Hundreds killed in strike on Gaza hospital where displaced families were sheltering

Israel denies responsibility for airstrike as ‘more than 500 dead’ on eve of Biden flying in for talks on Netanyahu’s war plans

Bel Trew
Tel Aviv
Wednesday 18 October 2023 07:00 BST
Gaza hospital burns moments after deadly explosion 'kills at least 500 people'

A strike on a hospital in Gaza sheltering displaced families has killed hundreds of people – with the enclave’s health ministry claiming at least 500 are dead, including women and children.

Israel has denied accusations its forces were behind the deadly strike on the Anglican-run al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, where hundreds of families fleeing Israel's bombardment had taken shelter. If the death toll is confirmed, the attack would be by far the deadliest airstrike in five wars fought over Gaza since 2008.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that “it was barbaric terrorists in Gaza that attacked the hospital in Gaza, and not the IDF”.

Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia lined up to blame Israel for the attack, whose military said its initial analysis showed a “barrage of rockets” fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza passed “in close proximity to the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza at the time it was hit”.

“Intelligence from multiple sources we have in our hands indicates that [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad is responsible for the failed rocket launch which hit the hospital in Gaza,” the military said. Palestinian Islamic Jihad denied it was involved.

In a video reportedly recording the moment of the attack, the whistle of a projectile can be heard tearing through the sky before it pounds into the ground in a ball of fire. Other graphic videos allegedly capturing the aftermath show stunned people picking their way through the remains of dozens of bodies of adults and children littering the floor. Medics shout for help in the background.

Ghassan Abu Sittah, a British Palestinian surgeon working with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) who was at the hospital at the time called it a “massacre”.

The scene of the hospital strike in Gaza
The scene of the hospital strike in Gaza (BBC)

“We were operating in the hospital, there was a strong explosion and the ceiling fell on the operating room,” he told MSF. The medical charity added that “hospitals are not a target. This bloodshed must stop. Enough is enough.”

As many as 500 people are believed killed, with health ministry officials saying most of the casualties were displaced families, patients, children and women.

An Injured child is taken into a hospital after Israeli air strike hit a hospital
An Injured child is taken into a hospital after Israeli air strike hit a hospital (REUTERS)

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas called it “genocide" and a “humanitarian catastrophe” while there were protests in the occupied West Bank. Jordan’s King Abdullah said the bombing of a Gaza hospital was a “war crime” that one cannot be silent about. In a royal court statement the monarch, who blamed the bombing on Israel, said Israel should immediately end its war against the enclave and that its actions against innocent Palestinians were a “shame on humanity”.

Israel has launched near-constant airstrikes on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in retaliation for an attack by Hamas militants 10 days ago that killed more than 1,400 people. More than 3,000 inside Gaza have died in the airstrikes. Israel has faced global outrage after it announced a “total siege” on the tiny enclave and then announced an “evacuation” order for civilians to leave the north of Gaza for the south. It is widely speculated that this is preparation ahead of an anticipated ground offensive.

The World Health Organisation and rights groups have said the evacuation of hospitals was “impossible” and so the order could constitute the war crime of forcible transfer. Rights groups have argued the siege – which includes cutting off water, fuel, food and medical supplies to Gaza – is collective punishment and is also a violation of international law.

Wounded Palestinians lay at the al-Shifa hospital, following Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City
Wounded Palestinians lay at the al-Shifa hospital, following Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City (AP)

The horrific attack came on the eve of a visit by US president Joe Biden, who is expected to show his support for Israel ahead of an expected ground invasion by Israel into Gaza. Mr Biden is also expected to discuss the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the return of hostages taken by Hamas during its attack.

Mr Abbas canceled a planned meeting with the president which was supposed to take place in Jordan.

It has sparked uproar across the world and raised concerns the war in Gaza could spill across borders into a regional conflict.

Iran condemned what it called a “savage war crime’” against hundreds of “unarmed and defenceless people”. Qatar strongly condemned it adding that “the expansion of Israeli attacks over the Gaza Strip to include hospitals, schools, and other population centres is a dangerous escalation.” Turkey said it was “barbaric”.

Two days before Tuesday’s attack, the Archbishop of Canterbury had warned that al-Ahli hospital had already been hit by Israeli strikes. In that statement, he warned that the hospital “cannot be safely evacuated” and that it was “facing catastrophe”.

A Palestinian man injured in an Israeli air strike is wheeled inside the Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis
A Palestinian man injured in an Israeli air strike is wheeled inside the Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis (AFP via Getty Images)

Tuesday’s horrific attack came on the same day as the United Nations’s Palestinian refugee agency (Unrwa) said that six people had been killed when an Israeli strike hit an Unrwa school, sheltering displaced people

The agency said dozens of people were injured by the strike, which it said caused “severe structural damage” to the school, where at least 4,000 people were sheltering.

“No place is safe in Gaza anymore, not even Unrwa facilities,” they had said.

Health authorities in Gaza say at least 3,000 people have been killed in Israel's intense 11-day bombardment.

The true death toll, however, is believed to be far higher as first responders have been unable to remove the bodies from under the rubble.

Civilians who have fled to the south of Gaza told The Independent the situation was “disastrous”.

“Since 7 October I have been displaced four times,” said Ghassan, who fled with his family and friends from Gaza city to Deir al-Salah in the centre of the country as both their homes had been destroyed in strikes.

“The place we are at now has 35 people and zero water. My father is sick and handicapped. The children are terrified, and we are facing death every second.”

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