and killed. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims.
A thorough investigation of the incident is imperative.
— Bundeskanzler Olaf Scholz (@Bundeskanzler) October 18, 2023
Russia and the United Arab Emirates called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to be held on Wednesday following the deadly strike.
The UN human rights chief Volker Turk called the hospital strike totally unacceptable, insisting that the perpetrators must be held to account.
“Words fail me. Tonight, hundreds of people were killed – horrifically – in a massive strike at Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, including patients, healthcare workers and families that had been seeking refuge in and around the hospital,” he said. “This is totally unacceptable.”
Read moreOutrage and condemnation after deadly Gaza hospital strike
Protests erupted in several Arab cities and in the occupied West Bank, with demonstrators directing their anger at Israeli or Western interests.
In Beirut, protesters roamed the city on motorcycles and gathered outside the French embassy and a UN facility, in protest against the international community’s response to the civilian deaths in Gaza. Throngs of Jordanians also gathered outside the Israeli Embassy in Amman.
There were angry protests outside the French embassy in Tunisia late on Tuesday, with protesters accusing France and the US of siding with Israel and demanding the recall of both countries’ ambassadors.
Scuffles also broke out outside the Israeli consulate in Istanbul, where protesters burned debris and clashed with Turkish riot police.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)