Fury as Gaza hospital blast kills hundreds
By Mai Yaghi with Rosie Scammell in Jerusalem
A blast ripped through a hospital in war-torn Gaza killing hundreds of people late Tuesday, sparking global condemnation and angry protests around the Muslim world.
Israel and Palestinians traded blame for the blast, which an “outraged and deeply saddened” US President Joe Biden denounced while en route to the Middle East.
Health authorities in Gaza said the explosion at the Ahli Arab Hospital killed between 200 and 300 people and was caused by the latest in a wave of Israeli air strikes.
The Israeli military blamed Palestinian militants, saying an outgoing Islamic Jihad rocket misfired.
Neither account could be independently corroborated.
On the ground in Gaza, there were scenes of chaos as the dead and wounded were taken to nearby medical centres.
At the Al-Shifa hospital, scores of bodies cloaked in blood-stained sheets and white plastic wrap lined the floors. Stunned relatives tried to identify loved ones.
“We were operating in the hospital. There was a strong explosion and the ceiling fell on the operating room,” said Ghassan Abu Sittah, a doctor with the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
“Hospitals are not a target,” he said. “This bloodshed must stop. Enough is enough.”
For 11 days, Israel has launched withering strikes on Hamas-controlled Gaza — retaliation for the killing of 1,400 people who were shot, mutilated or burnt to death in shock cross-border attacks launched by Hamas on October 7.
Despite the uncertainty over what caused the blast at the Christian-run Ahli Arab Hospital, there was rapid and widespread international condemnation.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said “responsibility for this crime must be clearly established” and the “perpetrators held accountable”.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” and warned Israel against “the collective punishment of the Palestinian people”.
From Tripoli to Tehran, there was a furious response around the Muslim world.
Protesters in Jordan — home to millions of Palestinian refugees — tried to storm the Israeli embassy.
In Lebanon, demonstrators clashed with security forces outside the US embassy. Stones were hurled and a building was set on fire.
The US State Department authorised the departure of “some non-emergency” personnel from the Beirut embassy, citing the “unpredictable security situation.”
Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed militant group, vowed a “day of rage” on Wednesday.
– ‘Tough questions’ –
The horror of events at Ahli Arab Hospital and the swift backlash threatened to derail Biden’s high-stakes visit to the Middle East.
A four-way summit in Amman with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was cancelled.
It would be held “when the decision to stop the war and put an end to these massacres has been taken,” said Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.
The White House said Biden’s visit to Israel would go ahead as planned.
He is expected to express solidarity over the Hamas attacks, in which 31 Americans were among the dead.
The attacks were the deadliest in Israel’s 75-year history, carrying painful echoes of past pogroms and undermining faith in the country’s security services.
But Biden is also expected to press for steps to minimise the huge humanitarian impact of Israel’s military response, allowing aid to enter the blockaded Gaza Strip.
International alarm has grown about the devastating impact of the war on Palestinian civilians.
About 3,000 Gazans have died in Israeli air and artillery bombardments, according to the Hamas-run health ministry — including several senior figures in the organisation.
Entire neighbourhoods have been razed and survivors are left with dwindling supplies of food, water and fuel.
Washington also wants to stop the conflict from spilling over into Lebanon or the Israeli-occupied West Bank — where a string of protests erupted overnight.
Speaking aboard Air Force One, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Biden would ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “tough questions” about the path ahead.
Tens of thousands of Israeli troops have deployed to the border in preparation for a full-scale ground offensive.
Netanyahu has vowed to “defeat Hamas” — although the exact military objectives remain unclear.
While Netanyahu and other members of his hard-right government speak of wiping out Hamas, the military has been more circumspect, suggesting a more achievable aim of degrading its military capability.
– ‘Corpses in the streets’ –
Ahead of the expected ground invasion, Israel gave one million residents of northern Gaza 24 hours to flee south.
Some 20 medical facilities have been told to evacuate. Electricity, water and fuel supplies have been cut.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby represents the Anglican church, which runs the Ahli Arab Hospital.
He said the hospital was one of several medical facilities in northern Gaza subject to evacuation orders and that it had already been hit by “Israeli rocket fire” on October 14, which wounded four staff.
According to World Health Organisation figures, there have been more than 100 attacks on hospitals, ambulances and other health care assets since October 7.
The Palestine Red Crescent Society said hundreds died in Tuesday’s blast, including women, children, staff and “internally displaced people seeking safe shelter”.
Hamas put the death toll at more than 500.
Away from the hospital the situation in residential areas of Gaza was scarcely better.
“There are corpses in the streets. Buildings are crashing down on their inhabitants,” said Jamil Abdullah, a Palestinian-Swede, hoping to flee the blockaded enclave.
“The smell of the dead is everywhere.”
In Israel, dozens of mourners gathered for the funeral of five members of the same family killed when militants attacked their kibbutz at Kfar Aza.
All five coffins were draped in Israeli flags.
Diplomatic bids to free at least 199 hostages taken by Hamas have gathered pace.
Turkey said it was in talks with Hamas to secure their release.
Hamas has released a video of one of the captives, French-Israeli woman Mia Shem.
Her mother, Keren Shem, made an emotional plea for her safe return. “I am begging the world to bring my baby back home,” she told a news conference in Tel Aviv.